Their voices soared, mingled and blended, as the three cantors sang the haunting melody of “Ana B’koach,” a Kabbalistic poem from the first century.
The trio had never rehearsed the piece together, but as cantors and liturgical vocalists who regularly lead congregations in prayer, they are perfectly familiar with tunes like this one, sung every Shabbat.
“There’s a chemistry between us,” said Yaki Lauer, 26, one of the cantors, who specializes in singing piyyutim, or liturgical poems.
Lauer, Eliezer Charlap and Motti Hasfari, along with another 200 cantors, are part of JVocals, a new online platform dedicated to organizing liturgical talent.
The website was put together by Hasfari, 47, who has spent most of his career leading Israeli companies, including a stint as general manager of taxi app Gett. Yet hazzanut, the art of cantorial music, is at the core of his soul, and Hasfari approaches it with the mind of a showman. (He is, after all, the nephew of playwright Shmuel Hasfari and actress Hanna Azoulay Hasfari.)
“I didn’t understand how there could be big talents like all these, who can fill concert halls but can’t move forward in their musical careers,” said Hasfari. “It’s true that not everyone loves cantorial music because it sounds like opera, but there are 14 million Jews in the world and some 10,000 synagogues in Israel, so it just didn’t make sense to me.”
Hasfari launched the site in September, bringing together information on some 200 cantors of all stripes — Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, including several female cantors, too. His aim is to have all 6,000 cantors worldwide listed on the site, where professional voices reign. All of the cantors’ profiles include links to videos, price points, and a short description of their abilities.
It’s an unusual way to look for a hazzan. But for Hasfari, it’s simply a tool of the times.
“You used to have macherim,” he said, referring to the fixers who connect cantors with synagogues for High Holiday gigs. “They’d take care of you.”
But now, “everybody’s on a smartphone,” he said. “And the mission of JVocals is to increase Jewish joy, to join different kinds of cantors together, different types of singing and prayer, and put everyone on the same page.”
The website is a platform of Jewish vocal services where anyone can find the kind of cantor they seek, said Hasfari. He compared it to Gett, an app that has helped change the way people order and take taxis.
“It’s easier to get a cantor for an event, like a wedding or a singalong,” if you have a platform,” he said.
A glance at the JVocals site shows a Gur Hasid cantor situated next to a hazzanit, a female Conservative cantor.
It’s not like Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox cantors will start singing at Conservative or Reform synagogues, and vice versa. But rather, this site offers possible audiences a chance to find a hazzan of any stripe, whether for the High Holidays, a concert, a bar mitzvah or a wedding.
“I won’t be a hazzan in a non-Orthodox synagogue,” said Charlap, who comes from a long line of renowned rabbis and is also studying law. “But we have an interest to connect with the audiences, and I want each of us to have our stage.”
According to Hasfari, who came to hazzanut relatively late, at 25, and trained at two cantorial schools in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva, this age-old synagogue skill set is in demand, maybe more than ever before.
Local authorities and municipalities in Israel arrange concerts, kosher cruises hire cantors, as do hotels for a synagogue Shabbat.
And while congregations are more interested than ever in often singing along with a cantor, they also want to sit and listen.
“Hazzanut is based on the annual life cycle,” said Charlap. “It’s on Shabbat, holidays and for concerts. It doesn’t fill a whole day’s work. In order to make money, you need to do something else.”
While there are thousands of synagogues in Israel, most are Orthodox and receive small budgets from the local authority or municipality that don’t allow for hiring a cantor, unlike Conservative and Reform synagogues in the US.
“It’s a profession, but it’s hard to make money even as a trained cantor,” said Hasfari.
For those born to sing liturgy, however, the desire to sing is in their soul and can’t be ignored, said Charlap, who studied with maestro Eli Jaffe, who leads the Petah Tivka Cantorial Academy. Charlap serves as a cantor in Munich and at a synagogue in the Tel Aviv suburb of Savyon during the high holidays.
Lauer has worked as a cantor in Singapore and currently travels to the Dominican Republic during the High Holiday season. In between cantorial stints, he is earning a degree in special education and works at a school in Jerusalem.
Both he and Charlap learned to sing in their late teens and pursued it in their twenties.
About 30 new cantors are trained each year in Israel, where they follow the liturgical trends, whether it be singing tunes composed by rabbi Shlomo Carlebach that offer the opportunity to sing along, or setting a section of prayer to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
“It’s even welcomed to do that kind of singalong liturgy now,” said Lauer.
As for the audiences, “There are things they want to sing along to, and there are times they want to sit and listen,” said Charlap. “And ultimately, that’s what we’re there to do, to sing, and fill your soul.”