The Gemara in Berachos (daf 5) states, “Rebbe Chanina ben Dosa said: ‘If my prayer is uttered with fluency it is a sign that it was accepted.’”
He was referring to his prayers on behalf of people seeking his blessing. However, there is always a great feeling of assurance when the shliach tzibbur who is representing all of us prays in a seamless fashion.
If this is the sentiment shared universally on a regular day, then how much more so is this pronounced during the High Holiday experience, when our prayers set the course for the entire year ahead. Although the High Holiday prayers set the tone year in and year out for the holidays that follow it and the year that lies ahead, in terms of the people having to prepare for it and deliver on behalf of the congregation, it affects the cantors, or ba’alei tefillah, who have been representing their congregations and is by and large not a concern for the common man among us.
That statement would have been true every other year, but not this one. Normally, the experienced ba’al tefillah seeks to engage his congregation by using familiar Yomim Nora’im melodies and other popular niggunim.
Normally, a good ba’al tefillah knows his crowd and how to keep everyone fully engaged in the tefillah experience.
Normally, he is leading the davening in a tightly packed shul where everyone is focused on having a meaningful davening experience.
But, as we said, this year is anything but normal.
This year, the chazzan will be leading the davening inside a shul laid out differently, with fewer congregants in attendance. This year, we may be situated in a tent near the shul or in someone’s backyard, driveway, or terrace, distracted by the noise of fans, which may or may not work, or preoccupied with swatting mosquitoes if we are in an outdoor minyan. The bottom line is that this year we will be met by a far different experience.
Since many of our chazzanim and ba’alei tefillah are busy perfecting their craft and adjusting the loose ends of their davening, especially as it concerns a pandemic year, it would have left many of the novice ba’alei tefillah or aspiring chazzanim who previously have not held any official positions to take a haphazard stand in front of the lectern when they declare, “With the consent of the Al-mighty, and the consent of the congregation,” without the congregation knowing how prepared or even worthy the person representing them is.
It took the foresight of retired chazzan Mayer Davis, who served as cantor of Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) alongside Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for 30 years, to address a problem regarding with regard to the overall High Holiday experience. Cantor Davis succeeded his father,
Today, Mayer Davis resides in West Hempstead. During davening one Shabbos it occurred to him how many more ba’alei tefillah would be ascending the podium this High Holiday season and may require a guide to navigate the long prayer rites while maintaining the authenticity of the nusach. In response to this need, Cantor Davis recorded what he called “Simple Nusach for Challenging Times,” which is free for all ba’alei tefillah, accessible on YouTube by searching Mayer Davis or “Simple Nusach for Challenging Times.” To date, there are 17 tracks that have been uploaded of 28 tracks for Rosh Hashanah Mussaf, which are accompanied by the corresponding page numbers for each portion as it appears in the Koren and ArtScroll Machzorim.
The occasion of this discussion with Cantor Davis was twofold: to promote this free recording of the Yomim Nora’im nusach, as well as an opportunity to mark the ninth yahrzeit of Cantor Davis’s father, Cantor Abraham Davis, who served as cantor at KJ from 1973–1990 following an almost 30-year stint as cantor at Congregation Shaaray Tefila when it was located in Far Rockaway, and for four years alongside Rabbi Walter Wurzburger.
Cantor Abraham Davis was born in Yerushalayim in the year 1921. He possessed a prodigious voice as a young child, and at the tender age of eight he was a member of Zalman Rivlin’s choir backing up the legendary chazzan Zavel Kwartin. The young Abraham Davis observed the legendary cantor and decided he also wanted to be a cantor.
Although Cantor Mayer Davis studied voice under the tutelage of Frederich Pugel, the father-in-law of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, widely considered the best baritone singer of all time, as well as William Riley, who taught other stars the likes of Celine Dion and Luciano Pavarotti, he considers his father, Abraham Davis, his primary teacher of chazzanus. In talking to Cantor Davis, it is immediately clear that his greatest pleasure was having his father at his side and being observed by him as his cantorial career progressed. Fascinatingly, Cantor Davis retold about one Yomim Nora’im when he took ill and did not have the strength to complete the tefillos and had his father, who was already then at an advanced age, fill in for him. It should be noted here that the recordings that will be uploaded to YouTube as part of this Simple Nusach project will contain a few bonus tracks of Cantor Abraham Davis as well.
In thinking about this concept, the words “simple nusach,” coming from a cantor of the stature of Mayer Davis, seem to be almost an oxymoron. Artists thrive in their ability to express themselves with flare and artistry and any attempt to oversimplify the craft would seem in itself to fly in the face of artistry. However, during our conversation, Cantor Davis mentioned that one of the other cantorial assignments he held down, over a 20-year period of time, was serving as the official cantor at Bonaventure during the yom tov of Pesach. One of the recurring compliments he would receive, which he told me was his most frequent compliment received, was when people said: “I hate chazzanus but I can’t get enough of your davening.” It was an assurance that Cantor Davis was able to bring chazzanus to the level of the layman.
This reminded me of the humorous anecdote that is related in regard to the High Holidays. A rabbi, chazzan, and president of a shul were taken hostage just days before the High Holidays, and their captor gave them each one final wish that he would grant them. The rabbi said, “I have been preparing my sermons for a month now, woven through rare sources, interspersed with beautiful stories, which tied it all perfectly together.”
The captor said he could deliver his sermons.
The chazzan then anxiously started to retell how long he had been preparing his tefillos. He said he was practicing Cantor Shor’s “K’vakaras,” and Yossele Rosenblatt’s “Hineni He’Ani,” and asked the captor that he please be allowed to give over his rendition of these hauntingly beautiful prayers.
“Granted,” said the captor.
He then turned to the president of the shul who, without batting an eyelash, exclaimed: “Shoot me first!”
It then dawned upon me that a cantor is referred to as a shliach tzibbur, a messenger of the congregation. There are legal responsibilities of a shliach to act in accordance with the mission he was appointed to. So if there is a cantor who is impressed with his own rendition of the prayers but it is not to the liking of the people in the shul, then that removes the cantor from within the classification of a shliach tzibbur. Therefore, it was a breath of fresh air when Cantor Davis demonstrated how sensitive he was to the needs of the people he represented all of the years at the podium, and again now, in facilitating a guide for both novice and expert ba’alei tefillah to navigate their way through these tefillos while considering the time constraints that the pandemic has placed upon us.
Cantor Abraham Davis, whose ninth yahrzeit was just observed, was best known for his own Yomim Nora’im nusach recordings, which were responsible for teaching many subsequent chazzanim and ba’alei tefillah. So the emergence of this project, as critical as it is in a year such as this one, is much more meaningful sentimentally for the younger Davis, as it is a perpetuation of the work that his father and mentor embarked upon so many years ago.