By Rochelle Maruch Miller
On Monday, May 23, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), an affiliate of Yeshiva University, honored Cantor Bernard Beer, director emeritus of the Philip and Sara Belz School of Jewish Music, with the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Cantorial Arts. The award was presented to Cantor Beer at a gala dinner which took place at the Grand Hyatt in New York City where Cantor Beer was Guest of Honor.
Among Cantor Beer’s 50 years of service to the RIETS and Yeshiva University family were his decades as director of the Belz School of Music. He also regularly lectures and publishes articles about Jewish music, is editor of the Jewish Journal of Music and Liturgy, and is currently working on the Nusach Legacy Project, which will feature recordings of the yearly cycle of nusach for all tefillot. His commitment to the traditional cantorial art has created the standard for proper tefillah, with thousands of students the world over.
Five Towns residents for the past 25 years, Cantor Beer and his family are members of the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst. In this interview with the 5TJT, Cantor Beer discusses nusach and tefilah and offers insight into the world of chazzanus.
Rochelle Maruch Miller: What inspired you to become a professional chazzan?
Cantor Beer: I was born into it–it was the air that I breathed. My parents were both very musical. My father was a prominent ba’al tefillah, and my mother always sang around the house. Music is in my blood. I lived in Boro Park. In the 1950s, every synagogue in Boro Park had a chazzan. You were surrounded by the greatest chazzanim, like the great Moshe and David Koussevitsky. At that time, people were very inspired by chazzanim. The majority of people living in Boro Park either came from Europe or were the children of European parents. They grew up with the kind of nusach that you don’t really hear in America today. There were great chazzanim and ba’alei tefillah who inspired people with their tefillot and with their nusach.
Our home was filled with this kind of inspiration, which my father brought into our home through the beautiful zemirot.
RMM: How did you hone your talent?
CB: My father taught me how to lead services at my bar mitzvah. Apparently, the people liked this approach, not often used in a large synagogue at the time, as it elicited an enthusiastic response!
During my third year of studies at Yeshiva University, I took classes in what was then called the Cantorial Training Institute. It was there that my eyes opened to a different world. I wasn’t just repeating melodies–I was learning about the musical and liturgical structure of prayers in an academic manner from top-notch teachers.
Dr. Karl Adler was director of the school at the time. He had been the head of a music conservatory in Germany, and he was forced to flee during the Holocaust. When he arrived in New York in the 1940s, he approached Dr. Belkin about starting a music department at Yeshiva University. At first he volunteered his services for a couple of years without salary, until the music department and Cantorial Institute were officially founded.
RMM: How do you feel about inserting new melodies into tefillot?
CB: This is a problem. Because a tune may sound nice, people will often take it and insert it into prayers. The “mi’Sinai” tunes are our fixed tunes. These melodies are fixed and we cannot change them.
While commenting on the tefillah Mi’sod Chachamim during the 1970s, the Rav criticized a chazzan for using simple tunes instead of the traditional nusach. The nusach that was handed down for generations, from father to son, is a precious legacy, meant to be an interpretation of the words of the tefillah. The traditional words and the meaning of prayer are lost when the melody is changed.
RMM: To what do you attribute the decline of the role of the professional chazzan in contemporary society?
CB: The generation that enjoyed chazzanus has dwindled.
Many people feel that they can rely on capable volunteers to lead the davening and, in most cases, they are relatively knowledgeable. They can sing nicely and manage without a chazzan leading the services.
But the declining role of the chazzan is also indicative of a major sociological change. We are living in a frenetic, fast-paced society where people have limited patience and are always on the move. Many people just want to daven quickly. Times have changed–people no longer want formality in the synagogue but prefer a more informal davening.
RMM: What is your favorite tune?
CB: Throughout the past ten years, I have observed people going back to the old classic chassidic tunes. They are beautiful, intricate, and appropriate for the text. These are some of my favorites.
RMM: Cantor Beer, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. What message would you like to convey to our readers?
CB: People need to read and understand tefillot properly. They need guidance to learn what proper nusach is, where it comes from, and what it means. Nusach is not only meant for chazzanim, it is for every single Jew who wants to cultivate a meaningful and genuine connection to Hashem through tefillah. The nusach of tefillah is part of our precious mesorah. It is our responsibility to guard, cherish, and protect it. v
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, and writes for many magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She can be reached at email@example.com.