Cantor Joseph Malovany calls for focus on nusach

Cantor Joseph Malovany calls for focus on nusach

Nusach is sanctified,” says Cantor Joseph Malovany, “just as the reading of the Torah is sanctified.”

That is why the cantor – who will speak at Teaneck’s Cong. Keter Torah on Dec. 26 – is offering workshops stressing the importance of conducting prayers in the “ancient and holy” manner.

Malovany, longtime cantor of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York City and distinguished professor of liturgical music at the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music of Yeshiva University, told The Jewish Standard that in many of the synagogues he has visited, “there has been a relaxing of the rules,” particularly where laymen are drafted to lead services in the absence of a professional chazzan.

Cantor Joseph Malovany

He likened the situation to that described in Shoftim, Judges.

“It says, ‘In those days, there was no king in Israel and every man did as he pleased.’ That’s what’s happening today,” he said, “even in Orthodox shuls where there is no professional. It makes me very upset.”

The cantor said he deems his commitment to proper prayer services “a calling, because I grew up on it.” Raised in Tel Aviv, he was already learning to play the piano at 6 and conducting services at 8½.

Malovany said it is extremely important for those who pray to become aware of nusach, the musical motifs that determine how one is to chant a given prayer.

“We cannot do whatever we want,” he said. “We are a religious people who adhere to tradition. How dare people take advantage and do what they want when they are at the amud [lectern at which a chazzan leads prayers].

“People do not pay attention to pronunciation and punctuation,” he added. “When they chant, they stop whenever they want to take a breath. It makes the prayer irrelevant.” And while failing to convey the meaning of the prayer, “it also breaks Jewish tradition.”

His mission, he said, is not just to reach students with this message but to give seminars to laymen as well. In Teaneck, he will “try to make people aware of the problem,” offering some suggestions on resolving the issue.

Howard Gruenspecht, Keter Torah’s executive director, said he hopes those who attend “will be able to gain a better understanding and appreciation for the words we say in our daily prayers.” The workshop will interactive, he said, allowing congregants – many of whom “have experienced the beauty of hearing [Malovany] lead a service and the thrill of seeing him perform in a concert – to learn from the cantor directly in a lecture-type setting.”

Malovany stressed the importance of respecting the text when reciting Jewish prayer.

“The text is important,” he said, pointing out that vocal coaches stress text when teaching opera singers. “And our text is far more important than opera. It’s a holy text.”

Malovany said he has a “revolutionary idea” – one he feels would be particularly appropriate for the Teaneck community.

“Teaneck has outstanding synagogues,” he said, calling the town “a fabulous community.”

Perhaps, he suggested, several local Orthodox synagogues “might get together and appoint a chazzan who would reside in Teaneck and every Shabbat rotate among the synagogues.” Not only would that give congregants the benefit of hearing a professional cantor, but “the chazzan could also identify people with talent and knowledge and work with them so when he is not there, they will daven correctly.”

Suggesting that prayer has two components, the intellectual and the spiritual, Malovany said knowledge of liturgy enhances a prayer experience. He is a big proponent of congregational singing, he said, pointing out that in his synagogue, “people sing all the time. When one participates and listens to a chazzan chanting with feeling, he goes home with spiritual fulfillment.”

But there is also an intellectual element, he noted, explaining that iyun tefillah, the study of prayer, is a commandment without limitations.

“We are obligated to study the text, understand it, and figure out where it comes from and why is it recited at that particular moment,” he said. “It’s like studying the Talmud. A chazzan who chants is really a teacher. By his interpretation, he conveys a religious message. He conveys something that inspires the worshipper to study and better understand the text.”

The cantor also stressed the importance of kavanah, concentration, during prayer.

“I’m very much against people holding the Talmud during services,” he said. While he applauded the importance of Talmud study, he emphasized that “it should not be during davening. You should pray with kavanah or the prayer is irrelevant. How can you study when you’re supposed to pray? The prayer is being ignored.”

Malovany, who served as a cantor in the Israeli army and later did stints in Johannesburg and London, has been at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue since 1973 and at YU for some 25 years. He also travels around the world to teach and give concerts and is particularly proud of his work as dean of the Joint Distribution Committee’s Moscow Academy of Jewish Music, an institution he helped found in 1989.

“I’ve never taken a penny for that,” he said. “I give my heart to them. It’s a labor of love.”

In previous years, he said, he visited the school two or three times a year. Last year, he gave a concert at the Bolshoi Theater with the Moscow Philharmonic.

“I became part of the awakening of the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union,” said Malovany, whose concerts have been attended by presidents and prime ministers. He received a knighthood from the president of Poland, had a Lithuanian coin issued in his honor, and was named honorary chief cantor of Vilnius. “The issue of liturgical music has become an important component in the religious and cultural life of Jewish communities in eastern Europe,” he added.

For more information about Malovany’s Teaneck workshop, call Cong. Keter Torah, (201) 907-0180.

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