What is a cantor? Neil Michaels, cantor at the largest Reform synagogue in the United States, talks about his role.
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#29 Cantor Neil Michaels explains his role in the Jewish com...
cantor, moment, ceremony, wedding, rabbi, jewish, helping, ketubah, relationship, musically, family, couple, wedding ceremony, marrying, people, understand, dodi, music, prayers, part
As a Catholic farm girl in Minnesota, I certainly never expected to ever be the Jewish party Maven, but 4400 parties and 26 years later, I am indeed an expert at Jewish parties. I am fiercely committed to helping the best vendors, book more parties in this amazing, lucrative and incredibly loyal Jewish party market. Let's go. Welcome to the bookmark weddings Jewish podcast. Today I get the great pleasure of talking with Cantor Neal Michaels from temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan. And I've had the pleasure of working with Cantor Michaels over the years. And hello, Cantor Michaels. Well, hello, Pat. And thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I
am a great admirer of yours. And I've had the pleasure of working with you, not only on my own family's events for our daughter's Bat Mitzvah, but for many, many events within our community, for I don't even know now it's been for me almost 18 years at Temple. So for all of that time.
Awesome. And I had the pleasure of working at Temple Israel for 11 years before I started doing all this awesome red coat lady stuff. But it's always great to come back home to temple. And that's a fun thing. So tell me about your background. How does one get to be a cantor? What is it Cantor?
It's a great question. And becoming a cantor is not something that I initially set out to do. But I can tell you that it is a pursuit where you are wanting to be involved in the music in the musical lives of people jewishly. And in order to do so, you need to attend seminary, which is a four or five year program as a graduate degree where you become eventually a cantor and come out with a master's in sacred music. So the role of a cantor in a Jewish setting in a temple or a synagogue is really to be the one who brings music to the congregation at moments of prayer, certainly for the Sabbath or Shabbat. That is an important time and much of the prayers in Judaism are sung or chanted in some way led musically so you are engaging with your congregation, your members at that time, that way and trying to get them to, you know, come along for the ride with you. And in addition to moments of prayer, there are all kinds of life cycle moments where both a rabbi and a cantor will participate and help to officiate and confer blessings on the moment.
I'm sorry for interrupting. So you're a cantor not a rabbi. Right? I am a cantor. So cantor. Yeah. Are there cantors who become rabbis are the rabbis who become Cantor's are they Sorry, I have a lawnmower outside my window, the joys of zoom?
Yeah, no, there are actually it's interesting. There are Cantor's who become rabbis. And that's that that's actually become more of a thing, especially maybe in the last 10 to 15 years, where a person who originally went through seminary to become a cantor, decided to go back to seminary and also go through the process of becoming officially ordained as a rabbi. So yes, they exist. But rabbis who become Cantor's less so because usually the person who is a rabbi knew that they may or may not have the musical ability to also be the one to help lead a congregation in that way.
So all that training at Juilliard has come in handy for you.
Well, yeah, and it's interesting that I, as I said, it wasn't my original road to sort of, you know, become a cantor. But I had cantors in my family growing up. So it was always something that I saw and appreciated. And it was a value in my family that, you know, this would be a profession and there was often like, my, you know, one of my aunts would, you know, kind of whisper in my ear, you could be a cantors, you know. And it was one of those things that I, you know, I think I sort of put in the back of my mind until the right moment arrived.
Well, very, very cool. So I get the pleasure of working with you at Bar Mitzvah services where I see you up on the bema For those of you who don't understand what a Bhima is, it's a Christian version of an altar. But I see you up there with Bar Mitzvah kids, what's your role in a bar mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah?
Really, the whole role for for a cantors and a rabbi is to help engage young people through their lives jewishly from the very beginning, so from the time they are able to go to school, they begin learning bits and pieces that will all come into play for their bar, but mitzvah. Ultimately, for the actual Bar Mitzvah. My role as a cantor is to help Usher them through about a nine month process leading up to their will, they're where they will learn prayers, they will chant from the Torah, which is the Old Testament, and they will chant a portion of that Hebrew, with not just the Hebrew words, but also a special melody that accompanies it that helps to sort of augment it, and make it expressive to those who are listening, they will share their thoughts on their portion from the Torah. So the two portions are these various chapters from the Old Testament which deal with specific themes. And each week, there is a specific portion and a specific theme. And they will take from their their nine month preparation, one of the themes from their Torah portion, and talk a little bit about how that relates to their lives where they are. So I'm involved in helping them get ready for that moment. And then ultimately, for their service, I will be there to help lead the prayers, or at least the ones that they're not already leading, and then be there to help sort of guide and be behind them for their moment of chanting, preparation that they've done for chanting the Torah, and, and all of their other sort of prepared materials.
Awesome. So what does somebody need to cantor for at a wedding? Doesn't the rabbi just do everything? Well, certainly the Rabbi better cuz I see you,
the rabbi can but I think what the what the, the cantor brings to a wedding that is maybe slightly different in terms of its relationship to the couple, and the ceremony itself are a couple of things a, the the cantor brings in the idea that we have a very rich musical tradition in Judaism. And it dates back to our sacred texts. And the sacred texts that we refer to, when it comes to weddings is something called the Song of Songs. And I just, I'll put it to you this way. It's like the most romantic part of what we do. It talks about relationships. And it's very poetic. So when you think of those things, romance and poetry and relationships, the thing that I think helps bring all of those things together is music. So musically speaking, those texts, and one of them I think you might you might have heard before, if not from going to other weddings just in passing is, I am my beloved. And my beloved is mine. And in Hebrew, those words are a Neela dodi, the dodi Lee. And there are beautiful words, to be sure. But when they're set to music, they're especially beautiful. So the cantor can, in the context of a wedding ceremony, bring texts like that to the surface, so that we can help add meaning to those moments, with words from the Song of Songs, but also, other words, from relationships, from songs that appeal to the couple that speak to them and the journey that they're on. The cantor can be involved in helping to, to bring that music out, or plan that music. Which is why I always think it's a great thing to have a cantor involved in helping prepare the music for the ceremony. Very often the music for the reception is set, we found our band, we know them, they're awesome. Have you ever heard this band, they're incredible. But sometimes it's ceremony is sort of like the the thing that gets left sort of I'm not exactly sure what we want to do here. And the more you personalize your ceremony, including the music, I think the richer and more beautiful the experience can be.
Sure. Very cool. So do you have a favorite wedding song?
Oh, that's a tough question. It really is. Because there's so much that's that's out there. There are two things that I've done recently that I'm really, really like, you know, inspired by one thing musically is a setting of that text I just mentioned, I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. And it's by a modern composer. And it's just a really cool text. The person who wrote it actually wrote it for his wife in preparation for their wedding. And it's both in Hebrew and in English. So It's totally accessible for everyone who listens to it. And it really, really is beautiful. And one of the other things that I've done over the years that I found, really speaks to people is the incredible powerful song by Leonard Cohen called hallelujah. And I've taken that song that has been covered hundreds of times. And I've added some Hebrew text to it. And the Hebrew text that I take for it is from one of our prayers that we say on the Sabbath called luffa dodi, which means come my beloved, or come my bride. And I will take those words and actually use the melody from hallelujah and use that in the context of a wedding. And it's been really powerful.
Awesome. Sounds like fun. Oh, what's the favorite part of your job as a cantor?
I think what I'm always surprised about in terms of my role as a cantor, is how grateful I am to be a part of people's lives at important moments.
totally understand that I work with people's best days, ever. And it's such a wonderful feeling to be a part of those best days, and to have people trust you, with their best their biggest days.
100% and to, to be a part of singular moments in people's lives is is something that I never got, from my career as a performer. Where you can be in a performance and you can feel like this is the best thing ever. But when you're finished with it, there's sort of an anonymous part of of being a performer where you, you no longer have a relationship with what you just did. Whereas in a wedding situation, or a bar mitzvah of happy moments, these are things that that really happen, you know, you know, with as once in a lifetime occasion. So, for me to be there in those those moments in those spaces, helps me to feel connected to those families and them to me,
it's an amazing thing. So I deal with lots of vendors who have no idea Jewish customs. Just last week, I had a photographer who thought she was the cat's meow and was doing a fine job, but then had no idea that we were even doing a production, much less be there to capture that moment. So we chased her down and she took the picture she needed to, but she was convinced that she understood this and it was no big deal. So can you tell me about some traditions or maybe some heuvel? Or even a moment where you thought, Oh my gosh, they just don't get it. What do you wish that vendors understood about the whole Katoomba sign in and burdekin? Because I know they capture the ceremony, but prior to they often miss it.
Right? Well, here's the thing. Unlike maybe in some traditions and some faiths, the ceremony itself is pretty short in Judaism, right? You very rarely will find Jewish ceremony wedding ceremony that's more than a half an hour, including the processional, and everything that happens, you know, from the time they, you know, walk in to the time they break the glass and everyone screams, Mazel Tov is rarely more than a half an hour. And why is that? It's because really, in Jewish tradition, unlike some faiths, it's the bride and the groom that are marrying each other. They are the ones who are in the driver's seat, so to speak. And they share, they do it by sharing a cup of wine, which helps to sanctify the moment, they do it twice, actually, in the context of the ceremony, they exchanged rings, and they say, a one line vow to one to one another. You hear words from their marriage contract called the ketubah. And that helps to I think, solidify their sense of the moment and their sense of who they are to one another. And then ultimately, everything else that you hear or see in a ceremony, in our traditions, that in no way define the ceremony as kosher or not kosher and including including in them. You have the breaking of the glass. You have a wrapping of a Toledo, which is a prayer shawl, which sometimes as the rabbi and Cantor offer final blessings to the couple. They want to do as a way of being cozy, but also bringing in the relationship maybe of someone else who either is no longer with them, or helping them to feel some connection to their tradition by rapid wrapping themselves in this This ritual garment and doing things prior to the ceremony like a ketubah, signing and a dakine. And like a tuba signing is that formal signing, which is a key ingredient in defining a Jewish wedding, because it's not again, the rabbi and the cantor that are marrying the couple, it's the couple to each other, and the people who are witnessing that relationship, so the people who sign that document the witnesses are the people who ultimately will have solidified that moment and and help this wedding to be official, so to speak, following the signing of the ketubah is a B'deken and the B'deken is a traditional veiling of the bride. And again, these are things that that aren't that don't define the moment as being traditional or kosher or not kosher, but things that have existed for a long time that we find a connection to. So by Harkening the are for ants, our forebears or for ancestors, who, at one point, Jacob, in preparation for his marriage to his wife, Rachel found, you know, that there were that she was veiled when they first met, what and, and had he not looked under the veil would have been marrying the wrong sister, we bring that idea into into play for the B'deken, so that you know exactly who you're marrying, you're looking into the eyes of the person that you've chosen. And you're placing the veil, the groom is placing the veil over their, their spouses, their future spouses face. So it's a special moment, a special moment, again, where you can create some connection between the couple. And it usually happens in that half an hour prior to the ceremony.
So in the Christian world, they have the ceremony, which takes an hour sometimes, and then they sneak back in and sign this license. And it might be a photo op might not even be a photo op. And it's no big deal. It's a license that you stick in a file, and it's done. In the Jewish world, this ketubah is a beautiful piece of art. And it's such a warm thing to have the family and their wedding party gathered around. And I love that whole ketubah signing part of it. And it's a wonderful thing. And I encourage interfaith parents to very much get involved in that. And I deal with lots and lots and lots of interfaith couples lately. And I'm sure that you do too. Do you have anything that you wish those non Jewish parents would understand about this? Is there some magic words, you whisper that help them see the beauty of all this,
I think there's a certain amount that can be just appreciated, because there is a nice intimacy built into the moments of signing this, as you said, this really this piece of art together, that will live in their homes and maybe hang on their wall. But also, there's an engagement piece to begin with. And it does require that there is sort of an openness and openness of conversation, not taking things for granted. That has to happen prior to the ceremony itself. And that means not being afraid to ask questions. And of each other, you know, don't be afraid to say something that you think might be offensive. Because I think what you'll find more often than not, is people appreciate the fact that you ask the question, and that you want, we're willing enough to be engaged to say, I don't understand why you're doing this. Or can you tell me a little bit about what that moment was? I think that you'll find that response will always come from really genuine and warm place. Because it means that you have been, you know, are engaged enough to say, this is something that I want to want to know more about, because I know that it's going to be an important part of my son or my daughter's life, and ultimately my own life.
I have a friend who is Jewish and her daughter married a Catholic guy. And I asked her what happens when she invites her in her daughter's in parents, father in law, whatever mother into her home for the holidays, and she said I never considered inviting them for the holidays. And after talking with her, she said you know what? I'm gonna invite them this year, they would probably love it. She just never didn't ever cross her mind that that was an option. And that's an interesting thing. So this whole part of her grandchildren's lives, the other parents are not involved in because they haven't been invited in. So I guess I would encourage parents to invite their, what's the word market on them? Yeah. To invite their market tournament to that Jewish world and see what happens. And
Well, listen, you know, it's, it's actually an opportunity, right? Because I don't think any of us enter into these relationships, where are our children potentially find love outside of their faith? Knowing all of the answers, nor would I ever recommend, as much as I would like to see, the couples that I'm involved with leaving their lives jewishly that that means that you, you know, cut off your spouse's family, they quite the quite the opposite. Having that family relationship and being with them at moments that are important and sacred, is is crucial to the success not only of your relationship, but the the harmony of your viewer, your families coming together.
And so my advice to interfaith families would be don't wait for the invitation, invite yourself, ask questions. Yeah, bring that curiosity to the forefront and, and see where it goes. It's a wonderful thing. So okay, so do you have one piece of advice that you would give to couples?
Well, when it comes to weddings, I sort of alluded to this already. But before you get too ingrained in what you're doing for your ceremony, musically, I would arrange to sort of include maybe if you're having a cantor at that ceremony, them in the conversation, what I've learned over the years, is that from doing hundreds of weddings, is that there are things that I know work. And there are things that sometimes just feel a little bit clunky, because you didn't have maybe the right direction that you needed in order to have everything kind of flow and be the way that you wanted. And over the years, I've established relationships with not only vendors, but many musicians in town, who I think are the creme de la creme. So when you work with somebody who had that kind of experience, like myself or other Cantor's in the community, you're gaining access to all of that information, which can help you you know, and hundreds of weddings, I can tell you, you know, these are the things that are going to make your party of 24 people, you know, come down the the ceremony and really feel like you've got something that's distinguishing the moment for your parents and your grandparents and the moment for your bridesmaids and groomsmen and for your flower girls and ring bearers that really creates sort of an ebb and flow to the whole experience. So don't be afraid to include us in that moment. Very rarely will you find that it's ego driven on our parts that were there, you want to make sure we're getting to do as much as we can possibly do. I actually think the opposite. It's about the two of you, and how we can frame a wedding. And to be an actual representation of who you are musically, so that it feels and the atmosphere that you create really feels like, you know, uniquely yours.
I think that's wonderful advice. I worked with some musical people one time who thought that each person should have their own song coming down the aisle. And when I got around to explaining that it generally I send somebody down every 10 seconds. So that person would get 10 seconds of a song. Then they came to realize that was not such a good choice after all. We took some of those songs and put them in the prelude music and it works. But there are things that work and things that don't get in professional advice is always a good idea,
right? And Cantor's have to be music professionals that it's an essential part of who they are. So they are your communities or a portion of your communities, maybe the community that you're inheritings heriting it musical professionals. So take advantage of us because that's really what we've signed on for as cantors is to be a part of helping to augment and make beautiful you You know, these these community moments, these community gatherings?
Well, terrific. Well, Cantor, I so very much appreciate your time today and helping us understand the role of the cantor in a wedding the role of a cantor in a bar and bat mitzvah and the role of a cantor in in a synagogue. And I know that I'll be seeing you lots in the next couple of weeks for sure. And hopefully, lots and lots more after that. Thank you so much. Is there any parting words you'd like anything else you'd wish to talk about today?
I mean, it's kind of a shameless plug Pat, but I genuinely feel that any moment where I get to see you at a at a reception at a wedding ceremony at a at a moment of meaning in people's lives I know will be beautiful. so thrilled always to work with you and encourage everyone to do the same.
And as a red coat lady, I work hard to make every vendor do their very best job for everyone and you're one of the important vendors of the day, but it's I want the photographer to do their best job I want everything to be in place for the cantor to do their best job. I want everything to go easy for them and I i understand that you appreciate that and thank you for that. So you're
very welcome. your your your, your PR should read Pat Blackwell. no stone unturned.
Okay, I'm gonna put that on there. Thanks so much for terrific. Thank you very much.