Saving a Lost Canon

Cantor Sholom Kalib stands above his published collection of “The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue.” (David Stuck)

A musical legend, a scholar, a genius, a modern-day Moses. These are just a few of the laudatory terms family and  colleagues of Cantor Sylvan  (Sholom) Kalib use to describe him.

To some, such praise for the 88-year-old Kalib might seem hyperbolic. But his lifelong endeavor of studying, teaching and performing cantorial traditions that go back centuries and his crusade to preserve and catalyze a renaissance of such traditions have earned him those kudos.

The fruits of his expertise can be seen in the first two and a half published volumes of his anthology “The Musical  Tradition of the Eastern European  Synagogue.”

The first two volumes, “Introduction: History and Definition” and “The Weekday, Minor Holiday and Life-Cycle Event Services,” were published in the early 2000s. The first part of the third volume, “The Sabbath Services,” featuring prayers from Sabbath eve, was published late last year. Kalib expects the second part of the third volume featuring Sabbath day prayers to be released later this year.

The fourth and fifth volumes, which don’t yet have release dates, will feature prayers from the three festival services and High Holiday services, respectively.

“Cantor Kalib is one of our heroes,” said Hazzan Manny Perlman, the recently  retired cantor of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville, speaking on behalf of him and his four brothers, all of whom are cantors.

“He decided to make it his life mission  to painstakingly research the melodies from the Ashkenazi traditions and he’s codified them for all time in his anthologies,” Perlman said. “Cantor Kalib has captured and explained better than  anyone I know the power of the modes.”

Kalib’s anthology is not meant to be a greatest hits collection of service prayers gathered together for the sake of convenience. Each volume consists of sheet music, annotation and historical context for multiple versions of prayers from a slew of prominent hazzans.

The mission and painstaking research, as Perlman called it, to facilitate preservation and hopeful revival is stated plainly in the preface to the anthology’s first  edition.

Kalib writes: “To be sure, there have been periods of decline in synagogal  musical tradition in the past, as attested by the appearance of a number of published services within the West and  Central European Ashk’nazic [sic] traditions during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those, however, did not at all compare to the severity of the current situation, primarily due to the then existent and vibrant Eastern European Jewish community. It is precisely the depth of today’s bleak status of synagogue music universally, which is at its lowest ebb in a number of essential aspects since the Middle Ages that makes the present work so compelling a necessity.”

A life as a cantor

Kalib was born in Dallas in 1929,  “before World War II, before it became the metropolis it is today. Not a very large Jewish population,” he said.

Kalib’s father was the son and brother of cantors in Czarist Russia. Although his father was a furniture maker by trade, Kalib received musical training from his father when he was still a child.

Kalib recalled that during the Great Depression, many synagogues could not afford to pay professional cantors.  Therefore, many unemployed cantors would travel to chant at Shabbat services around the country. Hearing these traveling cantors at a young age, Kalib made an astute observation.

Sholom Kalib sits in his home office where he’s spent countless hours compiling his anthology. (David Stuck)

“There was a certain sameness I heard among the various cantors,” said Kalib. “Obviously, not all could have known each other. They came from different countries, yet there was a sameness to what they were doing.”

Kalib asked his father about the uniformity, to which he replied, “Well, it must go back to Mount Sinai.”

What Kalib eventually discovered is that these cantors were chanting in the  traditional modes of the Eastern European synagogue. Historically, the tradition  is considered Ashkenazic but its roots carry over from its parent tradition in Western Central Europe.

“Jewish people experienced extreme persecution throughout Germany and neighboring countries, where they fled in droves to the East,” said Kalib. “That was the beginning of the Eastern  European tradition.”

Through his studies later in life, Kalib discovered that in the 14th century one of the leading rabbis of the period stated in one of his publications that traditional chants should not be changed.

“His dictum was very strictly observed for centuries,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that was a major factor in the fact that the various cantors had that sameness  about them.”

Shortly after Kalib’s bar mitzvah, his family moved to Chicago, where Kalib really began to immerse himself in the world of cantors.

“Circumstances led me to become  associated with two of the leading  cantors in Chicago at the time. One of them was functionally blind, and the other was a cantor with whom I was  singing in his choir.”

Those cantors were Todros Greenberg and Joshua Lind. Due to Greenberg’s condition, he was unable to write notations of his liturgical-musical creations. Lind suggested that Kalib complete that task for him. His association with and study of the work of these prominent Chicago cantors led Kalib to publish four volumes of work from Greenberg and two from Lind.

“What I learned from them was better than a university education,” Kalib said.

While the decades immediately following World War II saw robust Eastern  European populations in American Jewish communities, by the 1970s Kalib began to notice the decline in their  population and therefore the adherence to nusach (traditional chant).

In the preface of volume one, Kalib wrote of a layman leading a Friday  afternoon service in Detroit. “Though knowledgeable in the ritual and Hebrew text, he had no apparent awareness of the existence of an appropriate nusach. Not only was he unaware of such, there was no evidence throughout congregation  that anyone else did. The thought  instantly struck me: This is the inevitability  I had begun to fear since the 1950s.”

Rabbi David Herman met Kalib shortly after he had that experience in Detroit. Herman of Shaaeri Tfiloh in Reservoir Hill comes from a family of cantors. As a young man he would regularly attend cantors’ conferences in the Catskills Mountains with his parents. It was during one of these conferences that Herman and Kalib crossed paths.

“Cantor Kalib was asked to give a lecture at the convention about the future of Jewish liturgical music,” said Herman. “At one of the lectures he said, ‘This music will be lost unless it’s recorded for posterity. I remember at the time the cantors that attended the session scoffed. They laughed at him. They were skeptical of his hypothesis.”

It wasn’t until 1979 that Kalib, on a sabbatical from his job as a professor at Eastern Michigan University, began research to compile his anthology. He traveled to half a dozen U.S. cities and recorded 120 interviews with prominent cantors.

During a second sabbatical, he began drafting the preface to the first volume.

Infusing spirituality

These days the term shaliach is most prominently used to describe Israeli emissaries sent to countries around the globe to promote Jewish values and a connection to Israel. The word can also be used to describe a synagogue’s cantor.

As early as the second century C.E., synagogues began electing shaliach  tzibburs, or representatives of the community, to lead congregations in prayer. In a passage from the introduction of the first volume of his book, Kalib writes, “Due to continuous growth of the liturgy, however, and due to the fact that prayers had to be retained by memory only, it  became necessary to assign the function of precentor to one capable of the  responsibility.”

The honorary position, however, came with a slew of rigid guidelines. The individual had to be well-versed in the Bible, well-liked, attractive and have musical ability with no speech defects.

Despite such specific criteria to be a cantor, schools to educate cantors were not prominent until centuries later.

Two and a half published volumes of Kalib’s anthology cover history; weekday, minor holiday and lifecycle event services; and Shabbat. (David Stuck)

“There were no schools as such for  cantors throughout our history,” said Kalib. “Around mid-20th century after the  Holocaust, the main source for which most cantors associated with this traditional were eliminated. It was realized that there would have to be some kind of schooling for cantors to get their  training. The traditional sources no  longer existed.”

But even programs of study dedicated to cantorial traditions have done little to halt the decline of traditional chants at services. Hazzan Perlman can attest to the realization of Kalib’s warning from decades ago.

“There’s a tremendous schism between rabbis and cantors,” said Perlman. “The cantor is the first religious functionary of the old temple. Rabbis really had a minor role. When sermons and giving talks throughout services came about, the cantor’s role was changed, it became minimized to a song leader rather than teaching the Jewish modes. In the same way that Yiddish isn’t spoken, I am afraid that cantorial art will also not be sung  any longer.”

Herman is unequivocal about the importance of a cantor for a congregation.

“The purpose of the hazzan is to infuse the listener with spirituality and bring the worshiper closer to the almighty,” he said. “If you have a cantor who is able to inspire the worshiper, it makes the rabbi’s job all the easier, because we don’t have to be as much of a — pardon the expression — cheerleader.”

While Kalib, Herman and Perlman are ardent supporters of the traditional cantorial art, they are not optimistic about its future. Without the presence of Eastern European Jews who share a particular common history, congregations increasingly feel less attachment to the tradition.

“The circumstances about how congregations felt about hearing certain prayers, that psyche has gone with that society,” said Kalib. “Even though it was alive when those people came and  escaped the persecution, even though they no longer sensed that moral danger to their being and their livelihood. People born into U.S. society could not  actually feel about the words or the feeling towards the almighty, the certain sense of soul dependence for their very security for their livelihoods. They had no need for that tense expression in prayer. They did not want the cantor to say it in that way, or to take so much time to do it. They wanted it to be sort of  simple. And it’s that trend which  gradually took hold and displaced the other one.”

Perlman made Kalib’s point by noting the similarity between the contemporary melody of part of the Aleinu and the  nursery rhyme “The Farmer and the Dell.”

A family affair

Kalib’s daughter, Ruthie Eisenberg, thinks her father didn’t quite know what he was getting into when he started on his scholarly journey.

“I don’t think that when my father first thought … that someone has to put this in writing that he thought about the fact that it would require so much funding,” she said.

Kalib, center, smiles with his daughter Ruthie, left, and wife Goldie, right, at their home in Pikesville. (David Stuck)

Eisenberg, 63, has been a pivotal  resource in helping her father reach his goals. Using grant-writing experience she gleaned while working in the corporate and foundations relations department of DePaul University in Chicago, Eisenberg first reached out for funding on her  father’s behalf in the late ’90s, several years before the first edition of the anthology was published.

“I knew my dad needed funding for the project and at the time I was at home with three very young children,” she said. “I thought this would be a nice thing for me to help him out with, but also something I can  do at home.”

She obtained grants and fellowships from nonprofits such as the Kauffman Memorial Trust in Detroit, the Samuel L. Westerman Foundation in Bloomfield, Michigan, and the Ben and Esther  Rosenbloom Foundation in Baltimore.

“He’s really accomplishing what he set out to accomplish,” she said. “He is preserving this tradition. He’s explaining it. He’s making sure all the components are there for anyone who wishes to study it. I think in terms of what he wanted to do, he’s doing it.”

Kalib also credits his wife Goldie with making enormous sacrifices due to the hours demanded by his project, and his daughter Vivian who allowed radio host Charlie Bernhaut to record a two-hour radio program about Kalib’s project in her Manhattan apartment last year.

Although Goldie is originally from Poland, the traditions that Kalib is preserving aren’t prominent in her memory; she was quite young when her family was captured by Nazis. In the camps, Goldie said, the cantorial tradition was practically  nonexistent: “We had a makeshift  situation, but that was all.” Her family came to the U.S. in 1949.

At 88 years old, Kalib is slightly more than halfway through finishing his magnum opus. Perlman said that even at Kalib’s age, he still has the capability to  inspire thousands. In addition to comparing Kalib to a modern-day Moses, Perlman also drew a comparison to the legendary Rabbi Akiva.

“Rabbi Akiva didn’t become a rabbi until he was 80. A lot of people didn’t think Rabbi Akiva would have that many disciples, but his works and teaching have survived,” said Perlman. “There is no reason we can look at Cantor Kalib and think that maybe, just maybe, people will wake up and bring this stuff back to life again.”

Kalib isn’t able to commit as much time as he would like to finish the work.

“Ideally, I wish I could work from 9 to 5,” he said. “But there are household chores, we have more doctors’ appointments than we used to. On a good day, which is not often, I do five hours. I have the materials ready to go, but can only do one thing at a time.

“As much time as the Lord allows me, that’s what I’ll be doing.”

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here