Arts & Culture

The Cantor Has a Backstage Rider

Josh Nelson is the Cantorial Soloist and Musical Director for the 92nd Street Y’s High Holiday Services. He recently managed to find time to sit down with Jewcy’s Rina Raphael to discuss whether cantors get more women than cantorial soloists … Read More

By / September 10, 2009

Josh Nelson is the Cantorial Soloist and Musical Director for the 92nd Street Y’s High Holiday Services. He recently managed to find time to sit down with Jewcy’s Rina Raphael to discuss whether cantors get more women than cantorial soloists and what Jews can learn from Christian rock.

When did you start to make the connection between your faith and performing music?

I knew I wanted to be a musician at a very young age, but it wasn’t until much later that I found a connection between my loves for Judaism and music. In college, I began to question why the music I experienced in worship didn’t connect with my aesthetic sensibilities. The Jewish community at large seemed to have an unspoken belief that these melodies were "traditional," as if they had come directly from Sinai itself.

The reality is that many of these melodies were appropriated from European popular music. Jewish music has regularly reflected, in one form or another, the contemporary music of its time. While nusach plays a critical role in Jewish prayer, there is also space for additional music that is reflective of the particular era in which we pray.

So, I set out to explore the relationship between music and prayer, and found a calling in the process. I continue to find connections between the power of music and the power of worship, and I believe that these connections can enhance prayer in an incredibly moving way. Plenty of bands have borrowed from the scriptures/prayerbook (Ultravox from "Lord’s Prayer"; The Byrds from Ecclesiastes). If you could nominate one band or musician to sing a specific tefilah, which would it be?

Annie Lennox, davening the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing. Sometimes a singer can reach right into the heart of you with only a few notes… The power of that prayer is palpable, and I can only imagine the combined impact of her voice and those words. Which is the most underrated Jewish prayer?

A very personal question… I’d guess that everyone you might ask would give you a different answer. My first thought would be: V’ha-eir eineinu b’Toratecha, v’dabeik libeinu b’mitzvotecha, v’yacheid l’vaveinu l’ahavah ul’yirah et sh’mecha. (Enlighten our eyes with Your Torah, bind our hearts to your mitzvot, and unite our hearts in love and reverence for Your Name.) Every time I pray these words, I’m struck by the simple power of the text. It’s a plea for direction, a request for guidance. We live in a complicated time, and I find this prayer to be especially grounding when things seem to be moving a little too fast… What’s on your backstage riders for big cantorial events like Yom Kippur? Does it rival rockstar backstage requests – like 36 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Guide us through your prep needs.

The Yom Kippur rider is smaller than usual. We generally forego the typical spread in favor of something more atonement-oriented.

YOM KIPPUR RIDER – JOSH NELSON PROJECT 1 Kittel 1 pair of white, canvas shoes, size 11. (No leather, please.) 1 Machzor

FOOD AND BEVERAGE REQUESTS: Pre-Kol Nidrei: 2 gallons of water. 3 energy bars. One quad-espresso.

Post-Kol Nidrei: No food, no beverages. (Please remove all sustenance from dressing room area. The presence of food is like salt in a wound.) Post Ne’eilah: Bagels. Lox. Coffee. Repeat. What kind of groupies do rock-n-roll cantors have?

Well, my bubbe is 90 years old… I think she might qualify as my favorite groupie. Seriously, it’s a well-known fact that the ordained cantors get all the groupies. I am a cantorial soloist (i.e., not an ordained cantor). I propose that that’s the reason why my groupie roster is somewhat limited. Jewish Rock vs. Christian Rock. Thoughts?

Christian rock is, to be frank, pretty amazing. We have a lot to learn from the Christian community… For some reason, this statement tends to make many Jews uncomfortable. However, I find it to be undeniably true. While our theologies may differ, we share many of the same challenges. In particular, we struggle to connect our respective cultural and spiritual heritages with an aesthetic that is contemporary and relevant. Christian rock successfully bridges that gap, bringing a modern spiritual approach to legions of young people. It’s made Christianity cool and relevant to the next generation.

We are beginning to see a similar transition in the Jewish community, and it’s both welcome and necessary. There certainly is pushback from the old guard, but it’s shortsighted to not see that this process is cyclical. These same cultural shifts have occurred over and over again in the past. It’s critical to see that this current transition is enabling our young community to find a deeper connection to spirituality and Jewish life.

My great-grandparents prayed in a shul with a mechitza. My parents prayed in a shul with a choir and an organ. I pray in a shul with an electric guitar and a band.

So, Christian rock or Jewish rock? Yes. Your MySpace profile says, "Sounds Like: Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, Shlomo Carlebach, Miles Davis, and The Beatles making a Kiddush." Is that who you’d have at your dream Shabbat dinner table or is there anyone else you’d like to include?

It’d have to be a really big table. Others on the evite list: Alexander Schindler, Johannes Brahms, Christopher Guest, John Coltrane, Salvador Dali, Johnny Cash, Mordechai Kaplan, and my grandfather, Rubin, who could hold his own with any of them.