A Life in Jewish Music

Back in January, which right now seems a lifetime ago, the New York Jewish Film Festival premiered a delightful and frequently moving documentary, A Cantor's Tale, directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou. At the time, although I was enthusiastic about the film, I was frankly skeptical of its finding a theatrical distributor, although I hoped I would be proven wrong. Thank goodness, I definitely was. The film opens on September 6 at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater. However, it is currently scheduled for only a two-week run, so you'd better get over there and see it pronto.

Back in January, I wrote this about the film, and having seen it again this weekend, I find no reason to change a word:

A Cantor’s Tale is a gleeful profile of Jack Mendelson, president of the Cantor’s Assembly (of the Conservative movement), teacher at many institutions including Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and both a connoisseur and purveyor of spirited chazanut, the dying art of the improvising cantor. Cantor Mendelson is an ebullient, larger-than-life figure, a proselytizer for chazanut wherever — and I mean wherever — he goes. We see him trading cantorial licks with everyone from Orthodox cantor Benzion Miller to the counterman at a kosher deli. (“He looks like an axe murderer,” Mendelson says, laughing.) He teaches Golden Age style to Reform cantors-to-be and to children in his Westchester shul. And he does so with a mixture of humor and sound technique that is enthralling to behold.

With such a dominating central character (he even gives the director an impromptu singing lesson towards the end of the film), it would be hard to make a dull film, but Anjou does more than just stick the camera in Mendelson’s face and let it run. A Cantor’s Tale is a well-crafted documentary with a mix of wit and love matching Mendelson’s, filled with interviews with unlikely fans of his singing and teaching — who knew Alan Dershowitz could sing? — and some very serious discussions of issues facing the cantorate in the 21st century.

A lengthy debate on “kol isha” (the prohibition on hearing the voice of a woman during prayer) is so adroitly integrated into the film that it feels completely natural. The ongoing battle over the complex hybrid role of the cantor as prayer leader/representative of the congregation/entertainer/serious musician gets aired thoroughly but, to Anjou’s considerable credit, never feels anything less than an organic part of the film’s structure. A Cantor’s Tale is a real rarity, a very funny but very serious documentary that touches on issues of deep concern to the Jewish world.

As I noted above, the film is only scheduled to play at Two Boots through the 19th, and they only have one screening of it each day. Check the schedule on their website.