When I sent in my cantorial school application to the Jewish Theological Seminary in January of 2020, I was well aware that as a 45-year-old single mother of three, I was not a typical candidate.
After getting my BA in theatre from Barnard, I spent the first decade of my adult life performing. If I wasn’t on an actual stage or in front of an actual camera, I was at a scene-study class or a voice lesson or making the endless rounds of peddling monologues in dank Lower East Side storefronts, or songs in bright Midtown studios that smelled of dancers’ sweat.
Then I spent the second decade of my adult life bewildered that I wasn’t performing. I spent it in a stupor of rocking chairs, swollen and sticky with milk, fastening snaps around fresh diapers, wearing complicated slings and wraps, pushing strollers, and washing out tiny pairs of poopy underpants in the sink of the children’s museum.
So after a divorce that rocked my world like an earthquake, I was surprised to find myself reawaken in a synagogue in the spring of 2018, preparing to lead my first-ever service for my son’s bar mitzvah, and it was with absolute certainty that I suddenly knew I wanted to be a cantor.
“There are two kinds of cantorial students,” explained the cantor at my synagogue in late summer of 2018, after she recovered from her surprise and agreed to help me prepare to apply to JTS, “the ones who are good at Hebrew and the Jewish side of things, and the ones who are excellent musicians.”
“But I’m neither!” I protested.
“No,” she reflected, “you’re neither. But you’re very determined, you’re very smart, and you work very hard.”
She agreed to teach me to lead services and to read Torah and haftarah. But I was going to have to learn Hebrew and music on my own.
By the fall of 2018, I was studying Hebrew with a private tutor on Sundays when my kids were at their dads’. I was also taking music theory and sight-singing in the evenings at a local music school.
One Friday, I cornered the cantorial intern at my synagogue after Kabbalat Shabbat and asked her about JTS. She considered, “the most important thing is to be as far along in Hebrew as you can possibly be. They took me when I didn’t have any Hebrew at all, and I struggled, and it’s only now, in my 5th year, that I’m finally starting to be able to read. I had to have so much outside tutoring. Don’t be me.”
“But what about the music part?” I asked.
“Oh, they teach that there. I wouldn’t worry about it as much,” she reassured.
In the spring of 2019, my cantor recommended a friend who was a voice teacher, and for the first time in 15 years, I went back to my lessons, adding them into an already-punishing schedule of parenting, work, liturgy study, Hebrew, and music.
Knowing application time was fast approaching, I redoubled my efforts. I did Hebrew grammar exercises at my desk at work and kept a journal in Hebrew to better practice the past tense. I sang Musaf in my boss’s empty office while he was in China, wrote out scales in the waiting room while my daughter went to therapy.
I wrote the essays, recorded the songs, and took the Hebrew placement exam. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, wasn’t sure I could afford it, wasn’t sure they’d take me. But in January 2020, my application was in.
My audition at JTS was on March 12th. I sang in the chapel with piano accompaniment and showered a still-unafraid admissions panel in my airborne droplets. Afterward, they told me I’d written the best essays they’d ever read from a cantorial or rabbinical candidate. I walked home dazed, the world changing around me. I sat on my stoop before picking up my kids from the bus and read my emails–every one a cancellation of some activity.
A week later, in a young pandemic, my work now from home, my kids now schooled at the kitchen table, I got the news: I’d been accepted! In a fog of confusion and uncertainty, it was a ray of hope.
I emailed the news to my longtime choir director, who’d written one of my recommendations. He responded, “That’s wonderful news. You’ll be great at it. I guess you may have to take your first classes by Zoom? Haha.”
Zoom? No! The pandemic had to be over by September, right?
I had been originally told that I might need an extra year to finish my degree, because I was about two semesters short of the baseline level of Hebrew needed for rabbinical/cantorial school students. One silver lining of the pandemic was that I was able to make up those two semesters in 10 intense weeks over Zoom at JTS’s summer program, so I could start at the correct level.
In September of 2020, we had Zoom orientation. I met my class–including myself there were five students, two women, three men, scattered across three time zones. The usual mikvah rite was out of the question, so we had a guided meditation with our hands in a bowl of warm water. It felt surprisingly profound.
Classes began, and suddenly I felt like I’d been hit by a speeding truck. I’d been assigned Hebrew four days a week, plus piano lessons, a first-year seminar, chorus, musicianship, and nusach (I was also still working part-time and taking care of my kids full-time.)
The core of a cantorial education is nusach–learning the musical leitmotifs that inform the various services. Nusach is the reason that Shabbat Ma’ariv sounds nothing like Shabbat Shacharit and nothing like Rosh Hashanah. The five of us were to study nusach twice a week with two different cantors–each week we were expected to master fifteen or so very difficult pieces of modal music, rife with melismas, groups of notes set to one syllable of text.
Perhaps these assignments would have been fun, if, like my classmates, I was an accomplished musician. Although I’d sung in one form or another for my entire life, I was mostly still a beginner at reading music–I’d taken a semester of theory in college, and I had the year and a half of lessons I’d taken before starting JTS. But I thought I was at least somewhat prepared for what was coming.
I had pictured JTS mostly as a continuation of what I was already studying–days spent learning Hebrew and music theory and maybe delving into the poetry of the liturgy and pondering the mystery of God. I thought the nusach practicum would come later, when I was ready for it. I had never even heard of chazzanut, the operatic classical cantorial style. Heck, I’d never even studied opera.
I had always been told I was very musical and had a good sense of pitch. When I sang unfamiliar music, I mostly guessed at the pitches, and with the framework of accompaniment, I was usually right. But Jewish modal music does not work the same way as musical theatre, and my unaccustomed ears could not sort out the intervals, not even from recordings. And forget accompaniment–not only do most Conservative cantors sing unaccompanied, but the limitations of Zoom classes also made it doubly impossible.
By the third week of classes, it was clear I needed help. One of my cantor-instructors recommended Judy, one of his congregants, who could teach me music free of charge. An upperclassman, Ingrid, intuited how desperately lost I was feeling (probably from my pleas to our WhatsApp group), and also offered help. By mid-semester, rather ridiculously, I was working with Judy six hours a week and with Ingrid for five. Both of them drilled the music with me, note by note and phrase by phrase, until I had it memorized and could sing it in class. I lost my voice repeatedly, and my voice teacher, Cathy, stepped in with extra lessons.
By November, things were more stable, if still exceedingly anxiety-provoking. Then, the week before Thanksgiving, my 11-year-old daughter was mildly sick with symptoms ranging from congestion to nausea to a lack of taste. I would not have thought to test her for Covid, but then I learned that a teacher at the Hebrew school she attended once a week (with Covid protocols) had tested positive, and her dad insisted she test. The positive came the day after Thanksgiving.
By Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, I was achy and feverish, and got my own positive test result the next morning. I emailed all my professors about the developing situation. I shivered through Hebrew, sang the blessing for a new month perfectly in nusach two hours after passing out in a pool of sweat on my bathroom floor, and worked with both my tutors through a haze of fever. Somehow that week I also managed to give a well-received d’var Torah on the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob to the entire cantorial school–I had written it like a dialogue, and my brother in Montreal Zoomed in to perform it with me.
Well-meaning friends from shul and from JTS sent us a surfeit of food, which overflowed the refrigerator and covered my stovetop. Everything tasted like sand. Masked, I brought the meals to my daughter, and my sons, 15 and 7. I wore my mask whenever I was near my kids. But my sons got it anyway.
Well, I thought, as I waited out my 10-day quarantine, my kids home with me, sick and stir-crazy, I guess I can use the extra time to study. So I logged extra hours with Judy.
We recovered, and my semester crawled to a close in mid-December. I completed my choral videos, my Hebrew take-home exam, my piano recital, my extra-hard, extra-modal, extra-melisma-ed final assignment for one nusach class, and my insane “the teacher can pick anything we learned this semester and I have to sing it” final for the other nusach class. The cantor-instructor said at the end of my allotted 20-minute exam, “At the beginning of the semester, I’d never have bet on this horse. But you’ve proved me wrong. I’m going to give you an A-.”
An A- in nusach. Who’d have believed it? Certainly not me.
When I describe cantorial school to friends, they respond sympathetically that it sounded like I’d been thrown into the deep end before I could swim. I’m still not quite swimming, but I’ve learned to doggy paddle.
I’ve completed exactly one-tenth of my cantorial education. I don’t expect the spring semester to be easier, but at least I won’t be blindsided this time. And I won’t get Covid again.
Perhaps I really am going to be a cantor someday.
Roseanne Benjamin is a mother, a singer, and a freelance writer in New York City. Her work has appeared in Tablet, Kveller, and elsewhere.