As twilight descends on the long, holy day of Yom Kippur, as we surrender to the cantor’s haunting melodies and the image of the Gates of Heaven swinging shut, who amongst us has not been preoccupied by this single, persistent question: How the heck do cantors pull this off?
How do they not pass out from fatigue? How do they stave off hunger, and not lose their voices after a marathon day of singing?
Yom Kippur, after all, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year (not to mention a day of fasting and the longest holiday service), and a day when the cantor’s music, particularly the stirring Kol Nidrei, stands in as the language of the soul, uplifting our prayers to the highest levels.
We asked three area cantors how they hold up under this pressure and prepare for the holiday, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They are Rabbi Idan Irelander of Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover, who is also the synagogue’s cantor; Sarah Freudenberger of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott; and cantor Seth Landau of Congregation Sons of Israel in Peabody.
All three said that preparation for the High Holidays begins weeks in advance.
“When I start rehearsing with the choir in late June, spiritually I am already transformed,” said Irelander.
This year he is leading a new, unaffiliated congregation, after more than 20 years as cantor and musical director at Temple Emanuel in Andover.
Irelander, who holds a degree in composition and film scoring from Berklee College of Music, wrote the musical arrangements for the choir, and said Yom Kippur is a day like no other. “You are so fulfilled spiritually. It affects all your senses,” he said. “You can imagine Jews listening to this music from Sinai.” He feels so consumed by the holiness of the day, he doesn’t feel hungry or tired.
“The music, the spirituality, the holiness of the days: Everything that takes place on Yom Kippur recharges your spiritual batteries and your being.”
Kol Nidre, in particular, takes him to a place “that is higher in kedusha, in holiness.” During the prayer, which expresses repentance for all unfulfilled promises made to God during the year, “I am shaking inside,” Irelander said. “I always have the fear inside of me when I chant this prayer – it is more than the words, it is the melody itself, the ancient part of the prayer. I have goosebumps before and after I do it. And then there’s a relief, I survived. I did it to the best of my ability.”
This is Sarah Freudenberger’s second year serving as cantor at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. She, too, has been preparing for the High Holidays for weeks, rehearsing with the choirs coordinating with the musicians and – since she is still transitioning to a new synagogue – arranging some of the cantorial music for her own voice.
“Much cantorial music is not for women’s voices so it has to be transposed,” she said. “I’ve done High Holidays for a lot of years and use very little of what I used before.”
In the weeks leading up to the holidays, she tries to keep her voice in shape, through “a combination of rest and warming up and not overusing it, which is really hard because I’m also a mom. I can’t yell up the stairs to tell my kids to come for breakfast right now.”
She also drinks lots of water ahead of the holidays – and listens to music. “This year, I’ve been listening to a lot of music, contemporary versions of some of the High Holiday liturgy people have put out,” Freudenberger said. A favorite is Jeff Warshawsky’s High Holiday “Praylist” which she’s been listening to “the whole month of Elul,” she said. “It really grounds me, and puts me in the place of getting ready.”
As for the challenging prayer of Kol Nidre, she acknowledges it is difficult music to vocalize, “but I think there are a lot of things that are also hard. I know that there is an expectation of it being a really special moment in a service and that is something I take into consideration. However, I mostly look at the holidays as a whole, and I want people to come away from it feeling ‘Wow, I experienced something that brought me closer to my creator, to my family, to my purpose.’ I think that in those moments, it’s not about me or my voice. I am just the messenger.”
Seth Landau has been spiritual leader at Congregation Sons of Israel since 2014. He said the High Holiday services take many weeks of preparation “but when it comes time to just sitting down, I find the music the most calming part of everything I do. I love to work on the technical aspects of preparing the nusach (melody) and the notes and the music. I’m always trying to improve upon something within the song or prayer that I maybe didn’t quite get in prior years. Or I could have emphasized a little more, or made it more meaningful to others.”
To prepare for the Kol Nidre service, he has a light meal beforehand and drinks a lot of water, “but I don’t think about it much on the day itself. From that point forward, my mind is really focused on the day and on what I need to do and try to do … I find that how I connect with congregants and how I connect with God keeps me energized through the day.”
Sometimes he takes a short nap between the end of the morning service and the afternoon service, or goes for a short walk around the grounds. “But it’s almost as if you are staying in character, like you are an actor. You are not completely reverting back to something else. You need to be fully focused as you go through the day and the period.”
He acknowledges Yom Kippur is draining, both physically and emotionally. By the end of it, he said, “you’ve given up so much energy you definitely need a vacation.” But ultimately there is only one way through it: “You just get up there and do it.”
See highlights from Rabbi Idan Irelander’s Shabbat and High Holiday services