On Yom Kippur, Cantor Sings With His Heart As He Atones

Kneseth Israel's Professional Chants 8 Hours On Holy Day

September 19, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Yehoshua Redfern repents with his voice.

As dusk falls on a Tuesday evening, Cantor Redfern enters Kneseth Israel Synagogue in Annapolis to sing and chant the age-old prayers of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

He is here to help lead the congregation in the ceremonies of thelongest and most meaningful holiday on the Jewish calendar, a periodof soul-searching and repentance.

"We ask forgiveness from God and our fellow man," Redfern says. "I asked my son if he'd forgive me."The cantor smiles at his 8-year-old. "He said yes."

A last light shimmers through the stained-glass windows. The candles of the menorah flicker against the brick walls. Redfern, draped in white vestments, ascends the platform for this most solemn of evenings.

The holy day begins with the Kol Nidre, a mournful chant in which the worshipers nullify all previous vows to God so they may start the Jewish New Year with a clean slate.

Hundreds of people, reading Hebrew or an English translation from small blue books, follow along as Redfern sings the prayer. The Kol Nidre, he explains, is a legal document dating back more than 500 years to the Maranos of Spain.

Redfern, 38, has been putting his heart into the grieving melodies of the Days of Awe since he was 21.

"To sing well, I have to feel it," he says. "It must be a part of me."

As the Orthodox synagogue's liturgical leader, Redfern's function is more than just singing and chanting the prayers. He visits the sick; he teaches music at the synagogue's day school; he directs a music program with the synagogue's youth.

But the focus of his existence is the three hours tonight and five hours tomorrow in which his lyric tenor will lead the people in the liturgyof prose-poems, litanies and confessional tables.

"If it's done properly, your voice doesn't wear out" from all the a cappella singing, the 17-year voice student says.

The full-time professional cantor earned his bachelor's degree in music from the University of Illinois in Chicago. He then moved to the Belz School of Jewish Music of Yeshiva University in New York City, where he studied the meaning of the Hebrew prayers and Jewish musical history, as well as choral music.Now he studies privately with Cantor Daniel Gildar in Philadelphia.

Contrary to articles he has read in Jewish publications, Redfern says, the role of professional cantor isn't dying out.

"Economics have definitely made it harder (for synagogues to support full-time cantors)," he says. "But there are some of us around. I'm a regional vice president for the Cantorial Council of America, and there are other cantors in the Baltimore-Washington area who are trying to do what I'm doing -- preserve the position of cantor -- and they're not all old."

Kneseth Israel, for example, is very much in favor of keepinga professionally trained cantor, he says. Redfern has been with the synagogue three years, but has served as a cantor in synagogues across North America. He says he and his wife, Rita, and son, Baruch, hopeto stay in Annapolis.

He has found his place, the cantor says, aswell as his career.

"In college we studied all kinds of music: Jewish, Christian, secular. I sang in college choruses. But I couldn't make the Christian requiems -- though they are beautiful music -- part of me. I had to feel it inside."

Each year, as he chants the liturgy of the High Holy Days, Redfern's choice to sing Jewish music is validated, he says.

The music is as integral a part of Yom Kippur as the concept of afflicting one's soul for 24 hours -- abstaining from eating and drinking, from sex, from bathing, from anointing the body with oil and from wearing leather shoes.

Yom Kippur traditions are traced to the Book of Exodus, which relates that Moses spent the 10 days between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur on Mount Sinai. OnYom Kippur, he came down from the mountain and announced that God had forgiven the Jewish people.

The atonement ceremony is worked outin detail in Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus. This was one day of the year when Aaron, the high priest, entered the holy of holies, the place of God's presence. On the Day of Atonement, in the desert sanctuary and in the two temples, the high priest sought forgiveness for himself, the priesthood and all Israel for transgressing God's law,Redfern explains.

To the cantor, as a musician thousands of yearslater, repeating these ancient words of repentance is the greatest cause his voice could serve.

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