For Michael Weis’ 30th birthday, his then-girlfriend gifted him a session with a psychic. Weis went into the meeting very skeptical, but the moment he thought he knew for sure it was bogus was when the psychic told him: “I see you surrounded by music — you’re a singer. You’re doing this professionally.”
At that point in his life, Weis didn’t sing; music wasn’t even an important part of his identity. But lo and behold, less than a year after that birthday, Weis joined the choir at his synagogue. Three years after that, he started chanting from the Torah, and six months after that, he began leading services as a hazzan, or cantor.
“It’s funny because I wasn’t really all that passionate about music for a fair amount of my life up until my late 20s, when I became reacquainted as an adult with Judaism,” Weis said. “I found that it was the music that really made me feel connected to what was happening in the synagogue, and it was through that connection that I really got much more involved in synagogue life and Jewish life.”
At 2 p.m. August 25 in the Hall of Philosophy, Weis will give a lecture on the “superstar cantor,” a phenomenon of famous Jewish cantors that occurred around the turn of the 20th century due to the influence of Jewish immigrants and new technology.
Weis said at that time, cantors were at the center of Jewish life. Although rabbis were a potent force, the cantors served as the center of a synagogue’s emotional community.
“You’re talking about people who lived in very close-knit communities, most of whom were quite poor, and the synagogue for them represented the center of their entire lives,” Weis said. “It wasn’t just the place where they prayed. It was the place where they went to socialize, where they learned and studied, and also where they got their artistic fulfillment. And that artistic fulfillment came in the form of listening to the cantor.”
These cantors were similar to preachers who traveled from town to town in early American history, and many of them developed reputations as star performers both inside and outside the Jewish world. Specific circumstances made this fame possible.
Between the 1880s and 1920s, an influx of more than 2 million Jews immigrated to the United States, most of whom were already conditioned to view cantors in this way. The time period also marked one of emerging recording technology that allowed them to reach a larger audience.
“These cantors had a certain mystique associated with them that turned them into almost, you really would say, star performers,” Weis said. “At the same time was the advent of recording technology that had never existed in history; [it] enabled performances of these cantors to be not only heard far beyond their original context, but to be repeated and played over and over again, and the reputations of these cantors began to expand exponentially.”
Weis’ own experience as a cantor is different than those of the early 1900s, but still extremely significant for him. The first time he chanted the Torah, Weis was so nervous that his hands were visibly shaking, but somehow his voice came out clear.
“It was a very powerful experience, and that was really the thing that made me decide that I wanted to get more involved as a leader of prayer,” Weis said. “I continued chanting on a regular basis, chanting from the Torah, and it was only a few months later that I started getting involved chanting the actual prayer service as well.”
About six years after Weis began leading prayer services, he decided to go back to graduate school full-time. There he received a cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as dual master’s degrees in sacred music and Jewish education.
Weis now serves as a cantor at Brotherhood Synagogue in New York. One of his missions there is to promote interfaith communication in order to foster a more peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths.
“The only way I can see [interfaith relations] changing is by creating actual relationships in low-pressure environments with people who are different from us, so that when issues that are challenging do come up, we already have a basis of friendship from which to engage,” Weis said. “I believe in music as a real weapon in the fight against ignorance and fear and divisiveness, and so far my experience has shown that it’s a great weapon.”