Monday, Jun 17, 2024

The Cantor and the Brat

I saw the headlines last week, and for the funny way my mind works, a scene, one that I had only imagined, flashed through my mind. I had heard the story from a friend, and I wished I could have been there to share in the moment. Alas, it is only a fantastical memory, one that I always embellished through the power of imagination.

Let me explain Many of you have never gone to a shul where there is a designated chazzan. Of course, you have heard baalei tefillah who thought they were chazzanim, but I am referring to shuls in which there is a real chazzan, the only designee who is allowed to daven for the amud, or places where select baalei batim, with a little gorgle experience and pre-Shacharis experience, suddenly transform their altruistic volunteerism into self perceptions of the next Koussevitzky.


Most of this type of shul service occurred in the early and late ‘50s when Orthodox shuls were doing their best to keep up with the growing popularity of the Conservative movement, and anything that they could do to keep up, yet hold on to their traditional values. Sometimes, to compete, shuls would hire chazzanim whose reputations for observance were not so impeccable, to say the least.


As time moved on and the Orthodox community began to grow, the need for these performers lessened. They tried to hold on to their positions with bigger and better gorgles, and the congregants became less and less patient with them. But the worst adversaries of these chazzanim were not the emerging more committed adults. It was the kids. They were being brought to shul on a more frequent basis, and they, now attending yeshivos, could not take this old-fashioned, boring, repetitive opera that delayed their peppy performances of Adon Olam and Anim Zemiros. The younger ones were running around the shuls and imitating the baritone noises that sounded like foghorns. Most of all, the kids could not take the hypocrisy of some of these fellows, whose lifestyles they knew would not fit the persona of the crying chazzan standing before the amud.


My friend told me about one of these obnoxious guys who was entrenched in his shul.  The old timers liked him, while the younger crowd could not wait until he would either leave on his own or the older board members would “get with the times.” The fellow was simply a fraud. He would start howling during Mussaf and then wrap himself in a tallis and sway back and forth while performing some mysterious activity. He was still totally enveloped in his tallis when he would make a big krechtz and then reemerge, spreading his arms wide while clutching his tallis with his fists. He would then maneuver into normal pose and continue davening.


Well, this friend had a younger brother. He must have been no more than six or seven years old. I don’t know if it was a premeditated act, but it sure accounted for the abrupt end of this cantor’s career. 


I think it may have been on Yom Kippur, but I will give the aforementioned chazzan the benefit of the doubt and set the story on either a regular Shabbos or better yet on Purim. No matter the date, it was clearly during one of these tallis-wrapping mystery trances that was happening during Mussaf. (I know that there is no Mussaf on Purim.) The little devil came up from behind the chazzan and yanked his tallis right off his back. To everyone’s shock, his head was not lifted upward as if his eyes were cast toward heaven. Rather, it he was holding a clear container and taking a swig of a mysterious colored liquid. Exposed for the charlatan he was, he glared at the kid and shouted, “DI KLAINER TRUMBANIK VA DU BIST!” and started chasing him around the shul! 


So, when I saw the screaming headline declaring the results of Virginia’s Republican primary, “CANTOR DISGRACED BY BRAT,” I was not thinking of politics. I was thinking about that scene in shul. 


I am not sure if the upending of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a 23-year political stalwart, by newcomer Professor David Brat, an unknown candidate from the Tea Party group, was any less embarrassing.


Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, was more entrenched in his position than the cantor in that aforementioned synagogue. He outspent his opponent by twenty-five to one. In fact, according to one report, Cantor spent $168,000 on fundraising events at three Virginia restaurants, $30,000 more than his opponent spent on his entire campaign. He spent more just in travel costs while he campaigned across the state of Virginia than Dr. Brat spent on his entire primary campaign. Yet, somehow, with the yank of his coattails, everything collapsed.


Though every story is one unto itself, the toppling of kings and queens, prime ministers and presidents, along with despots and dictators, is all part of the pendulum of life.


How often do we fear the future because of an evil leader on the rise or revel in the relationship that we have with a benevolent ruler only to see either a political scandal or a faux pas?


We read this week the story of eternal and fleeting leadership. We read about a machlokes that is doomed to failure, because there is no parody amongst the parties in the elemental composition of the two parties that are arguing. One party is working with a heavenly missive, the other for personal gain. You can’t have an argument between total truth and lies. 


The arguments of Hillel and Shamai still reverberate in the halls of the botei medrash and chadorim of our history, because the mission of both schools, both Hillel and Shamai, was to glorify the name of Shomayim. And as Heaven is eternal, so are the two opinions, so much so that we are told that in the times to come, we will follow the opinion of Shamai.


Indeed, the world of politics is the world of machlokes. It is the world of arguments, vying for power and political self-preservation. It is not the world of arguments lesheim Shomayim. Most often, it is the arguments of liars versus other liars.


I do believe that even Korach, in his own mind, thought he was battling for the sake of Heaven. But he ended up travelling the road to the eternal abyss, paved with his “good intentions.” 


There is a little tale about a store on the Lower East side looking to attract customers. They decided to put a sign in their window with screaming letters: “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! EVERYTHING 40 PERCENT OFF!”


Well, the fellow down the block, who was also looking to drum up business, decided to do the same. He even one-upped his competitor. He put a sign in his window, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! EVERYTHING 50 PERCENT OFF!”


The first fellow did not take that lightly. He decided to retaliate with an even bigger sign: “TRUST THE STORE THAT HAS EXPERIENCE! WE HAVE BEEN GOING OUT OF BUSINESS FOR 35 YEARS! “


Indeed, the seesaw of politics in the playground of sheker has been bringing people up and down for many more than 35 years.


Like many altruistic politicians, even those “among the tribe,” whose work for the community is selfless, the litmus test of their intent is proof in the eternity of their work and their name. Unfortunately, except for a few special public servants, their good names somehow get lost in the pages of the Congressional records, or maybe on a municipal building or playground, as just another fellow who had the resources to ensure the signage.


The politics of Virginia is not a new story. People think that they are ensconced in certainty and stability. And then that tallis – you know, the one that is all techeiles – is suddenly yanked off. Then, all the machinations, gyrations and gesticulations are revealed to be nothing but a big spin cycle.


Unless your intentions are aligned with eternity and your mission is only for the eternal, your legacy as well as your career will be relegated to the temporal.



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