The Beth El Choir: singing against lost time

10 min read
Cantor Benzion Miller

by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow, Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience

Over the course of a year of participation in a cantorial choir the author has sought insight into a historical form of prayer leading, a nearly lost art of improvised Jewish vocal music

Last September I started to sing in the choir of Cantor Benzion Miller (b. 1945) at Young Israel Beth El Synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn. As I discussed in a blog post last Fall, Beth El is a monumental Moorish style synagogue designed as an ideal acoustic environment for cantorial vocal performance. From the time of its founding, Beth El has boasted a succession of prestigious “star” cantors, including luminaries of the gramophone-era recording industry like Berele Chagy, Mordechai Hershman, Moshe Koussevitzky, and Moshe Stern. [1]

A bootleg “live davening” recording that documents a Sabbath prayer leading by Benzion’s predecessor at Beth El, Cantor Moshe Stern.

For the past four decades Benzion has presided at the pulpit at Beth El, a final hold out of cantorial performance in Orthodox New York. His work is representative of a style of prayer leading that is almost completely absent from present day American Jewish life. The sound of prayer at Beth El is focused on virtuosic cantorial improvisation. Ben Zion’s style is marked by a signatory vocabulary of Jewish vocal techniques and references to classic compositions that are familiar from early 20th century recordings.

A live recording of a concert-like service held by Benzion Miller and the Beth El choir in 2012 during the Sefira, the period of seven weeks between the holidays of Passover and Shavuos. The special prayers said in this period have a musical repertoire that has been added to by many cantors.

Benzion began his tenure at Beth El in 1981. In his early years at Beth El, he was accompanied by a professional choir, as was the case for his illustrious predecessors. When Beth El underwent a merger with Young Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation, the choir was disbanded and Benzion began to lead services alone. This monophonic vocal texture was heard at Beth El for over a decade. In the late 1990s, Benzion’s father, Aaron Miller (1911-2000), a well-known prayer leader in the Bobov Chassidic community, took sick and became permanently homebound. A group of Miller family grandsons and some of their friends began to lead prayer services in Aaron’s home in Brooklyn, so that the patriarch of the family could have a minyan (the minimum of ten Jews needed to pray many of the most sacred prayers) for the Sabbath and holidays. According to Benzion, this spurred young men in the family to build liturgical skills, learning how to read Torah and how to lead prayer leading. Benzion’s son Shimmy Miller, today a well-known cantor and choir leader in the Orthodox community, told me that the group meeting at his grandfather’s home was where he first learned to daven (Yiddish, lead prayers). The group of young men would take turns as leaders and would harmonize in support of each other. [2]

After Aaron Miller’s death in 2000 the group of music loving young men gravitated towards Beth El. For Rosh Hashanah, Benzion’s sons and a few of their friends sang with him, forming an informal and impromptu choir. Members of the community were impressed and asked Benzion for the choir to return to accompany him on Yom Kippur. Then the choir began to sing with Benzion every month for Shabbos Mevarchim, the special Sabbath when the new month of the Jewish calendar is announced. As the choir became more established as a part of the sound of worship at Beth El, Benzion was able to leverage the popularity of this addition to negotiate for a small stipend for the choir, especially for Shimmy who took on the role of choir director. However, the monetary enticement was modest. Singing with the Aaron Miller Memorial Choir, as the choral group was sometimes billed, remains a labor of love for its participants.

Over the years, the choir became a kind of training ground for young singers in the Chassidic community who were interested in khazones (Yiddish, cantorial art music). Young Chassidic star cantorial revivalists including Yanky Lemmer, Ushi Blumenthal and Beryl Zucker were all members of the Beth El choir in the early period of their professional music careers. There is a steady turnover of personnel in the choir. Eventually, after he moved to New Jersey with his family, Shimmy stepped back from directing the choir and his brother Eli Miller took over this role. Although many members have changed over the years, certain members have maintained and provide the choir a degree of consistency and musical coherence. Especially important to the choir is the musical expertise provided by Berel Tondowski, the proprietor of Mostly Music, the music and media store in Borough Park. [3]

I have known Shimmy Miller for many years and attended services at Beth El on occasion. When I moved back to Brooklyn from California, after completing graduate school, I approached Eli about singing with the choir. I received my first formal invitation to sing with them in 2021 on the night of the first Selichos, the penitential service that marks the beginning of the High Holidays for the Jewish new year. I got a text message from Eli just a few hours before the service was scheduled to begin. This informality is typical of the Beth El choir. For Selichos the choir met an hour before the service to practice. In general, there are no rehearsals and no formal preparation for the services. Participants in the choir are expected to have a familiarity with the style, to know the melodies of synagogue “standards,” and to be able to harmonize on the fly and pick-up cues from Eli. Eli provides these cues with a system of hand gestures and by quietly singing chord tones for the choir members to pick up on.

I began to sing with the choir every month for Shabbos Mevarchim and on a few other dates in the liturgical calendar when Benzion leads services. Singing in the Beth El choir is an exercise in intense concentration and focus. The Shabbos service would last between three and four hours, an unusually long time even by the standards of Jewish prayer services which are typically many hours in length. Over the course of the service, Benzion would sing multiple lengthy pieces that were largely improvised. During these pieces the choir was expected to hold long tone drones underneath the cantor’s melismatic improvisations. Chord changes were implied by Benzion’s vocal lines and, with Eli’s guidance, the choir would follow these changes and move together with the cantor. At times, Eli would cue the choir to repeat words from the end of phrases in the prayer sung by Benzion. These phrases would usually employ the stereotypical dotted rhythm that typifies cantorial choral responses. Then at other moments, the choir would sing metered melodies, often Chassidic nigunim (devotional melodies), for sections of the liturgy. When I already knew the melody, these sections would be a moment to “relax” into the singing. More often than not the melody would be new to me, and I would have to learn it while singing and harmonizing with the other voices. The hours of the service would fly by. At the end of each service, I would be in a reverie of emotional elevation and mental exhaustion.

As I approach the end of my year of writing these blog posts for the Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience, and near the end of the liturgical cycle and the return of the next High Holidays, I would like to take the opportunity to take stock of what I understand to be my motivations for having spent time singing in the Beth El choir. In the foregoing reflection, I will gesture towards describing some of what I have learned about the experience of Jewish prayer music.

Singing with Benzion in the Beth El choir is not the first time I have sung in a cantorial choir. As a young man, I sang in the choir of my grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg (1921-2007), a well-known cantor who sang in what is sometimes referred to as the “golden age” cantorial style, rooted in the work of gramophone recording stars of the first decades of the 20th century. The experience of singing with my grandfather is central to the story I tell about my own life. But in reality, my time singing with Konigsberg was painfully fragmentary and brief. I only sang with him for one High Holiday season, the last year of his professional career before he retired, unwillingly, at the age of 80.

My fullest experience as a meshoyrer (Yiddish, cantorial choir singer) was not at the pulpit, but rather in my grandfather’s study, singing together and studying the High Holidays liturgy. For a year leading up to the High Holidays I sang in his choir, I went weekly to my grandparents’ apartment in Forrest Hills, Queens. I stood standing next to him as he poked out chords and melodic phrases on a little electronic keyboard that sat on top of the closed lid of his upright piano. The piano was so out of tune it was no longer practical for accompaniment and had ceded its place to a cheap Casio synthesizer. He played as he taught me the choir repertoire.

My presence in the choir was needed both musically (one of the choir members had quit), but perhaps more importantly, I was to provide support for him and my grandmother on their trip to Chicago where he had served as the High Holiday cantor at the Loop Synagogue for 30 years. It was understood that this would be his final year. His contract was up, and his health was no longer able to support the incredible strain of High Holidays prayer leading. My grandfather was in a state of anxiety and spiritual anguish. His anxiety concerned whether or not he would be able to sing at the level of beauty and skill he required of himself. He anguished over the question of who he would be, what kind of use he would be to the world, if he was no longer a khazn (Yiddish, cantor) for the Jews.

In these lessons I learned some music that I have sung over the last twenty years in my own practice as a musician and as a High Holidays prayer leader. But mostly I learned about my grandfather. I saw up close his commitment to his craft. I saw the self-imposed solitude he placed around his musical life, which was in contrast to the sociality of some of his cantorial peers for whom friendships and musical partnerships played a major role in their careers (I am thinking of the legendary, nearly romantic, friendship between Moshe Ganchoff and Noah Schall that fed the musical lives of both men). And I saw the hardship and loss of aging and how these universal themes play out in the life of a cantor.

I came away from my year of study with my grandfather and my single High Holidays performance with him feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of technical knowledge or insight into the life of the music. In the years since I have badly desired to be able to revisit this experience. To an extent, singing in the Beth El choir has allowed me to enter some of the same world of feeling.

One element of my larger research project into Ashkenazi expressive culture is to try and disentangle the idea of nusakh (musical forms of prayer) from the ideological use of the term by professional American cantors. As has been noted by Mark Slobin, Judah Cohen and others, cantors use the term nusakh as a signifier of authenticity and professional authority. Cantors use the term nusakh as a somewhat diffuse catch-all for the melodies that are considered to be traditional for synagogue prayer leading. The melodies that are typically referred to as nusakh were codified and taught in American cantorial training programs in the second half of the 20th century.

As I recall, my grandfather rarely or never used the word nusakh. Of course, he had a set of melodies he used for Sabbath and holiday prayer leading. However, it does not appear that there was a mutually shared and agreed upon repertoire of set melodic forms for the prayer services among cantors of his generation. On the contrary, the evidence presented by “live davening” bootleg recordings suggest that cantors had broadly different approaches to the prayer services, each with their own signature compositions and melodic motifs that they improvised upon in prayer performance. The music of the emerging body of “live davening” recordings is shockingly and gloriously heterogenous and reflective of a diversity of musical personalities. It is not clear that the recorded evidence can back up the typical cantorial assertion that there is a “core” set of melodic motifs or scalar patterns for the different elements of the prayer services.

A “live davening” bootleg recording of Jacob Konigsberg leading Shabbos morning services at Congregation Hope of Israel in the Bronx, NY, circa 1969.

At the present state of my research into this subject, I see evidence that the conception of nusakh as it is understood today is a mid-20th century invention that was codified by cantorial institutional organizers. The leaders of the American cantorate were seeking to solidify the future of Jewish liturgical music in response to the decimation of the Jewish cultural heartland in Eastern Europe in the Holocaust. The sound of cantorial prayer leading prior to the establishment of the American cantorial training institutions seems to be centered in a concept of cantorial voice rather than in a unitary body of musical material. The musical content of cantorial singing lay less in motifs and modes, and more in vocal gestures, tone color and in the dramatic stance of the cantor as a creative voice leveraging aesthetic power to activate a dynamic prayer experience in the congregation. The sound of cantorial prayer was focused in aggressive schemes of melisma, microtonal shading, and improvisatory motivic development that followed certain stereotypical harmonic patterns. These elements of cantorial skill were deployed in highly idiosyncratic ways by different cantors. The resultant heterogeneity in the musical repertoires of different cantors was a cause for celebration among fans of the music and gave different artists their unique appeal.

In analyzing the historic cantorial style, I believe it may be necessary to sideline the contemporary concept of “correct” nusakh in favor of what I understand to be a more culturally specific terminology grounded in the language used by cantors and their fans. I would like to more closely consider terms such as khazonishe moyl (Yiddish, cantorial mouth), zogn (speaking), and recitative (a Jewish repurposing of the operatic term, used to describe cantorial compositions, usually in a free metered style). Each of these evocative terms have been used to describe cantorial performance. I believe they may map onto specific musical stylistic elements that are audible, but difficult to categorize using the tools of Western music theory. Through close attention to the archive of bootleg prayer leading I imagine that a clearer descriptive and analytical vocabulary will emerge to understand the mechanics and meaning of the cantorial musical achievement.

Benzion’s improvisatory prayer music, like my grandfather’s, accesses elements of a historic cantorial style that I love and desire. He brings the archive of old Jewish records alive and vibrant into the world. But regardless of its relationship to the past, Benzion’s music speaks a truth to me in the present moment. It is a sound that I recognize as Jewish voice, and as a passage to the soul. Like my grandfather’s study, the Beth El choir activates learning, memory and possibilities for creation that I cannot yet fully understand. The uncertainty of the outcome of this learning experience is its true enticement. I hope to have more to share about the Beth El choir and its resonances with the history of Jewish sacred vocal music in the months and years to come.


[1] For an outline of the history of Young Israel Beth El Synagogue, see Judy Waldman, “A Shul With A Story: Praying In Spiritual Harmony – Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park,” Jewish Press (July 29, 2019).

[2] The story of the founding of the choir was told to me by Benzion Miller and Shimmy Miller. It is repeated in much the same detail in Chaya Sarah Stark, “Hitting the High Notes,” The Jewish Echo (September 12, 2017).

[3] See Riki Goldstein, “Mood Mix With Berel Tondowski,” Mishpacha Magazine (May 13, 2020).


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