Dispatches from Brooklyn: Selichos in Borough Park

Jeremiah Lockwood

In the context of prayer leading, a cantor’s vulnerability and the susceptibility of the body to injury can become sources of strength, lending the cantor tools to interpret supplicatory prayer texts.

I received a text message late in the evening on Saturday, August 28 at about 9:30pm inviting me to perform that very evening. This was no last-minute gig in some anonymous bar. The text was from Eli Miller, who was reaching out to singers to put together a choir for the Selichos service that was to take place that night, the first service of the High Holidays. The text was not altogether unexpected. I had been in touch with Eli and members of his family about participating in their family choir for some time. Nevertheless, the invitation set about a flurry of activity to change my plans for the evening so that I could make it in time for the 11:30pm rehearsal, just ahead of the 12:30am service. This was going to be my first time singing with the Millers, a leading family in the world of cantorial performance.

Selichos, the penitential service, is traditionally recited after midnight during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah according to Ashkenazi custom. In the cantorial tradition, it has a quality as a “premiere” of the special and complex High Holidays liturgy and frequently features a choir, or other forms of accompaniment of the cantorial soloist. Selichos is a big deal for cantors. It is often the first time many congregants will have been in synagogue for some time and it is an opportunity for the cantor to establish the mood and aesthetic intensity that will prevail over the coming weeks of liturgical performance. Because Selichos is recited at a time that is not a Sabbath or holiday, ritual prescriptions against using electricity are not in place. As a result, there are many professionally produced albums of “live” Selichos services by cantorial stars of the mid-20th century.

An excerpt from Leib Glantz’s famed Selichos record, recorded live in Tel Aviv in 1958

Eli Miller, the choir director, is one of the adult sons of Cantor Benzion Miller (b. 1945). [1] For the past four decades Benzion has presided at the pulpit of Young Israel Beth El Synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Constructed in 1902, 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 and, somewhat more recently, Moshe Stern. [2] According to cantorial gossip, Hershman paid a $1000 kickback to Jacob Rappaport, the president of the khazonim farbund (Yiddish, cantors union) to finalize his contract at Beth El, so coveted was the pulpit position there. [3]

In the present day, Beth El is the last synagogue in New York City that boasts a cantor and choir regularly performing in the partially improvised, soloist-focused style associated with gramophone era cantors. Beth El is able to maintain this musical identity in part because of its position in the religious ecosystem of Borough Park. Beth-El is associated with the Young Israel movement, a modernizing strand of Orthodoxy founded around the year 1912 with support from Conservative aligned leaders such as Mordecai Kaplan, but that ultimately declared itself Orthodox. [4] Young Israel is associated with a style of Judaism that seeks to integrate with the cultural norms of American non-Jewish society. The Young Israel movement is distinct from Chassidic sects that in general cultivate a separatist philosophy and encourage adherents to maintain a lifestyle of linguistic, sartorial and ritual difference from the “mainstream.” Chassidic sects predominate today in Brough Park, and “liberal” Modern Orthodoxy is somewhat fringe. Paradoxically, because Beth El is “modern,” meaning not doctrinaire separatist in its religious orientation, it is able to maintain a form of musical traditionalism that is not typical of worship in contemporary ultra-Orthodox Judaism. According to numerous Chassidic cantorial singers I have spoken to, cantorial performance is considered foreign to local norms and possibly religiously suspect in “traditionalist” communities. Facilitated by the combination of its prestigious musical history, its unusual “modern” religious profile, and the material presence of the building itself, Beth El has taken on the reputation as a living relic, cited regularly by cantorial aficionados as the last of its kind.

Cantor Benzion Miller

Benzion’s monthly Sabbath service, held on Shabbos Mevarchim (the Sabbath on which the beginning of the new month is observed), is a kind of sacred concert with its own following among Jewish music lovers. Significantly, many, perhaps a majority, of the regulars at these services are women. This is unusual in Borough Park, as in most ultra-Orthodox enclaves, where the cultural norm is that women are not expected to attend Sabbath services. Because women are not required to attend the same synagogues as their husbands, especially in the Chassidic community, going to listen to a cantor perform has a quality as a form of religious self-determination, expressed in aesthetic terms.

A bootleg video posted to YouTube of an excerpt from the Selichos service at Beth El, dated 2012

On Selichos night, I arrived at Beth El a few minutes before 11:30 and met the Millers in the downstairs “chapel” room where I had been informed a rehearsal would be held. I found an informal scene. Benzion and his adult sons, Eli and Shimmy, and Eli’s son, also an adult man in his 20s, were present. I have known Shimmy for a number of years through his participation in my research project on young cantors in the Chassidic community. Also in attendance was Berel, who works at a well-known Jewish music store in the neighborhood. The men did not appear to have begun singing yet and seemed to still be expecting more singers. There was some ambiguity about when or if we would begin practicing at all. I was nervous, especially when I saw a stack of spiral bound printed books of music for the Selichos service lying on the table where Shimmy and Benzion sat. Anxious about the idea of having to sight read a choral music vocal part for the first time on the pulpit while the service was actually taking place, I asked if I could take a look at the music. This gently nudged the proceedings in the direction of music making. The books had been put together by Shimmy, compiled from his father’s repertoire that the choir had been singing for many years.

We worked through the written arrangements for Ashrei and L’chu Neranenah in the book and also sang a few well known Selichos melodies by ear, such as the Lishmoa el Harina from the coda of Yossele Rosenblatt’s 1927 record “R’tze asirosom.” [5] Benzion was in a distracted and absent frame of mind. What became apparent was that he had been struck with a sudden case of laryngitis and could barely sing. His family members were aware of the issue and were trying not to draw undue attention to this problem, but the room was swayed by the tension of this problem. Cantorial folklore is replete with stories about the troubles cantors face with their voices in the High Holiday season. Getting a cold or some other vocal problem during the holiday season is a pressing source of anxiety. My grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg (1921-2007) used to spend a month each year before Selichos and the start of the holidays “hibernating.” During his hibernation he would remain isolated from everyone except my grandmother. There were a variety of factors that played into his need for solitude in preparation for the performance of the high holidays, but his vocal health was a leading motivation.

During the rehearsal, Shimmy sang the cantorial solos his father would normally perform, in addition to conducting the choir. Shimmy had led the choir for many years before he started to be too busy with his own cantorial career. Shimmy sang on full volume and was clearly in excellent voice. He mentioned that, if needed, he could sing the solos and even come and fill in on Rosh Hashanah since he had not taken a high holiday cantorial job this year. We sang for a while. There was an insouciance about the proceedings, as though it were understood that everyone already knew the material. Certainly, this was the case for the members of the Miller family. A few more singers arrived, including a bass singer whose voice warmly rounded out the range of the group. Benzion said, “My voice is” and then made a bubble noise, blowing through his lips. He seemed distraught but also resigned. It was unclear what would transpire on the pulpit.

We began to head towards the sanctuary and as we walked upstairs, fans of Benzion lined the stairs wishing him well. My cousin, Cantor Zachary Konigsberg was among those present; he had rushed over after finishing leading his own services at another Brooklyn synagogue. The sanctuary at Beth El was constructed to accommodate around a thousand worshippers. I have never seen it filled to capacity, but there were well over a hundred people present for the special cantorial service, and more arriving as the service began.

The rabbi, Moshe Snow, began the service with a few words in praise of Benzion, talking about how authentic and deeply pious his approach to prayer is. He mentioned with admiration that Benzion was going ahead with the service even though he had “a cold.” The other choir members and I sat in the first pew. After the rabbi stopped speaking, we took our places standing around the large Torah stand on the front bima (raised pulpit) in front of the ark. Benzion stood at a lectern facing the ark, with his back to the congregation, in the traditional cantorial positioning. Shimmy stood at the apex of the circle of choir members where we could all see him clearly. He was directly facing his father and the congregation.

We began to sing Ashrei, the first prayer in the service, sustaining chords in a steady drone for Benzion to sing over. Benzion’s voice was weaker than his usual vigorous, powerful tenor, but he was able to get a sound out. We sang the special High Holiday chatzi kadish (short sanctification prayer), the first time the iconic melody is heard during the new year season. After this point, all reference to the printed music was abandoned and we were working purely from the texts in the prayer book, creating head arrangements and following prompts given by Shimmy. Benzion’s vocal troubles were audible, but something was happening inside his vocal apparatus; his knowledge of how to use his voice to create cantorial sound was asserting itself and finding a working method to bypass the damaged area. Shimmy sensitively gave his father some breaks, singing a few solos in the pieces that are typically sung by the cantor. The interplay between father and son was tentative, with no clear handing over of the reins of the soloist position. The situation made me reflect on my own experiences growing up in a cantorial family. There was a dynamic between my grandfather and his son and grandsons that moved uneasily between admiration and biting criticism. All of the younger generation revered his work and sought access to his legacy and to attain some of his musical strength. My grandfather offered only fitful signs of assent in handing over the baton, despite the fact that he loved and was proud of each of us in our own way. Being a cantor involves seeking abjection from the congregation, so that their embodied experience of prayer might be swayed and elevated by the sound of the masterful voice modeling an experience of transcendence. There is a power in being a cantor that it is difficult to relinquish and that many cantors seem to have trouble handing over to the next generation.

A moment came about in the service when vocal trouble bled into intentional play with timbre control. This occurred during the prayer Shema Koleinu (Hebrew, hear our voice), one of the elements of the liturgy most associated with the role cantorial artistry plays as an articulation of ritual function. The prayer asks that God hear our voice; the possessor is in the plural, but the number of the object is singular, “voice,” not “voices.” The cantor’s voice belongs to the collective and the entreaty on the behalf of the community is articulated by an individual. The text of the prayer pivots between vigorous demand and a sense of the vulnerability of the speaker,between the power of the artist’s skill and their vulnerability as a human body subject to the whims of fate and the inevitability of decline and death. The verse of the prayer that begins al tashlicheinu l’eys zik’no, “do not cast us out in the time of our old age,” [6] a quotation from Psalm 71:9, is emblematic of the cantorial trade. Voiced from the position of an elder cantor, the verse takes on a special resonance. The cantors draws down mercy for the collective through the power of their skills of supplication. Cantorial performance hinges on a repertoire of vocal effects that stimulate emotional response in the congregation. Cantors imitate the sound of crying, gasping for air, straining for the outer limits of the dynamics and pitch range of the male voice. These techniques draw a sympathetic response from the bodies of the listeners who are compelled inadvertently, as it were, into an emotional response. Cantorial music is what film scholar Linda Williams might refer to as a “body genre,” a form of art like the horror film, that is meant to elicit specific embodied responses such as shock or fear. [7] One of the intended responses to the cantor’s voice is the shedding of tears. The cantorial vocal style offers the listener specific sonic cues through the repertoire of vocal noises imitative of sobbing or sighing. These sounds engender a mimetic response, gesturing towards practices of introspection, memory and emotional flooding the listeners are intended to experience.

As Benzion sang Shema Koleinu, his vocal troubles became the medium for a performance of affecting cantorial vocal “noise.” [8] His vocal production, marred by his sudden bout of illness, seemed to mirror the emotional content of the text he sang. As he sang, his voice grew in volume and presence, as though he was discovering pathways to utilize the limitations of the moment. Benzion tapped a vein of vitality and strength that was not drained by his injury. Standing between Benzion’s grandson and Shimmy, I felt myself immersed in a feedback loop of great sensitivity that responded to Benzion’s every musical move. We sang a minor triad for Benzion as he sang, and as he improvised, we moved to the iv chord when Shimmy conducted us to do so by singing the root note of the new chord. I followed Benzion’s grandson as he sang a suspension figure, outlining the distinctive harmonic movement i – iv -vii heard in countless cantorial recitatives. These harmonic movements shadowed the appoggiaturas and accented passing tones in Benzion’s line. The shtele ton (Yiddish, pedal point or bourdon, literally “set note”) we held for Benzion had moments of unintentional dissonance as singers found their place, but its sound was rich and sensitive to the dynamics of Benzion’s acrobatic coloratura improvisations. The feeling of contributing to this “drone” with my voice was transportive. My perception of time blurred. I had no idea how long the piece lasted for.

After Shema Koleinu ended, the rest of the service went by at a rapid pace, with all of the men in the choir rapidly chanting the service to themselves in a murmur. Benzion hardly sang any more during this concluding section. It was clear that Shimmy had decided that this was enough and we would rocket through the rest of the service, skipping many of the “set pieces” in the liturgy that usually serve as cantorial showcases.

When the service ended, Benzion was surrounded by deeply moved well-wishers, including well known younger cantors such as Benny Rogozinsky and Motti Boyer. Despite the vocal troubles Benzion had experienced, his performance was met with satisfaction and enthusiasm by his fans. Through his deep knowledge of the idiom, Benzion was able to transform a limitation into an opportunity to explore the emotional potentials of the cantorial voice. In the context of the penitential Selichos service, the cantor’s vulnerability and the susceptibility of the body to injury can become sources of strength, lending the cantor tools to interpret the prayer texts. A dialectic of abjection and power plays a major role both in the prayer texts of the Selichos and in the role of the cantor as a body at prayer. Both the prayer texts and the cantor interpreting them pivot relentlessly between strength and vulnerability. Benzion’s sensitivity to this dynamic served him well in his moment of infirmity.

As a postscript to this essay, I am happy to report that when I sang with the Miller choir on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Benzion was in fabulous voice, having made a complete recovery from his bout of laryngitis. His musaf, the “additional” service for the holiday that constitutes the center of the cantorial performance, extended for over four hours and was received by a well-attended congregation. I hope to sing more with the Miller choir over the course of the coming year and to have more to share with you about the workings of the choir and the subculture of khazones at Beth El.



1. Benzion Miller is the star soloist of an album produced by the Milken Archive, “The First S’liḥot” (2001). He is also featured in the Milken Archive “Spotlight Series” videos.

2. “Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park.”

3. See “Charles Davidson & Noah Schall – Interview with Mark Slobin,” Wesleyan University, Digital Collections (1986).

4. Geoffrey Goldberg, “The Development of Congregational Song in the American Conservative Synagogue: 1900-1955,” Journal of Synagogue Music, 44 no. 1 (2019), 41.

5. See “R’tze asirosom,” Florida Atlantic University Recorded Sound Archive.

6. “Selichot Nusach Polin, First Day 8:1,” Sefaria.

7. Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly, 44 no.4 (1991), 2–13.

8. For a discussion of the role of vocal noise as a constitutive element in Ashkenazi Jewish sacred vocal music, see Judit Frigyesi, “The ‘Ugliness’ of Jewish Prayer—Voice Quality as the Expression of Identity,” Musicology 7 (2007), 99-117.