The Ba’al T’file’s Blog

# 1 April-May, 2010


Copyright © 2010 by Yosl (Joe) Kurland

The purpose of this blog is to share my thoughts about music for davening (prayer) and Jewish music in general. Although I have not had formal training as a chazzan, I have studied informally with a number of chazzonim, as well as with masters of Yiddish folk, art and theater songs and singing technique. So, although some people refer to me as a chazzan, I feel more comfortable calling myself a ba’al t’file, the traditional title of a lay prayer leader.

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How and Why I Became a Ba’al T’file

I first started singing to lead services for the High Holy Days at Temple Israel of Greenfield after the retirement of the previous High Holy Day chazzan. A call was put out for members to share the job and I immediately offered to learn some of the services. I had such fond memories of the Eastern European style of chanting and singing in the shuls (synagogues) I attended as a child, I figured that the only way I’d get to hear them in Greenfield was to sing them myself.

I remembered many melodies from my childhood, but didn’t know them all or remember which melodies were sung at which service. Luckily, a few months before the holy days I had the opportunity for a lesson with Lyle Rockler, who was then the chazzan at my parents’ shul in New York State. I recorded the lesson and listened to it day and night, singing along with it until I was ready to sing the Yom Kippur Shakharis (morning service) and Ne’ileh (last service at the end of Yom Kippur). I was already performing Yiddish songs as lead vocalist with the Wholesale Klezmer Band, and Lyle pointed out that the melody of one of the satirical songs in my repertoire (far ne’ileh, nokh ne’ileh) contained all the elements of the Ne’ileh nusakh (prayer chanting mode) that I needed to learn.

In the years since then, I have studied with other chazzonim and ba’al t’files: Janet Leuchter, who taught me High Holy Day Ma’ariv (evening service), Refoyl Finkel who taught me High Holy Day Musaf (additional service after the Torah reading) and Jonathan Zimet from whom I learned Shabbos and Weekday nusakh. I’ve also taken voice lessons with Sofia Bilides after I heard the similarities between her Pontic Greek singing style and traditional Jewish chazzones (chazzanic singing style). I’ve taken occasional lessons from Earl Rackoff who was chazzan at my parents’ shul in Florida and I’ve made a few field recordings of ba’al t’files who were kind enough to sing for my tape recorder. I’ll write more about High Holy Day music in a future blog as the Holy Days approach. Meanwhile, a few words about music for davening in general.

You may have noticed that I daven with a different pronunciation of Hebrew than you are used to hearing. It is the Ashkenazic pronunciation that I learned in Hebrew School in the 1950’s - the way loshn koydesh (the holy tongue) was pronounced by Yiddish speaking Jews of Eastern Europe. Half the ah sounds come out aw. A third of the t sounds are pronounced s. Actually, when I really lose myself in the davening, I don’t so much use the pronunciation I learned in Hebrew school, as that of the old men who used to daven in my shul in the Bronx. I used to think they sounded funny, making all their O’s come out like Oy’s, but now I miss it. Davening that way brings me back to the days when I used to snuggle up next to my father, z”l, fiddle with the fringes on his tallis, and lose myself in the chazzan’s sweet voice and the anarchic chanting of the congregants. Davening that way feels so gentle and intimate, and like the Yiddish language that I did not learn as a child, it connects me with God, with those old men, and with the thousand year old Ashkenazic civilization that all of us with Eastern European Jewish ancestry are heirs to. The Ashkenazic dialect of Hebrew is also what fits best with many of the prayer melodies that we know, since they were composed by people who spoke and prayed with Ashkenazic pronunciation.

A report for those of you who missed services at Temple Israel of Athol during the Shabbos of Pesakh: we sang Hallel around the table after lunch with some of my favorite Moditser and Bobover melodies. Rabbi Bob taught us a very rousing version of Chad Gadyo and Mu Asapru -- the Yiddish version of Echod Mi Yodea.

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Well, that’s all for now. Next time, a few words about the music of the Shabbos services.

Zayt gezunt (be healthy),


Yosl (Joe) Kurland leads services at Temple Israel in Athol as well as at Temple Israel in Greenfield every Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. He also often leads part of the service at Shabbatons at both Temples.. He is the lead singer with the Wholesale Klezmer Band, and prints ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) for his wife, Calligrapher Peggy Davis. You may learn more about their work at their website, which is

#2 -- June/July 2010: Shabbos Music