Cantor Lissek Captivates London Congregation
On Shabbat Va-era, Saturday, January 17, 2015 Cantor Shira Lissek was in London as guest cantor at the West London Synagogue. The Senior Rabbi, Baroness Julia Neuberger, DBE, is a regular guest on the Pause for Thought broadcast on BBC Radio 2, with host Chris Evans. On January 20, Rabbi Neuberger spoke to Chris about the power and beauty of music in worship and about Shira’s visit to the synagogue.
Cantor Shira Lissek, center, at West London Synagogue with Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, left, and Senior Rabbi Baroness Julie Neuberger, DBE, right.
This last weekend, Shira Lissek, a cantor, someone who leads and inspires the service alongside the rabbis, visited us from New York. Trained as an opera singer, she became a cantor because she finds more meaning in leading worship and in encouraging others to find spiritual fulfillment through music. Her voice is powerful, glorious, and utterly approachable. When she sang, the hairs on our arms stood up, and many of the congregation were in tears. Unlike Christians, we Jews do not have a strong hymn singing tradition. Our services were originally chanted – probably going way back into Temple times. The chant depends on where the community originated from. And though the music has changed over the centuries, the idea of communal singing is one that doesn’t sit comfortably – sadly, in my view – withmany of us. We blast out one or two songs, and we rejoice in a noisy grace after meals, but disciplined singing in services, as a congregation, is rarely to be found amongst us Jews.
And so the largely American move to get us singing, and even clapping, in the aisles is to be welcomed, even if sometimes the enthusiasm feels a little un-British. Shira Lissek encapsulated the best of Jewish musical traditions. But she also made it clear that there are parts of our brains, and hearts, that words alone cannot reach. The spiritual enrichment we gain from music, of whatever kind, from today’s choice by you, Chris, to classical, or Broadway, or Disney or whatever, is enormous. Music is a different language, and it appeals to a different part of the brain. I have never felt it as powerfully as this weekend. We have wonderful music at my synagogue each and every Sabbath service, but that operatic voice, with the leading of celebratory prayer with such gusto, made me understand what people for whom music is their first language really feel. We were captivated, and our hearts were moved. And in worship, as well as in communal enrichment, there is nothing more powerful than that.