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Reflections on My "Young" Cantorate

by Cantor Susan Lewis Friedman

In my cantorate (young that it is, as I am just in my sixth month of my first job), I am committed to giving my congregation an eclectic mix of congregational favorites right alongside the latest and greatest works being composed by the hottest Jewish composers out there.  Music which features the prayers in our liturgy infused with English poetic texts speaks to me, and I find it easy to pray with them and to communicate this kind of prayer to my congregation. One of my favorite composers of this style is Cantor Jonathan Comisar. This year was my first High Holy Days as an ordained cantor. It was also the very first time I lead a congregation as a solo cantor—alongside my amazing rabbi, and it was the first time that the congregation used Mishkan HaNefesh. Shehechiyanu moments all around! One of my favorite pieces of liturgy is the Modim prayer. It is a prayer that I greatly connect with and I immediately knew the perfect setting. Cantor Comisar had written a beautiful Modim Anachnu Lach which was an absolute favorite of mine for so many reasons. Comisar beautifully infuses the Hebrew text of the prayer with his own words of thanks for the beauty which God has created all around us: “the sun the rises in the East”, “the seas that roar a prayer”, “the laughter of the children, their endless stream of questions” are just a few of the beautiful phrases which speak to me.


I find in my own personal prayer life that it is when I give thanks to God that I feel the most at peace, the most at One with God, and that my other petitions not only are answered, but sometimes the stakes of them are lowered significantly after giving thanks for all of the many huge blessings God has bestowed upon me. I am witness to many direct miracles in my life, and when I lead my congregation in this prayer setting written by Comisar, I am immediately reminded of them, and am drawn into an even deeper connection with God.  My congregants must have felt this because there was such an outpour of positive feedback. Many said that Comisar’s Modim was the highlight of the services for them. They wanted to know who the composer was and they asked me to do it again at future services. I had first sung it on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and by popular demand, I brought it back to Yom Kippur morning! The number of warm responses I received from this piece was endless. And believe me when I say, it was one of several different kinds of eclectic music which I programmed for the Holy Days. My choir and I did everything ranging from Janowski’s Sim Shalom, Avinu Malkeinu, Unataneh Tokef, to Katchko’s setting of Unataneh Tokef, to Shlomo Gronich to Jeff Klepper, Debbie Friedman, and Ben Steinberg, just to name a few—most of which were from Transcontinental Music Publications, recently acquired by the ACC.

Shalom Rav:

On October 23, 2015, I was installed as the new cantor. Because I believe in Cantor Comisar’s music so much, and because it was such a favorite of my congregation, I am bringing him out to introduce more of his music. Cantor Comisar was also my composition teacher at Hebrew Union College, and my Youth and adult choirs will be singing three prayer settings that I wrote under his tutelage. My adult choir will also be singing his Hineni, which the ACC introduced to us when they were at HUC last spring.  When we decided to use Mishkan HaNefesh for the Holy Days, I was so grateful to purchase Shirei Mishkan Ha Nefesh from the ACC, as I had used its predecessor Shirei T’shuvah for several years prior in my previous student pulpits both in the U.S. and even in Israel. Within the new machzor, I was easily able to implement familiar melodies of the Holy Days with newer settings thanks to Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh.  My choir director and I found that Mark Lipson’s setting of Pitchu Lanu with its bright, rhythmic texture was uplifting and was just the emotional inspiration that was needed at that point in the service.

I am very fortunate to serve a true singing congregation who is just as eager to learn and be exposed to the latest and greatest Jewish music while at the same time embracing the music of the past right alongside their favorite standard congregational repertoire—all of which has been published by Transcontinental Music Publications (TMP). I am grateful that Hebrew Union College provided me with the opportunity to study with and learn from such great composers as Cantor Jonathan Comisar. May we in the ACC continue to grow from strength to strength as we begin our journey with TMP.

Cantor Susan Lewis Friedman is beginning her career as Cantor at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL where she began her tenure on July 1, 2015. She received Cantorial Ordination just this past May of 2015 from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion where she studied composition and coached frequently with Cantor Jonathan Comisar. She served as Cantorial Intern at Congregation in B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ from 2011-2015, and as volunteer cantor at Kehillat Ohel Avraham in Haifa Israel in 2010. She currently lives in Wilmette IL with her husband Ross, who is the Executive Director of Pathways Senior Living in Vernon Hills, NJ and their two beloved children, Abigail (2) and Zev (11 months)—both of which are the greatest miracles in her life and the focal points for her prayers of thanksgiving.