A Cantor's Tale

Erik Greenberg Anjou's documentary about Brooklyn-born and -raised cantor Jack Mendelson is both a biographical portrait and an exploration of the tradition of Jewish liturgical music in America. Mendelsohn is a filmmaker's dream, the embodiment of the term "larger than life." A big man with a deep, resonant voice and an outgoing and approachable manner,...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Erik Greenberg Anjou's documentary about Brooklyn-born and -raised cantor Jack Mendelson is both a biographical portrait and an exploration of the tradition of Jewish liturgical music in America. Mendelsohn is a filmmaker's dream, the embodiment of the term "larger than life." A big man with a deep, resonant voice and an outgoing and approachable manner, Mendelsohn grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, during the 1940s and '50s, when it was a largely Jewish neighborhood and when cantors — whose rich, melodious voices preserved a sacred musical tradition that led worshippers in prayer and connected immigrant Jewish communities to their European roots — were as famous and adored as baseball players. His father owned a kosher delicatessen and his mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder and was prone to terrifying mood swings, strongly encouraged her sons, Jack and Solomon (who was 13 years Jack's senior), to become cantors. Both complied, though Jack's path was a rocky one. He recalls a childhood when the sounds of the traditional chazzanut were everywhere, not only in synagogues but in bakeries, at lunch counters and in people's homes. Cantors were like rock stars who would stride the Brooklyn streets in capes and shoes polished to a high, hard shine, with devoted fans in attendance. Who wouldn't want to be a cantor? Even as Mendelson rebelled against his conservative upbringing, flunking out of high school, running away from home, and gambling, he remained entranced by the music of his youth and eventually established himself as a prodigiously gifted singer, teacher and all-around cheerleader for the cantatorial tradition. In the course of relating Mendelson's story, Anjou also pays tribute to the great cantors of the past and touches on the struggle of contemporary congregations to strike a balance between preserving the core of sacred traditions and adapting to the needs of modern-day worshippers, particularly as it pertains to the controversial issue of female cantors. In the end, though, it's Mendelson's love of chazzanut, and of music in general, that drives this engaging film; anyone familiar with the power of music to transcend language and cut straight to powerful, transformative emotions will find his passion irresistible.

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  • Released: 2006
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Erik Greenberg Anjou's documentary about Brooklyn-born and -raised cantor Jack Mendelson is both a biographical portrait and an exploration of the tradition of Jewish liturgical music in America. Mendelsohn is a filmmaker's dream, the embodiment of the ter… (more)

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