Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Reform Hazzan for Fordham Hoops

I couldn't resist sharing this news story here on our congregational blog, as it involves a cantor from one of our sister congregations, and the institution of higher learning where I work and teach, Fordham University.  

As you know, hazzan is the Hebrew word for cantor, traditionally the individual who helps to lead the Jewish prayer service.  This requires proficiency in Hebrew, and also musical proficiency, as the Hebrew prayers are traditionally sung or chanted (the root meaning of cantor being chant).  The role has evolved over the years, from amateur to professional, and from lay to clerical.  I'll refer you to Wikipedia for its articles on the traditional role of the Hazzan, and the contemporary role as a member of the clergy of the Cantor in Reform Judaism .

And as for hoops, that means basketball, but maybe you already knew that.

So, with all this in mind, let me turn to a New York Times article dated January 9, 2012, and written by Clyde Haberman. The title is At Jesuit School, a Pregame Assist From a Jewish Singer.  And it begins like this:
If you’re hoping for a talisman to improve your team’s chances of victory, why not make it a man with a talis?
Great pun, although I wonder how many readers actually got it?  As you know, the talis is the Ashkenazic spelling and pronunciation for the prayer shawl traditionally used in Jewish worship, in particular to be worn whenever the Torah is taken out.  And yeah, you can check it out on Wikipedia, it's listed under the Sephardic dialect's spelling, Tallit. Now, back to the article:
That thought, at any rate, crossed the minds of officials at Fordham University, the Jesuit redoubt in the Bronx. Their men’s basketball team caught a hot hand during the Christmas break when a cantor named Daniel Pincus began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before home games.
All right, Cantor Pincus!  And here's a picture of him, in case you wanted to see:

And guess what?  He's wearing a talis, man!  And hey, you can check out his official webpage: http://cantordanielpincus.com and even listen to a recording of him singing, well, not the National Anthem, but a Hebrew prayer, a Sephardic rendition of V'Shameru.  Okay, now back to Haberman's news item:
Normally, the national anthem is sung by the school’s choir, but the choir went on an out-of-state tour during the holiday recess. Mr. Pincus, 57, who is a cantor at Congregation Shaarei Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Riverdale, the Bronx, had already expressed an interest in performing the pregame ritual for Fordham.
In case any you don't ever cross over the George Washington Bridge, and/or aren't all that familiar with the Big Apple, Riverdale is the section of the Bronx closest to Manhattan, just across the river from the island, and it's a lovely residential section.  Like many New York area Jews, I had cousins who lived there back in the day, and they belonged to this Temple.

Anyway, if you're interested in learning more about our sister shul, Congregation Shaarei Shalom, the link is there for your convenience.  All right, back to the story:
“I said to him then that we generally have the choir sing, so let’s see what occurs down the road,” said Julio Diaz, the university’s associate athletic director. Now, unexpectedly, Mr. Diaz found himself down that road. “So I picked up the phone,” he said, “and told him, ‘Cantor, I need your help.’” 
I don't know why the choir wasn't available, but I will just mention that Fordham is outstanding in many ways.  But when in comes to music, well, not so much. So, please continue:
On Dec. 22, before a game against Texas State University, Mr. Pincus made his debut at the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, singing without his yarmulke and definitely without a talis (which is one way to render the Hebrew word for a Jewish prayer shawl). Fordham won.
He sang a second time a week later against Georgia Tech. Fordham won again. A few days after that, in the first game of the new year, the visitor was nationally ranked Harvard. Fordham, whose nickname is the Rams, triumphed yet again.
Suddenly, a team that had a losing record before Mr. Pincus showed up was on a roll. Could it be that the Jewish singer had become a good-luck charm for the Jesuit school?
The cantor, for one, doubted it. As “cute” as that notion might be, he said, and as “wonderful” as the interfaith aspect of the relationship is, he was performing as “a classically trained tenor.”
“What I wanted was to bring a classical approach and a singable approach to the national anthem,” he said. “I render it in a traditional way — not hip-hop, not jazz.” And, he added, “if I sing it well and with spirit then maybe it helps everybody tune up.”
The cantor’s singing style was important to Mr. Diaz. “I just want to make sure that we have someone who sings it in a patriotic, proper way,” he said.
Like Mr. Pincus, the coach of the basketball team, Tom Pecora, has a skeptical view of the talisman idea — up to a point. “As a college coach for over 25 years, I think it has a little more to do with defense and rebounding,” Mr. Pecora said. “But we’ll include the cantor if that’s what it takes to win games.”
His attitude reflects an element of superstition that is inherent to sports, perhaps more than to other phases of life.
There’s the school of thought upheld by a character in the 1988 baseball movie “Bull Durham.” You have to “respect the streak,” he says. If you think you’re winning because you keep following the same pattern — like having a cantor sing the anthem — then you are.
“We are superstitious, players and coaches,” Mr. Pecora agreed.
The relationship between sports and superstition, well, that's well known, as Haberman notes.  As for the relationship between religion and superstition, well that's one of the things that the Reform movement in Judaism traditionally addressed, as a product of the rationalism of the Enlightenment.  And as for the relationship between religion and sports, my only comment is, oy!
But there is another school, a more cynical one, especially for this age of the genuflecting Tim Tebow and his imitators. This comes from a classic boxing movie from 1956, “The Harder They Fall.” A prizefighter with a powder-puff punch and a glass jaw is on his knees praying before a match. Seeing this, a mobster tells him with a sneer, “That only works if you can fight.”
In basketball, it works only if you outplay the other guys. On Saturday, Fordham fell to earth. Despite having Mr. Pincus sing once more, the team’s home-court winning streak ended when it lost, 67-59, to Xavier University of Cincinnati. So it goes.
But even though the Fordham choir is about to return from its travels, Mr. Pincus expects to be invited back for future games. “It seems now like I’m becoming part of the family, which is great,” he said.
And why not?  It's all about community, which makes this YouTube video of Cantor Pincus singing Hineh Ma Tov all the more fitting:

And now, let's return for the conclusion of the article:
And why not? Among his talents, the cantor teaches the art of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is sounded on the Jewish High Holy Days.
From the ram’s horn to the Rams is not too great a leap.
And let me just note that there is no coincidence to the fact that Fordham chose a biblical animal as its mascot.  And as for Jewish-Catholic and interfaith relations, well, this is a Bronx tale and a New York story, and we live in the New York Metropolitan Area after all.  So, Go Rams!

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