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New Release: Cantor Roslyn Jhunever Barak

In partnership with independent interviewer Basya Petnick, the Oral History Center is pleased to make available her interview with renowned Cantor Roslyn Jhunever Barak. By way of introduction to this remarkable interview, we have reprinted excerpts from Ms. Petnick’s interview history below.

An interview history is a little piece of meta-historiography—a history of a history—intended to help the reader understand the interviews more completely. Typically, this piece discloses the purpose of the interviews, the relationship between the participants, and any special circumstances that developed during the interviewing, transcription, and editing processes.

Twenty-five years ago I came to the field of oral history from the worlds of literature, journalism, and creative writing, along with a lifelong interest in religious and spiritual matters. No doubt these interests affected the questions I asked and did not ask in the interviews. Mostly, however, my attention was focused on the task that oral history does so well, and that is to add to the existing record of a subject area, either through topical interviews with a number of people, or through the lens of one person’s full-life history…

Relationship

Like an ethnographer, the oral historian “occupies a position of structural location and observes with a particular angle of vision.” Age, gender, race, insider/outsider position, social status, and other factors are well known to affect the conduct and outcomes of oral history interviews.

Prior to the start of this project, I knew Cantor Barak only in a formal way, as “my cantor,” the senior cantor of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, where I had been a member for twenty years.

We had at once no prior relationship and yet at the same time an extremely important relationship. Hers was the voice that called me to prayer on Shabbat morning and evening and on the High Days. Hers was the voice that chanted the Kaddish for my family members on their yahrzeit year after year; hers was the voice by the bed and gravesides of ill and grief-stricken friends. Hers was the voice on my anshei mitzvah (adult bat mitzvah) study tapes from which I learned the prayers and blessings and, of course, my Torah portion: I knew well Cantor Barak’s every breath and phrasing of our basic Reform Jewish liturgy, which I had learned not just for my ansheit mitzvah but for a lifetime. Her prayers literally had become my prayers and, without specifically intending it, we had entered into a unique relationship that only a cantor/teacher and congregant/student may have: that of praying the liturgy together syllable-by-syllable, breath-by-breath. I was in awe of her vocal ability and had great respect for her as a senior member of the Emanu-El clergy, but because of her congenial personality I felt at home and comfortable with her during the interviews and enjoyed talking together in our profession roles of oral historian and cantor.

Over the years, I had attended many services led by Cantor Barak, and while seated in one or another of Emanu-El’s three sanctuaries, I watched the world around her change. As the decades passed, the popularity of organs, choirs, complex music, and a cantor-dominated service declined, while the contemporary, guitar-led, arms-around-my-neighbor, clapping and communal singing of all the prayers by everyone gained popularity and momentum. In time it became clear that camp-style participatory singing was a fait accompli. Naturally I did what all oral historians must do: take digital recorder in hand, research and write questions, and begin to document significant change.

In the spring of 2013, I invited Cantor to discuss the prospect of recording her oral history. During our luncheon, I talked with her about why I thought her oral history would be valuable to researchers, congregants, Jewish music enthusiasts, and other cantors now and in the years to come. She seemed comfortable with the idea of being interviewed extensively; she asked key questions and attentively listened to responses.

Interviewing

To interview Cantor Barak repeatedly is to be included in the soft whirl of friendly chaos that gently surrounds her life. In her world, there is always someone coming in or going out, someone calling on the house phone or cell phone, or someone at the door. There may be an old New York friend or a temple in Texas calling, but regardless, all Barak household activities are punctuated by barking, or by someone telling the dog to please stop barking. And there are always dogs. In the course of about a year—the time it took to complete the twelve interviews—Figaro, a disturbed Jack Russell terrier mix, and a psycho poodle named Elmo came and went, until finally, Schatzy, a little schnauzer, came to stay.

There was a continual stream of repairs and repairmen that joined our quiet time together. First it was a serious water leak, and then something that involved the garage, and then a crew with chain saws arrived to limb the trees right outside her house. At some point, jackhammers became included in the interviews, as well as tree branches of varying sizes, and pieces of the neighbors’ concrete that had to be removed in an enormous truck with the loudest backup warning sounds I have ever heard. During the interviews, there were instructions to be given, cautions to be issued, and dog walkers and friends to be greeted. There were potential renters and their agents to see the house before Cantor’s impending temporary move to Dallas. There were doorbells ringing and someone stopping by for just a minute. There was often something lost … often something that is “here … someplace.” There was David Olick, her partner, a lawyer working at home. There were iPads and iPhones and a 50” TV screen and laughter and apologies for all of it, and generous offerings of fruit and tea and other lovely gifts. If all this were happening in my quiet, almost monastic life, I might go nuts, but at Cantor’s, I enjoyed it. To her it was normal, and it became normal to me, too. I especially enjoyed her dogs and missed them when they were returned to the dog rescue because they were quirky and refused to be trained.

A curious thing about the interviews I conducted in her home is that she didn’t face me. During the recording sessions, she would sit in her leather recliner, stare into space and talk, while I sat on a nearby couch to the side of her. This meant that no nonverbal clues were possible: I couldn’t see her face and she couldn’t see mine. I couldn’t see her eyes to know the effects of my questions or learn if there were any disconnects between her facial expression and her verbal responses. Further, to redirect the flow of her narrative from that position required that I make a serious verbal incursion into the swift tide of thoughts and memories that formed her responses. I did not try to change this arrangement, however, because she seemed so utterly comfortable with it, and I deeply knew that the interviews would be more fruitful if she were completely comfortable. I report this simply as a description of “what the body did” during the interviews; it goes to the somatic side of the story, the part the reader cannot see.

To continue recounting factors that influenced the interviews: we are both Jews, and therefore, an important influence in our interviews was the prohibition in Jewish life against lashon hara, which might be understood as harmful speech. More than just avoiding gossip, this practice requires not speaking in a harmful way on any occasion. But talking and not talking about people is tricky, because from the start, one’s life is full of people—we cannot even live without being connected to people—but, when mindful of lashon hara, there is often little that can be said about others, as much as we might like to say more. It’s similar to how we use or do not use humor: one wants to tell a joke because it expresses a truth and seems funny, but it might be hurtful to in-laws or the elderly or a certain ethnic group, so we don’t do it: on a good day we resist the impulse.

Another inhibition that slightly constrained the interviews was the “gag order” that had been imposed on Emanu-El clergy by their board of directors during the days when Rabbi Robert Kirschner was stepping down from his position as senior rabbi. While Cantor Barak was deeply affected by his demise, she spoke cautiously about that incident, and I did not probe for more.

Also missing from the interviews are questions about what is like to be a female cantor. Not many women like to be asked what it is like to be a female this or a female that. The question can be unintentionally diminishing, and I could not bring myself to ask it. I had learned at the outset of my research that soon after Cantor Barak began her training at Hebrew Union College, the program filled with female cantorial candidates. As it has been said, “Female cantors are so ubiquitous now that some people are even surprised to see males in the role!” I also knew that during her many years at Emanu-El, she had served on a staff of clergy that included several female rabbis, a female lay cantorial singer, and strong women on the board of a temple where women are notably powerful and gender not a major issue. Of course, it was not always this way. Long before women were invested as cantors, Julie Rosewald, a lay cantorial soloist with a beautiful, classically trained voice, led the prayers and directed the music at Congregation Emanu-El for nine years. Sadly, she has been left out of important histories written about Emanu-El and is not included in the photo history posted on the wall outside of two of the three sanctuaries. From the start, Cantor Barak reminded me to be sure to include Julie Rosewald in this oral history; subsequently, we discussed Rosewald’s contribution in the interviews below.

What I wanted to know and could not find out through either my interviews or research is: what is the effect on the hearer of the female voice as opposed to the male voice? What is the difference in the impact of the sound of the liturgy sung by a female in the soprano/alto range from the impact of the liturgy sung in the male tenor/baritone range? This question is difficult both to formulate and to answer.

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