Jewish World Review June 8, 2001 / 18 Sivan, 5761

For Starters

By George Robinson -- HE'S doing what his father did.

And it suits him just fine.

Mayer Davis is the cantor at Kehillah Jeshurun, the prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

His father Avrum Davis, was the cantor at KJ (as it is affectionately known) for 17 years before handing the reins over to Mayer in 1990.

Now the New York-born Davis has a musical project that echoes one of his father's pet endeavors, and he couldn't be happier. Called "Shabbat, For Starters," his new CD and accompanying booklet are a splendid introduction to making the Sabbath at home.

"My father was the first person to make nusakh records, over 40 years ago," Davis says with a smile.

How many hundreds of Jews learned to daven -- pray -- from listening to Davis's father?

How many thousands of Jews could learn to make the Sabbath from listening to the son?

"I'm doing the same thing as my dad, only in a different area," he says.

Davis, a handsome, slender man with an impeccably groomed silver beard and hair, is sitting in a midtown restaurant specializing in nouvelle kosher cuisine, toying with his water glass while he waits for his dinner. His personality, like his singing voice, is warm and welcoming, down-to-earth and "user-friendly."

"I've developed my own [musical] style over the years," Davis says, "I don't have a big voice or the classical style like my father. I was certainly influenced by people like Yossele Rosenblatt and Mordecai Hershmann, but I tend to be more like a shaliakh tzibur [a messenger of the community]. I don't try to be more than I am."

Ironically, it is his supposed musical limitations that make Davis the perfect cantor for this project.

"I wanted to do something that would help people to make Shabbat at home," Davis explains. "What is out there was lacking in some way. Either it was too low-tech -- a rabbi and a cantor get together some of their congregation and make a recording -- or included only excerpts. I wanted something that would be professional and polished but not intimidating and I wanted to include traditional melodies from the beginning of a piece through to the ending. And I wanted to include detailed instructions for the whole process, which is why we did the booklet."

Davis also wanted the recording to simulate the home experience, so he elected to do almost all of the recording a capella (until the final cut, post-havdalah, when some subtle instrumental passages are added).

The result is a thoroughly satisfying musical experience that is also a great teaching tool.


"Shabbat, For Starters"

click on title. Sales help fund JWR

Of course, it wasn't as easy to do as it sounds when you play the recording.

A long-time friend of Davis who produced and engineered "Shabbat, for Starters," Rami Yadid explained in a phone interview last week, "The most pressing problem was to find the fine line between making a product that would feel educational but inspiring."

A piece of cake that only took two years and 150 hours in the studio to bake.

Davis chuckles at his mistaken thought that this was going to be easy.

"I invited a bunch of friends, gave them tapes to they would learn the music, we sat in my home on a weekday evening with the lights dimmed, khallot, arbes [chick peas], almost like a seudat sh'lishit -- the third Sabbath meal -- and we sang," he recalls. "It felt almost like Shabbes. But I wasn't able to use most of the tapes we made. I couldn't sacrifice the accuracy for a recording like this one."

Yadid said, "It was always a struggle. The problem was finding a product that would make sense musically and still wouldn't be too complicated for people who don't know the music. That influenced everything even how loud to mix the harmony parts."

For the producer, there was a simple yardstick. He explained, "I wanted to have no apologies. I wanted to be able to hand it to someone and not have to say, ‘well it's educational.' I wanted them to have a musical experience with no excuses."

If the dual nature of the target audience influenced production choices, it also had an impact on Davis's musical decisions. He notes, "I wanted simple harmonies so that someone hearing the songs for the first time wouldn't say ‘Oh, that's difficult. I can't do that.'"

The resulting recording neatly achieves the goal that Davis and Yadid set for themselves. Offering a couple of variations on familiar themes (two versions of "Shalom Aleichem," "Shir Hamalot," and "D'ror Yikra" for example), this set is a tuneful introduction to Shabbat that will allow someone completely unused to making Shabbat to learn the basics in a pleasurable way. But the recording is also a lovely reminder to even the most practiced of the simple pleasures of this most beautiful of Jewish observance.

For Davis, "Shabbat, For Starters" is a project he's been preparing for an entire lifetime, and it has been well worth the wait.

"This is not just a project to me, not just a CD," he says as dinner finishes. "This is a difficult time for Jews. I'm depressed over the divisiveness in the Jewish community. Maybe this recording could be one of those things that we can all agree on. At any rate, this is a way for me to contribute."

George Robinson is a Manhattan-based music critic. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, George Robinson