Vicki Axe - Interview with Marcie Frishman


Vicki Axe

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Seeing as this interview was recorded in 1986, it was interesting to hear that the conversation they were having about the contemporary Cantorate was not that much different from what you might hear throughout the hallways of HUC today. During the interview, they focused on the early life of Cantor Axe and what brought her to the Cantorate. She grew up enjoying Hebrew school (one of the few) and got her undergrad degree in music and teaching but had no religious studies. She considers the Cantorate a “calling” and felt that all of her different interests (music, teaching, Judaism) led her down this path. She talked about her love of the versatility of the role of Cantor; we get to work with everyone at every stage of their life. Cantor Axe discussed how, like many of us today, she sometimes feels restricted in the music she has to sing in order for her congregants to have a prayerful experience (she used the Sulzer Sh’ma as an example). However, she also recognized that it is possible to introduce new melodies and to keep the congregation with you as their prayer leader, but they have to trust you first. Along those same lines, Cantor Axe talked about singing in certain keys that may not be the best for her but they work for her congregants so they can sing along. Cantor Axe discussed her early years as a student at HUC and her early years as one of the only women Cantorial student at the conventions. She told stories of how when the male Cantors would meet her at the conventions and she would say she was a student, they would ask her (in an obnoxious tone), so… sing something for us. Some of these men from a different generation were either laughing at or just couldn’t accept a female Cantor. Those moments would make her upset, but Cantor Axe also realized that she was not going to change certain people’s minds. This also came out when she first started applying for full time positions when she first got out of school, there were congregations (Reform congregations) that did not want a female Cantor. Today, that would be much harder to accept but then, this was still very new.

Cantor Axe then went on to discuss the topic of money and contract negotiations. As cantor Axe said, “You can’t put a price on what we are selling” meaning relationships. The relationships congregants, the children of the religious school, the patients you visit in the hospital. The Cantorate is not a product that has a price. She discussed the need for lawyers and negotiators for contracts, which was really something radical then. In addition, she talked openly about the many working cantorial soloists (not invested Cantors) who are being treated and paid as Cantors and how to make HUC’s system work to be able to train many of those soloists and give them the tools they need to become actual cantors. She was not angry, in any way, with those soloists because she believes they are serving a purpose in the reform Jewish community, she actually expressed much exasperation at HUC for not making it easier for those soloists to attend school part time and for making everyone do the Year in Israel.

Cantor Axe also stressed the importance of the Rabbi and Cantor working together as a clergy team. On the bima, she wants both roles to be equal. In addition, she wants the “next generation” (aka, most of us in this room) to see the Cantor as clergy, and I believe this generation of Cantors accomplished that goal. Cantor Axe posed the question, “Is the Cantorate becoming a female position?” I find it funny that people were asking that question as early as 1986, when women hadn’t been Cantors all that long and some congregations still would not hire them because they were a woman.

Finally, Cantor Axe emphasized that making the choice to be a Cantor is a lifestyle and family choice. In order to do it, you need to have a supportive family behind you or else it is not possible. In other words, not much has changed!

Summary by Laura Breznick (April 2014), 4th year cantorial student in Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, HUC--JIR, NY


Access to archival quality sound files is restricted. For permission to obtain copies of these, please contact Mark Slobin at mslobin@wesleyan.edu.

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