Anita Hochman - Interview with Shayna Mueller
In this interview, Anita Hochman, originally from Levittown, PA, eagerly talks about her emerging role as a young female Reform cantor in the mid 1980s. Growing up in the Reform movement, Cantor Hochman discovered her skills as a song leader and always felt supported and encouraged by her parents. Cantor Hochman became a cantor in hopes to combine her two loves - Judaism and music. Though she lacked female role models in the cantorate, it never occurred to her that she couldn't pursue this path.
After receiving her bachelor's degree in Music Education from Westchester University, she opted to pursue her cantorial training at Gratz College, in part because they offered a flexible program that acknowledged her previous studies and permitted her to study part time while working full time at a synagogue. Though her childhood cantor (lovely man though he was) was rather performative, Cantor Hochman takes great effort to encourage her congregants to participate. She seeks to inspire people to explore prayer for themselves. She believes the cantor should be an authority in Jewish music and Jewish life.
Regarding the cantor-rabbi relationship, she says that her ideal is exactly what she has with Rabbi Neulander, whom she sees as a boss, friend, teacher, and supporter. Based on conversations with colleagues, she feels she is very lucky. Her rabbi is supportive and wants her to stretch through new experiences like sermons and pastoral care. Cantor Hochman discusses her use of guitar, piano, and choir to expand her congregation's repertoire of music tenfold. She proudly reports that the congregants have a better understanding of the structure of the service than before. The congregation made their own siddur, which includes more Hebrew than typical Reform congregations. She reports that the rabbi also encourages congregational participation for readings from various places throughout room. He uses the flexible communal design of the room to encourage participation through face-to-face interactions.
In describing her specific duties, Cantor Hochman reports that, in addition to leading services, she also conducts a 40 person 4-part choir, teaches in the Religious School, and serves on the Ritual Committee. By far, the majority of her time is occupied with training about 70 B'nai Mitzvah students a year. While there was a pre-established structure for B'nai Mitzvah, she organized and upgraded it. She says that with such a growing synagogue, she first had to make it a functional machine, and only then could she make it a personal process. A true musical guide, she says her sources for repertoire originated in NFTY song-leading and include the music of great composers like Friedman, Isaacson, and Klepper. Cantor Hochman tries to bring in new music for various reasons, with the included benefit of avoiding personal boredom. However, she also cherishes the smile on faces of congregants when an old favorite appears in services. On a more personal note, Cantor Hochman wishes she had more time for communal music making - both Jewish and not. She says she feels a bit isolated at times. She also discusses her desire to explore her spirituality and try davening elsewhere, as it is sometimes hard to pray when leading services. She finds being a cantor affects her private life. She says that especially as a single person, people want to know details of her personal life. To make matters worse, she reports that potential partners seem intimidated by the title of cantor. While acknowledging she's a figure in the community, Cantor Hochman also wants some privacy. Still, she loves being able to connect with people at the most joyous and tragic times of their lives. She treasures how she is able to both teach and learn from congregants and confidently states that the rewards of the cantorate unquestionably outweigh the difficulties.
Cantor Hochman reports that she wants to make her congregation a home. This congregation currently has about 600 families and is still growing. Cantor Hochman wants to be there for the transition. Her only dissatisfaction is how time-consuming the B'nai mitzvah program is. She is happy with her salary and does not feel discriminated against as a woman. Cantor Hochman feels her position is atypical for a woman and she reports learning a lot on the job. She feels lucky to have been at the right place at the right time and is happy to have found herself at this creative flexible congregation. Cantor Hochman sees herself as link in the chain of tradition. She wants to create positive warm connections with Judaism for her congregants and often succeeds.
Summary by Lauren Levy (April 2014), 4th year cantorial student in Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, HUC--JIR, NY
Hochman, Anita, "Interview with Shayna Mueller." Mark Slobin Cantorate Project. (January, 1986) http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/interviews/9/