Many readers may know Cantor Sheldon Merel, who served as Cantor at Congregation Beth Israel starting in 1979 and has had a continuing presence in the congregation for close to 38 years.
Cantor Merel is presently a comfortable, contented resident of Seacrest Village in Encinitas and we spoke about Jewish music and his career. After attending his recent life retrospective presentation at Congregation Beth Israel, my interest was two-fold: I wanted to know more about this dynamic singer. I wanted to talk about his take on Jewish music in Synagogue services, both past and present.
First of all, I would be remiss if I did not review some of his accomplishments. During his illustrious career, Sheldon Merel presented Jewish music concerts at Notre Dame University, San Francisco Opera House, Purdue University, Stratford Shakespearean Music Festival (Canada), SDSU, UCSB, Copley Symphony Hall and Sherwood Auditorium.
He studied opera with Impresario Boris Goldofsky of the Boston Opera Company and was also the soloist for symphony orchestras in London and Toronto, in addition to various orchestras in the US. He was often compared to the virtuoso chazzans of yesteryear. In his own words, “The greatest compliment I could receive during my career was to be compared to an “old time” chazzan…listening to the human voice in song is a powerful part of worship.”
In his own words, Cantor Merel feels that he was fortunate to serve with rabbis and congregations which appreciated his varied repertoire: the music of Eastern European virtuosoi cantors, contemporary music by respected composers and great orchestral works such as Erneest Bloch’s Sacred Service.
I asked Cantor Merel if he believes that he would not have had the same career today if he were starting out now. Being a musician myself, I was sadly sure that his answer would be negative. Today, most American Reform synagogues seem to prefer worship music that focuses on repetitive melodies and a lot of “la, la, la’s” (although The tradition of the Old World cantorial music, however is still practiced in Canada and Europe).
I asked Cantor Merel why he thought current American synagogue life reflected the “dumbing down” of worship music. According to Cantor Merel, he believes it may be a carry-over of the music from the Jewish camp movement, which was perhaps the first exposure that many younger rabbis had to Jewish music. Add to that the influence of rock and pop music of recent decades as well as the resurgence of Chasidic melodies, which are simpler, albeit lovely, melodies.
In addition to utilizing the traditional chants and melodies of the Jewish prayer service with which many people in the U.S. may have already been familiar, Cantor Merel also introduced music around the world in order to demonstrate the broad scope of our Jewish musical heritage. That was his ultimate goal: to broaden, expand and enhance the experience of music in prayer for his congregants and other listeners and to enlighten them with new musical sounds. As a beloved member of Beth Israel, even after his official retirement in 1991, he sang a few prayers on High Holy Day services almost every year until last year, first at the Civic Center, and later in the synagogue’s current new building. This was, as he notes, ,“Thanks to the graciousness of Rabbi-Cantor Arlene Bernstein.”
After his official retirement, Cantor Merel has also spent considerable time preparing and marketing his two CDs . All of the songs were recorded live in concert over a period of 25 years, and they have been proudly packaged.
Cantor Merel also paints and sculpts. He looks and feels terrific and attributes much of his good fortune to spending time being with younger people who keep him feeling youthful.