From Klezmer to Cantorial: One Woman’s Journey through Jewish Music

We interviewed Anna Smirnitskaya who is one of Moscow’s experts on Yiddish and Jewish music. Anna is currently studying Cantorial music online through EAJL (European Academy for Jewish Liturgy) and serves as the Sh’lichat Tsibbur for the Marom Moscow community.

Can you tell us a bit about your musical background and experience in leading tfillah?

Anna: I have only a little standard musical education. As a kid I studied in music school where I took six years of piano and three years of guitar and I sang in a choir. After that I attended the Russian State University for the Humanities and I left my musical studies, with music becoming my hobby from that point on. I continued to study voice with different teachers – from classical to jazz, and I participated in various musical activities – from the student theatre of Bauman Moscow State Technical University (I performed in the troupe for 3 years) to the rock band I sang in with friends.

While my repertoire always included some Yiddish songs I grew up with, I really got into Yiddish music when I discovered the Klezmer Revival Movement. It was my favorite type of music and it was also best suited to the sound of my voice. I participated in Klezmer festivals in Kiev, Moscow and Saint-Petersburg and once was chosen to attend the KlezKanada festival in Montreal. Through the Yiddish music scene, I’ve met a lot of beautiful, kind, amazing people and musicians. I studied Yiddish singing with Michael Alpert, Adrianna Cooper, Lorin Sklamberg and Shura Lipovsky. I fell madly in love with the culture of Yiddishkayt and Jewish music and I think this music will stay in my heart all my life.

My friends and I organized a Klezmer band called “Der Partizaner Kish” (“A kiss of a partisan-girl”), and recorded a CD in 2006.

I helped Anatoly Arkadjevich Pinsky in organizing the first Yiddish festival in Moscow (Donafest-2005, later known as Yiddish-fest). With his help, we started the annual “Music of Yiddishkayt”, of which I served as chief editor from 2005 to 2009.

After the breakup of our band, I started to sing with the traditional Jewish music ensemble “Yosef-Kapelye” (with Ivan Lebedev and famous violin player Alexey Rozov), and I continue singing with these excellent musicians in Moscow. We made several educational projects together: “Vitamin E” (2014-2016), “Jewish Music for Every Student” (2015-2016) and “Today I’m a klezmer” (2017).

I have no prior experience in leading tfillah except of these past months studying to be a Shliach Tsibur. I have held Shabbat services at home with my family for many years, but before studying I have never lead tfillah in a community.

Who do you do your cantorial studies with?
I study with Jalda Rebling, a famous specialist of Jewish music and Chazzan from Berlin.

How did you connect with Jalda Rebling?
Through EAJL (European Academy for Jewish Liturgy) Chazzan Jaclyn Chernett paired me up with Jalda Rebling as my teacher.

How often and how long are your sessions, and what do you cover in a typical lesson?
We work for approximately one hour each week and we’ve already been working at it for about five months. At the moment we are working on traditional Ashkenazi nussach. Later on we will move on to the 19th and 20th century cantorial compositions of Louis Lewandowski and Solomon Sulzer etc. This summer I have been invited by EAJL to participate in the T´fillah Leaders Retreat in Oxford. As Chazzan Jalda says you have to experience how to create a k´hilla k´dosha.

How did you decide to become a cantor? What inspired you?
While studying at Klezmer festivals in different places I heard beautiful cantorial singing and I really liked this style. A few years ago, Masha Kopelyan, the leader of Marom Moscow, suggested to me that I become the cantor for the Marom community. At that time I was busy and had small babies so I refused, but several years later I came back to this idea and Rabbi Eytan Hammerman of Harrison, NY helped me find EAJL.

Do you currently lead services in a synagogue? If so, where and how often.
I sometimes lead services in the Marom community here in Moscow. For example, we did Rosh HaShana services, but I am still not leading regularly as I am still in the process of studying.

Are there other people in the Marom, Moscow community who serve as cantors?
No, there is no one else.

Other than leading services, what is your involvement in Marom?
I participate regularly in the activities and Holiday celebrations with Marom, Moscow.

Do you know of other women in Moscow who are cantors?
I heard about the Reform cantor several years ago and I have heard her lead services, but her style was not the kind of music I want to be doing. I much prefer the classic Nussach Ashkenaz (Eastern European Nussach) that I am studying with Chazzan Jalda Rebling.

Who are some of your favorite cantors and composers of Jewish music?
Jewish folk composers I like include Mordkhe Gebirtig and many others such as Joshua Rayzner from Lodz (he composed the song later called “Titanik” in 1911), Chava Alberstein (I like many of her songs, for example, the song “Di Krenitse”). I also like the old school cantors like Moshe Koussevitzky and Misha Alexandrovich. I really like Shlomo Carlebach’s energy in praying the tfillot, and hope that G-d willing I will be able to work on this type of cantorial singing as well.

Do you study just the tfillot for Shabbat, or are you also training to lead services on High Holy Days?
Jalda and I are currently studying the nussach for Shabbat Maariv, but we started to learn Rosh HaShana last year, and I hope to continue working on it. After all, as Jalda always reminds me, I am just beginning my journey into the world of Cantorial music.

You can listen to a recording of Anna singing Mordkhe Gebirtig’s Yiddish song “Reyzele” here. For more information on EAJL or to find out more information on studying cantorial music or becoming a Shaliach Tzibur, please visit EAJL’s website or write to Chazzan Jaclyn Chernett at info@eajl.org. EAJL is a project supported by Masorti Olami.