The Hasidic Cantor Who Starred in a PBS Special

You’ve heard of The Three Tenors, but have you heard of The Three Cantors? Yanky Lemmer, one of the three, was born and bred in Borough Park as a Belzer Hasid. After yeshiva, Lemmer went to Israel and was paired with a kollel student to learn for an hour a day. Lemmer’s chavrusa, Elimelech, invited him for a Shabbos meal and noticed that he had an amazing voice. Lemmer soon started voice lessons, began performing at weddings. “It spread out from there.” Today is he the chazan at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

Chazzanus in general, isn’t a sought-after job profession. “In the Hasidic world, people listen to chazzanus all the time. There’s a lot of neshama in it.” Otherwise, anyone can go up to the bima to chant or lead davening. However in the Modern Orthodox World, people do not listen to it on a regular basis and therefore want it at their shuls. “It’s an interesting tweak there.” The market is so small that if you have the talent, you will get noticed. “YouTube was my best marketing agent.” (Fun fact, Yanky’s brother, Shulem Lemmer, was recently discovered on YouTube and signed a major record deal.)

This spring Lemmer appeared in a PBS primetime special where he was featured alongside Reform and Modern Orthodox Cantors. It was filmed at the 17th century Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. The program was a transformative experience for Lemmer. “It’s a highly professional program, it took a year of prep.” They filmed two shows this past December, one focused on the Cantors and the other performance focused on the audience’s reactions. “You feel like you’re in the audience when you’re watching it.” In the audience were non-Jews, cultural aficionados.

“There were people there coming up to me, telling me that their grandparents were Jewish, but they don’t know if they’re Jewish. There’s a lot of that in Europe…it’s sad but there’s also a heartening somehow, that they’re coming out to a concert like this and connecting.” There is no other shul that is like it in the world. “It’s all stone and wood, lit up with a thousand candles.” The shul has no heating either. “You can see the fog coming out of our mouths.” It’s part of the Jewish Historical Quarter and the shul is still used on the High Holy Days. “If you can make it out there, its one of the treasures of Europe. They have a library there, which is probably the oldest library in Europe.”

“This is something I love most about my work. We are very fortunate to live in times where most normal, educated people will not react in a negative way [to Orthodox Judaism]. The people at PBS were extremely respectful.” The management at PBS was considerate of Lemmer wearing a rekel instead of a tuxedo for the performance. “They asked if it was a marketing thing and I said ‘no, this is just my levush. This is what I wear.’ They were very respectful of that.” Lemmer doesn’t encounter many stereotypes. “Much of it is in our heads.” The different worlds in which Lemmer travels sometimes intersect in interesting ways, such as the time he was working at an anti-zionist Satmar Cheder when Lincoln Square Synagogue called him to coordinate their Yom HaAtzmaut celebration. “I enjoy the irony sometimes. I don’t take it as a disadvantage. I embrace it…I view it as a blessing that I can be in so many places.” Lemmer sees it as an opportunity to share different points of view with those who might not otherwise see them. “There are so many beautiful angles to view our community from if you just open your eyes and get to know your neighbors.”

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