Tikkun v’Or student cantor uses music to “open and uplift hearts, minds and hands”

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman


 Student Cantor Abbe Lyons

 "I see music as an essential medium of prayer, a carrier wave," says Congregation Tikkun v’Or student Cantor Abbe Lyons. "For most people, music helps them reach a deeper level than is possible through text alone, particularly if the text is not in the language they speak every day."

Lyons, who will be ordained by the seminary program of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal on Sunday, January 10, in St. Louis, MO, has learned to use music to "open and uplift hearts, minds and hands." In an e-mail interview, she discussed her thoughts about Jewish music and the process that led her to become a cantor.

Being a cantor is a second career for Lyons. After receiving a degree in voice performance from Ithaca College, she moved to California to study the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education, which taught her how "to use movement to assist people of all ages and abilities to increase their options through the brain’s amazing capacity for organic learning." Even more important, though, it was in California where she discovered the Jewish Renewal movement, which soon became her Jewish "home." Its appeal for Lyons was the way it combines the best parts of the other liberal movements: "We are seeking to be part of the evolving process of Jewish civilization; somewhat like the Reconstructionist movement; to treasure the fullness of Jewish ritual practice, somewhat like the Conservative movement; [and] to prioritize social justice and innovation, somewhat like the Reform movement."

As her involvement with the Jewish Renewal movement deepened, Lyons decided to follow a different direction than originally intended. "I began to bring all of these parts of me together and began to feel the call to become a cantor – a chazzan – a Jewish spiritual singer and teacher," she noted. "It didn’t seem possible [at first], but eventually I actually stepped onto the path and began my formal studies."

The ALEPH program worked well since she could do her studies long distance, with classes being offered on the Web or by telephone. Twice a year students gathered for residential weeks in different parts of the country. Her graduating class included two cantors and nine rabbis, for all of whom becoming a clergy person was a second or third career.

During her studies, Lyons learned a wide variety of Jewish music styles, which she feels has enriched the services she leads. "I feel very fortunate to live in a time when I can dip into the wells of Jewish music [from] all over the world – ancient, medieval and modern, sacred and secular," she noted. "Although the emphasis in ALEPH is on Ashkenazi nusach and cantillation, we are also encouraged to study Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish music, as well as Chasidic niggunim, which can evoke both meditative and joyous states. Of course, modern composers such as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman and Cantor Linda Hirschhorn (to name just a few) have opened up the liturgy in new and wonderful ways."

Lyons feels the cantor helps the congregation connect to the service. This can be difficult because people attend religious events for many different reasons. To that end, she is adaptable about what kind of music she uses to help make the service more meaningful. "Sometimes I will use almost exclusively nusach, sometimes [I] focus more on congregational melodies, sometimes [it’s] a mix, depending on what kind of congregation I am leading," Lyons added. "I also like to use niggunim and contemplative chanting using Hebrew texts to help people encounter prayer, meditation and even text study experientially."

She also believes that music plays an important role in Jewish ritual. "During a prayer service or at a lifecycle event, we are engaged on many levels, including our intellect, our emotions, our bodies and our souls," Lyons said. "Music can help connect all these aspects in a way that words cannot. Nusach... connects us to God, to each other, and to generations of Jews."

As for her favorite type of Jewish music, Lyons finds it hard to choose. "Ashkenazi nusach is dear to my heart," she noted. "Yet, for me, High Holidays are greatly enhanced by melodies from the Jews of Morroco, Iran, Iraq and Yerushalayim. I’ve found great value in my personal spiritual practice in singing some of the longer, more complex Chasidic niggunim without words, as well as contemporary Hebrew devotional chants."

As for what she hopes to accomplish in her career, Lyons has big goals. "In addition to sharing my love of Jewish music and text, I want to foster spiritual development, ethical awareness and Jewish involvement for individuals, as well as groups," she said. "For some, this would be a deepening of active involvement, while for others, it might be a second look, an exploration or even an introduction. There are many different ways to ‘do Jewish,’ including prayer, ritual, culture, spiritual practice, tikkun olam, balancing serious concerns with joy, delight and fun."

At the moment, Lyons plans to remain as a cantor with Tikkun v’Or after her graduation, focusing on High Holiday services and the b’nai mitzvah program. She is also serving this winter and spring as the interim director of Hillel and Jewish chaplain at Ithaca College while longtime Director Michael Faber is on sabbatical. However, she is exploring other long-term options, which might take her to Jewish communities outside of the Ithaca area. No matter where she is located, though, Lyons will continue in her attempt to grow spiritually and to help the members of her congregation do the same.