by Kaye Bennett
Zachary Mondrow '04 says he was the only person at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, from which he graduated as a cantor in May, who had come from a Baptist college. Not surprising, perhaps.
According to the Jewish Outreach Institute, cantors (hazzanim in Hebrew) are musicians "trained in vocal arts to help enhance the prayer service and lead the congregation in songful prayer." The profession came into being more than two centuries ago because of limited literacy and limited access to prayer books in European Jewish communities.
So what was it at Kalamazoo College that inspired Zach Mondrow to want to become a cantor? Here's his story.
Mondrow, 28, grew up in West Bloomfield, Michigan. A long-time friend was applying to Kalamazoo College and Zach decided to apply, too. When he came to see the campus, he immediately fell in love with the school, especially its size (Zach's high school class, at West Bloomfield High School, was bigger that his graduating College class) and the chance to get to know virtually everyone. An accomplished baritone, he also wanted to major in music and study with Jim Turner, an associate professor in the music department.
Mondrow says that when he was at "K," he was one of just 30 or so Jews on campus. He took some classes on Judaism, but particularly enjoyed Bible classes with Waldemar (Wally) Schmeichel, professor emeritus of religion. "I got a B on one of his tests once and was elated for a week," Mondrow said. He's never forgotten Schmeichel's lecture style, starting to talk on the exact minute the class started and ending on its final minute and never once looking at his notes. "Listening to the man was fascinating," said Mondrow.
When he first came to Kalamazoo, Mondrow said, he wanted to become an opera singer, but a few things happened that changed his mind. His freshman year, Mondrow recalls, he took a writing seminar with Bruce Mills, professor English. Mondrow worked with autistic youngsters from the Croyden School as part of that seminar, and he became active in a support group for their family members. That was when he discovered he liked working with people. "I liked seeing the smiles on their faces," he said. "I wanted more of that."
Another career influence came via a part-time job Mondrow held as artist liaison for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO). It was his job to pick up KSO guest artists when they arrived in town, then to provide transportation while they were here. Because the KSO puts on a semi-staged opera every other year, Mondrow had the chance to get face time with a number of opera singers. From them, he learned a fact of professional opera life: "They travelled all the time. This was not appealing to me. I wanted a home."
Putting these facts of self-discovery together, Mondrow decided to become a cantor because, in his words, "Cantors get to perform regularly and they get to help people." The road to his chosen profession took Mondrow to the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA). But the first year was spent, not in New York, but in Israel.
Two weeks after graduating from "K," Mondrow was living in Jerusalem. "I'd been to Israel four or five times prior," he said, "but it was a culture shock to live there." After a year of immersion in both religion and Hebrew language (Hebrew), Mondrow's studies brought him back to New York.
For the next five years, he took 30 credits per semester and spent his summers working with boys
"I got a 'B' on one of his tests once and was elated for a week."at a day camp in Scarsdale.
Cantorial classes at JTSA prepared Mondrow for the variety of the work his profession comprises. Cantors are members of the Jewish clergy and lead services, which are completely, except for the rabbi's message, sung rather than spoken. Cantorial students learn the traditional styles of music for the different Jewish prayer modes.
They are taught the act of reading (singing) the Torah and other books of the Bible. Each book and each holiday through the year has its own melodies, which students must master.
But a cantor's job extends far beyond music - and far beyond the standard work week. Between leading services at the synagogue, officiating at weddings and funerals, visiting congregational members in nursing homes, hospitals, and hospices, and training young people for their bar and bat mitzvahs, a cantor frequently works 60 to 70 hours a week and is always on call.
In whatever spare time such a demanding schedule may allow him, Mondrow hopes to be able to indulge his passions for wine, fine food, opera, and theater. He continues to take voice lessons from noted lyric tenor Thomas Wolf in New York City.
Mondrow graduated with a master's in sacred music degree from JTSA on May 17. His ordination was celebrated in his home congregation, B'nai Moshe, in West Bloomfield, in June.
After graduating Mondrow worked with his professional organization, the Cantors Assembly ("Cantors are unionized," he explains) to land a job. By July he'd been offered a position in Boynton Beach, Florida, at Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach. He began his work there in August.
Mazel tov, Zach Mondrow! Kalamazoo College's newest - and very possibly its only - alumnus cantor.