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According to the audience's rhythmic clapping, which is customarily the unofficial judge of the secret contest between cantors, it was obvious to all at the Mann Auditorium who had won: Over 2,000 people crowned Haim Adler and Joseph Malovany as their clear favorites in a series of cantorial performances for Hanukkah.

Adler, who say he "prays first and only afterwards sings," amazed everyone with the finesse of his expression, his sensitivity to the text and his sharp intuition.

Malovany, on the other hand, offered a classic polished style, with his clear and delightful tenor voice, deep musical reflection and his conductor-like arm movements. And no wonder: he is a musician with the finest credentials from music academies in Tel Aviv and London in conducting, composing, piano-playing and singing.

From the streets of Tel Aviv

The two cantors, who grew up on the streets of Tel Aviv, present different types of superstars in the cantorial world. Adler, like the opera tenors, is a traveled artist who spends a large part of his life in hotels and on airplanes. Just recently he sang in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and at ceremonies marking the Holocaust in Poland; he then hopped on a plane to the United States for a cantorial concert there.

Malovany, on the other hand, like many great cantors who built their careers in Israel, no longer lives in Tel Aviv, where he was born to a modest family - his father was a tailor. For the past 32 years Malovany has been the chief cantor at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York and is a senior professor at the School of Music at Yeshiva University. In 1963 Malovany left Israel to serve as a cantor in Johannesburg; from there he moved to London ("I realized that life in an apartheid state was not for me"); and finally moved to New York in 1973, "and I still have my whole life ahead of me," he laughs.

Ashkenazi cantorial singing seems to be making a big comeback now. "It is truly flourishing, but not without problems," says Malovany. "Now it is concentrated in the concert halls, accompanied by a symphony orchestra, while at prayer services in the synagogue it is actually waning.

"Forty years ago you would see countless posters all over Tel Aviv announcing that a certain cantor with a wonderful voice would be singing at a certain synagogue, and that a great cantor, a guest from abroad, would be at another synagogue. Today there is nothing like that anymore. In Jerusalem, there are normally two cantors at synagogues, and - in Tel Aviv - one and practically no guests. The time has come to return the cantors to the synagogues."

The crisis, explains Malovany, mainly concerns the rendition of the prayers.

"In the synagogue," continues Malovany. "You can't just sing the prayers any way you feel. Although the cantor has the license to improvise within the original form, and it is even desirable that he do so, today people do whatever they want. Tunes that have nothing to do with the prayers have found their way into the synagogue, partly due to [the late Rabbi] Shlomo Carlebach - who truly was a great melodist, but he composed tunes for the prayers that had nothing to do with the original version. There is therefore a very tough war between those who preserve the form of the prayers, and those who take it lightly, `doing it their way,' and I view myself as a leader in that struggle."

What exactly is the original form?

"I am referring to the compendium of sound from which the melodies are derived," says Malovany on preserving form. "Scales whose general structure resembles that of the ancient Greek modes - a form from which there can be no deviation, because it has inherent sanctity, like the Biblical cantillation traditions. Thanks to this form, a Jew who goes from Warsaw to Buenos Aires or from New York or London will have no trouble following the prayers in the synagogue."

Predating religion

The two cantors, who have pleasant and patient personalities, shower praises on one another, full of humor and interest in everything, even things that seem to contradict their religion. Two months ago, for example, Adler was invited to sing in Cologne for Pope Benedict XVI, during his historical visit to his native Germany. Adler began with some verses from Genesis about the creation of man.

"Back then, there were not yet any relations, and man was created in God's image, so everyone was equal," says Adler, who completed his performance with a hidden message in the form of a rendition of one of the daily prayers for peace. "The important thing is that the pope heard a few prayers."

Malovany "aspires to express the honesty and truth in the prayers," he says, but this has never prevented him from adding either classic or contemporary pieces to his repertoire. Among the composers whose works he has performed are Israelis Jan Radzynski and Noam Sheriff. Malovany has sung the solo part in Sheriff's "Revival of the Dead" with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at concerts in Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and at that work's premiere in the U.S. with the Philadelphia Orchestra before an audience of 20,000.

Malovany's openness toward other streams of Judaism is also impressive.

"Many Conservative and Reform [cantors] actually know the prayers very well," says Maariv. "And that bridges between us - the Orthodox - and them. I belong to the sub-stream that can be called the Modern Orthodox - not Hassidic, without sidecurls, modern, but still observant."

Malovany also bears a number of other labels.

"As a member of the World Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, I am also involved with community matters."

Not respectable

The Fifth Avenue Synagogue, on the corner of 26th Street in New York, is a major center of Jewish life in North America. Israeli presidents, prime ministers and cabinet ministers have visited it, and regular congregants include Eli Weisel, Itzhak Perlman and in the past, the late Leonard Bernstein. He recalls that it was difficult for Bernstein to sing the prayers without waving his hands as if he were conducting the congregation, and is proud of the compliment Bernstein once paid him.

"When you sing an aria from an Italian opera," Bernstein told him, "it is impossible to discern that you are a cantor."

"That is the greatest compliment I ever received," says Malovany. "Even when [cantor Moshe] Koussevitzky sang Puccini, people said they could hear strains of the Yom Kippur service."

Malovany has survived a battle with cancer, a disease he says affected his intestines and liver, but from which he says he has fully recovered.

"There is a saying, `Only one who has lived through a miracle can recognize how great it was,' but I know very well what miracle happened to me," says Malovany, and Adler jokes, "Now it seems he sings even better than before."

Even though he sings Italian opera pieces, Malovany has never performed in an opera, despite an opportunity to sing in the Metropolitan in New York.

"It is not respectable for a synagogue cantor," he says. Still, he does not shy away from classic works, even from church texts.

"I don't perform operas, but I do sing oratorios, even Handel's, and even `Messiah.' It doesn't bother me to study a page of Talmud and then listen to Verdi's `Requiem.' I have no problem with that, because those composers and their music contain a divine spark," he says.

Malovany has also conducted Mahler's Symphony No.2. It does not bother him that it is about a convert to Christianity.

"What is a convert? To me, even a convert is a Jew," he says.