My company, Wordesign Services, specializes in creating commemorative books for cultural and business institutions throughout the United States. These projects generally start at raw manuscript and are completed with delivery of bound books to our clients. The long, involved period between entails collaborative work with project managers, editors, and authors. Since these anniversary publications come only once every 25 to 50 years, we seldom have an opportunity to work with these teams again.
In very rare instances I’ve found myself connecting personally to a client’s history. During the Covid years, Wordesign was immersed in creating a massive 75th-anniversary journal for the Cantors Assembly, a professional organization of cantors throughout North America and beyond.
Even so, these working relationships typically allow me to develop a sense of my client’s workplace culture—how the players in each organization relate to their colleagues, what duties and responsibilities these individuals perform, and how decisions are made and by whom.
Over the years I’ve come to notice similarities and differences among the cultural landscapes of these workplaces. Some where I can imagine myself working full-time, others, emphatically not.
My partner and I bring knowledge and years of experience to each successive project, but we are always mindful not to make assumptions about a new client’s stories and requirements.
Working on this project was a peculiar experience for me. I was unfamiliar with most aspects of the musical, professional, and spiritual lives of the cantors. At the same time, their discussions of Jewish life and religious beliefs sparked thoughts and memories that I have not considered in a long while extending back to the years of my own limited Jewish education and including my more recent views on organized religion in general.
Much of what I learned from the stories and essays about cantorial life surprised me. Obviously, the art of singing is central to cantorial study, but I had not known how it encompasses so much beyond music, secular or religious, and how that all informs each cantor’s musical aspirations.
The cantors focus on practice—musical and religious—as a way of life. They learn and perfect their art, not just in the service of their own faith, but as a responsibility to the spiritual sustenance of their congregations. I came to understand how the substance of practice and repetition can free one from the ambiguities that surround beliefs.
The cantors also seem to be an exceptionally happy group, who are deeply engaged in and optimistic about their work. That’s certainly logical for people whose work it is to sing. They are committed to their congregations, their faith in Judaism and in music, their families, and in one another. They are aware of how much pain and suffering is in the world and subsequently they frequently participate in political and cultural actions.
Both of my Cantors Assembly contacts were demanding clients—which I am used to and understand. They are tasked with producing an important tribute to their organization and needed to be demanding. They knew what they wanted, and it was my job to make that happen within the limitations of print production. When a request falls outside of those limitations, I suggest an alternative to reach the same results.
When you say “No” to a client, most want a detailed explanation why not. Contrary to many other clients, however, these gentlemen listened to my explanations and asked questions if they had difficulty understanding. For many past clients, such questions were often borne of defensiveness, and that, in my experience, makes people stop listening very quickly.
For these two clients, however, I devoted the time and effort needed to explain processes at length, and never really minded the time. It was gratifying that they listened to and were genuinely interested in the whys and wherefores. In fact, they came to trust and welcome the experience I brought to the project. They still asked questions, but over time they came to give me the benefit of the doubt relatively quickly.
My relationship with these gentlemen and the Cantors Assembly has led me to reconsider a great many aspects of religious beliefs and practice that I would never have considered before getting involved with the Cantors Assembly’s 75th-anniversary commemorative journal.
Peter M. Blaiwas
September 19, 2022