Sociologists and other researchers who study a society's norms, customs and behaviors often examine the community's music as a way of tracing the community's historical development. This is particularly true of the American Jewish experience which has always included music in its liturgy, life-cycle ceremonies and daily life.
The first Jews to arrive in North American came in the mid-1600s. These people were refugees whose families had fled the Spanish Inquisition. moved to Holland and then to South America. When the Inquisition came to South America they moved northward, arriving in South Carolina and slowly moving northward to New York and New England.
The early American Jewish community defined itself as Separadic, as most of the members of the community had ancestors who had fled Spain in 1492. Until the 1800s Jewish communal life in America revolved around Sephardic traditions but in the mid-1800s German Jews began to immigrate to America, bringing their own traditions and a new Ashkanazi culture. This wave of Jewish immigration continued through the late 1800s and early 1900s as almost two million Eastern European Jews immigrated to America's shores.
This wave of European Jewish immigration included some of the greatest hazzans -- cantors -- of the era. Singing during prayer can be traced in Jewish liturgy to Temple times and worship through song has continued ever since. Hazzanut began to come into its own in 19th century Europe where hazzans chanted the services, oftentimes before the great rabbis of the era or in Hassidic courts.
The "Golden Age" of hazzanut peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when cantors such as Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota, Zaval Kwartin, David Roitman and Yankev Shmuel Maragowski joined the wave of immigration to America. These cantors performed in synagogues, Jewish community centers and in American cultural venues before the general American public. The generation of immigrant Jews adored these hazzans whose renditions of the traditional prayers brought back poignant memories of their shtetel childhoods, families and Eastern European communities.
The Holocaust took a tremendous toll on the world of Ashkanazi hazzanut. The traditional centers of Ashkanazi hazzanim were destroyed and there were no new centers of training in which young hazzanim could learn the traditional craft. In America, however, a new generation of American students has sparked a resurgence of hazzanut.
Benzion Miller is one of the most talented and prolific modern-day hazzanim. He himself is a Hassid and his hazzanut is favored by many Hassidic rebbes, both in America and in Israel. Benzion Miller was born in a DP Camp in Fernwald, Germany in 1947. His father, Cantor Reb Aaron Daniel Miller, was a well-known hazzan and Benzion began to appear with his father at an early age, singing at public gatherings, such as Bar Mitzvahs, "Melave Malka" gatherings, and other Jewish functions. The Miller family were Bobover Hassidim and Benzion attended the Bobover Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY and the Bobover Yeshiva Kedushat Zion in Bat Yam, Israel. Following his yeshivah experience Miller moved to Montreal to study music theory and voice production with some of North America's foremost cantors. He headed the Yeshiva Choir as a soloist and was invited to sing in many solo performances.
At age 18 Benzion Miller was offered the position of Cantor at the Hillside Jewish Center in Hillside, NJ. Since that time he has filled positions in Montreal, Toronto and the Bronx. He presently serves as full-time "shaliach tzibur" at the Beth-El Congregation of Borough Park/Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park. He also functions as a mohel and as a shochet for the community.
Miller continues to be a follower of the Bobover Rebbe and often performs for the Rebbe. He is recognized as one of the foremost interpreters of Jewish liturgical music of the times and he is equally at home performing Operatic Repertoire as he is singing Jewish and Chassidic Folk Music. He has appeared with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the Haifa Symphony, the Rishon L'Tzion Symphony, the Jerusalem Symphony and with members of the London Symphony. Following the fall of communism in Russia Miller appeared before Eastern European audiences in Russia, Romania, Poland and Hungry. He has sung liturgical, Chassidic and Yiddish music with the Budapest State Opera Orchestra.
In November 1998 Miller sang with Barcelona National Symphony Orchestra, recording some of his best known pieces for Lowell Milken's Archive of American Jewish music.