Over the years, my colleagues and I are constantly asked the question, “Why did you become a cantor?” The best response I ever heard was “So I could have awkward conversations with the person sitting next to me on the plane.”
It’s something that I never envisioned, but whenever I’m a guest at an event, or meeting people for the first time, or yes, sitting down in my seat for a flight, I’ve come to dread those 5 little words:
“So what do you do?”
Ah, it would be so much easier for me to say, “I’m a computer programmer,” or “I work in a bank,” or any of the myriad professions that exist. By this time I do have it down to something like a science. I duly respond,
“I’m a cantor.” I observe the blank stare, wait a brief moment, and quickly follow that up with,
“Do you know what that is?”
This has become so routine that I sometimes forget myself and answer,
“I’m a cantordoyouknowwhatthatis.”
In fact, it really is a teachable moment for most people, many of whom may only have a passing familiarity with the term but are often very surprised at the range and depth of training, responsibilities, and professional status of a synagogue cantor. (“You can actually marry people?”)
Other times, the person sits in polite silence, clearly figuring that they got in way too deep with what was supposed to be a polite question. Now that they’re chatting with Mr. Jewy Jewman, how are they going to extricate themselves from this awkward situation?
Even if they don’t realize it yet, I know exactly what’s coming. Sure enough, I see a little light flick on in their head, and I think to myself, OK, here it comes:
“Hey, there’s a Jewish family on my street. The Goldbergs. Do you know them?”
So I’ve gotten much better at avoiding these interactions each time I sit down on a plane. I decide at that moment how much I’m in the mood to chat with the person next to me and respond in three possible ways to “So what do you do?”
Level One: I’m not in the mood for small talk at all and really just want to be left alone.
Response: “I work for a non-profit organization.” (Crickets….mission accomplished)
Level Two: A little friendly conversation is OK while we’re waiting to take off.
Response: “I’m a music educator.” This can result in some fun conversations and memories of piano lessons of years past.
Level Three: I just sat down next to someone returning from a Victoria’s Secret catalog shoot.
Response: “I’m a flight instructor.”