The Boy who would not sing with the Boro Park Bumpkins!By Cantor David Montefiore
President of Der Chazzonim Farband JMCA
I wasnt a big kid I was probably small for my age and yet there were kids that were smaller than me. Like that meshugene Hoffman kid who was half my size but could beat me up and make me cry uncle. He definitely didnt like my knickers and my funny British accent. I mean, what did he know about Yiddishe Britishes or that we knew how to daven; all the way over there over the pond or that I and my little family had so much to be thankful for when we came to America, on the SS America.
It was a fog shrouded early morning, as I and my Papa stood on the deck of the ship looking at the beautiful New York skyline coming into view. I tugged on Papas sleeve and said shivering, "Look Papa, America, America! Ill never forget, he wasnt all that happy about it. He had a wife and three kids to support and was a refugee of sorts in the1950s. We had lived in relative peace in London with Mamas wonderful cooking on the table. Shabbos was Shabbos. Kosher was kosher. Back in Liverpool I was always gazing skyward, looking at the Spitfires dog fighting, wondering if the Nazis would ever cross the Channel again. I found Papa alone in his study once, crying uncontrollably lamenting the deaths of his entire family [my family] only a stones throw away in Antwerp and Brussels. Auschwitz or Dachau or just a wall in the streets of Belgium was their final fate God knows. Papa was the crumpled form of a man who had stood on the bimah with Dayan Moshe Swift and Chief Rabbi Brodie through the Battle of Britain. Other than the renowned Koussevitsky boys, who got positions in London, my Papa was the First Cantor of the United Kingdom. He was the Jewish Communitys unsung hero. I loved him so much especially when we used to go for walks in Sefton Park [not far from the Beatles] just down the road a bit. We used to stroll just past the bronze statue of Peter Pan and his little flute. What I remember Papa doing almost on a constant basis was singing in his mezza di voce or falsetto tefilot as we walked along the road. Occasionally, if he was into it; hed sing Una furtiva lagrima. Yes, hed stretch the phrase just like Ferrucio Tagliavini but of course that was the style then.
Well, here we were, Papa and I on Succoth and in Beth El in Boro Park and it was full to the brim. The Kedushah came and the little boy soloist [not so little he was bigger than me] started to sing his solo Mimkomecha Malkeynu . Boy, I thought, awfully reedy and nasal not at all an attractive voice. [In retrospect, how would I have known what was good or what was bad I hadnt sung a note in my entire 10 years on the planet]. I turned to my Papa and said, "I can do better than that!" Boy, did he laugh [right in the middle of the Kedushah!] Papa hadnt yet started in his new position right down the road in Shomrei Emuhah. Now Boro Park had the Four Musketeers Moshe, David, Sholom Katz and finally, Hirsch Laib [Tzvi Yehuda Katz my Papa.] They were truly representative of the Golden Age of Chazzanut. Vi kenste zingen dortn ven ich kenisht dir afile lernen Adon Olam How can you sing there when I cant even teach you the Adon Olam."
By the way, for all of you mavinim, Yiddish was almost the official language of Der Chazzonim Farband for over three quarters of a century. If you didnt understand Yiddish you really didnt understand the subtleties and the goings on in the Chazzonishe Welt the Cantors World. If one looked at the revenues over at the FORWARD, New Yorks premier Yiddish Newspaper, on East Broadway, you could say we kept many a type-setter in clover. There wasnt a week that didnt go by, since the 1890s, that Der Chazzonim Farband and or its members did not have an ad in this wonderful newspaper.
Did you know that the FORWARD incorporated in the same year as Der Chazzonim Farband 1897. I believe that they and the JMCA and the Arbiter Ring [Workmens Circle], the Hebrew Actors Union [their language was Yiddish] forerunner to ActorsEquity; helped to shape the very landscape of Jewish New York.
I was crestfallen but turned to him and said: "You watch Daddy - Ill be the soloist of that choir. You wait and see!
How was I going to pull this off I didnt even know if I had a voice or what kind of voice I was supposed to have? Well, I remembered how to get to the schul because we lived on 17th Avenue and 53rd Street and Beth El was on the corner of 14th Avenue and 48th Street [I think]. It was a typical late fall wintry evening as I trudged through the wet oak leaves that lined the streets of Boro Park on my way to the schul. How was I going to sing and what was I going to sing?
Rehearsals were generally held in the banquet hall in the basement below the main sanctuary. There were a bunch of adults and school kids milling around and there in the distance, the looming figure of an overweight choir leader Benny Friedman.
Well, Benny everybody called him Benny including Moshe Koussevitsky. Benny had a round red face, sweaty palms and forehead, glasses and bulging black eyes and frothed at the mouth while speaking to you. Nu, dos iz der Ketzelle vos zingt? Now, this is the little cat that sings? [I knew I was going to have trouble with Benny from the time I met him because it was my father that had called Moshe to set up the audition.] Yes, I said sheepishly. So, vat ya gonna sing for us? What am I going to do to impress this person who couldnt even speak the Queens English? Then, it came to me: Im going to sing Adon Olam. [This is the same Adon Olam that my Papa couldnt even teach me!] Nu shoin zing! So all of a sudden, to my amazement, I actually sang de Solas Adon Olam. Those of you who know it know it to be beautiful and lyrical. Well, not only was I singing but I was being introduced to a boy soprano voice that I was to sing with for more than six years of my life. After saying yes to doing duets with the altos and tenors of the choir, in a relatively short amount of time, I became the boy soprano soloist [a position I held with my counterpart Sauly Gold the alto soloist for the next six years.] Let me recap the soloists for you because it was an interesting bunch. There was me soprano soloist, Sauly Gold - the alto soloist and we had a wonderful bass soloist whose name was Mel Held. Mel had a glorious bass-baritone and he used to sing at the New York City Opera and he covered for Cesare Siepi and Giorgo Tozzi at the MET. Last but not least is the most amicable tenor soloist, Sol or Shulum. Sol was Rose Friedmans brother [Bennys brother-in law]. He was, to put it quite plainly, a meshugene but a loveable meshugene. Everyone waited to hear his solos. He had a voice like Mario Lanza, only larger. He had a beautiful lyrico-spinto tenor voice. [Had he been treated in a normal way, instead of like a vaudeville entertainer there is not doubt that he would have had a wonderful operatic career.] That didnt happen. I bumped into him on the IRT passageway at 42nd Street he was selling monkeys on rubber band strings for the passers-by. We may be born equal but life has its roads it wishes us to travel. I also had great friends in that choir: there was Erwin Freedman, the boy whose voice I didnt like but we were friends, nevertheless, there was and is Richie Berg who has been my best friend for over fifty years and he sits on the board of trustees at The Cantors Conservatory with me. And, finally, there was Erwin Pearl. Erwin went on to Hoftra and studied drama. He landed a job with Shelley Winters in the Broadway production of "Minnies Boys" playing Chico Marx Grouchos brother. Then, on one of lifes crazy roads, he died at the tender age of 36 of Hogkinsons I miss him on a regular basis. Now he was a real meshugene! He used to hang from the roof of the Roxy Theatre up on 18th Avenue. His very attractive sister, Diane and I had a thing for each other but it never happened. Thats life!
By now youre beginning to understand who we were. We were the Boro Park Bumpkins! Yes, a motley crew of good little Jewish kids who went to places like, RJJ, Torah Vodaas,The Flatbush Yeshiva, Erasmus High, Madison, New Utrecht and you fill in the blanks.
There was another Boro Park Bumpkin, our Lauritz Melchior: he was always waiting for his big shot at the Met and that was Jackie Mendelsohn. Needless to say, the swan never came around the corner but be became a very fine Chazzan. Well, Jackie likes to tell the story when Monti [me] just decided he just wouldnt sing his solo in the middle of the Hallel Service. I was really going to get even with Benny! What happened? Well, as usual, Benny, was his uncontrollable self and he reached over to hit me, and spit at me [while he was screaming] in the middle of a musaf service. You really have to understand just what it was like in the choir loft. First of all the choir robes got cleaned maybe once a year and we were all of fifty males of all ages crammed into this tiny space above the ark. You also have to understand that you had to lift up part of the floor to get in and out of the loft on either side of the loft space. When entering you opened the door and then another door which was part of the floor to get up and in and then walk across, lift the floor and down through a door to the choir changing room to suit up. It was rather like riding the subway in Manhattan at rush hour packed in like sardines but in this case it smelled like gefilte fish if you know what I mean.
"Kik oif mir look at me de trombenik - you bum" he yelled! Can you imagine someone of his girth taking a plunge through half of the choir trying to get at you. A whale in flight tackling the quarter back amazing scary! Again, right in the middle of Hallel! In my Yiddishe kopp I was hurt, embarrassed. So I dont know when I resolved not to sing my solo in the middle of the service or on my way walking home; but I decided that when it came to singing my solo: Lo Omus Ki Echye [ right in the middle of the Hallel] I would not sing. [I would not sing the solo that they had been accustomed to hearing every Yom Tov that is 3,000 baale batim]
Imagine the conductor in LAmico Fritz pointing to the violinist to play the intermezzo and the violinist decides to sit on his hands! Well, I did just that! Yes, I was in place. I could look down from the choir loft and see Moshe signaling me to sing looking up as he usually did with his encouraging gestures and of course, Benny, trying to get through the choir to somehow get his hands on me as if he were on the BMT and he was getting off the train in an overcrowded subway car as the doors are closing. What a scene!
Needless to say, it was Moshe, who showed up at rehearsal to tell Benny: Mir kenisht redden tzy a chazns a zeen azoi Ich vil az du muz machn sholom! You cant speak to a Chazzans son in this way I want you to make peace!
I did not sing then for a moment in time but since then I have learned that to sing to have a voice is a blessing and a joy forever! To have shared all those crazy meshugene times with those friends of my youth to have had the zchus the honor of sharing the bimah with Moshe Koussevitsky at the height of his prowess as one of the great cantors of all time is something I can only tell you about. It is this sevivah, this level of devotion that the revisionists of our cantorial tradition can never wipe away. When you were in schul with a Shliach Tzibur like Moshe you knew that if you didnt quite know how to speak for yourself to Hashem that he, Moshe was getting through to the Almighty for you. Through the years, oh how I longed to have the encouraging smile or gesture, like the one from Moshe as I mounted my bimah. The journey to the bimah can be an arduous one; mostly because of the lack of knowledge or bias for those who neither want to understand nor want to accept the Cantorate as being fundamental to community prayer. There are rabbonim who understand and accept the necessity and the majesty of the Shliach Tzibur, as did Moshes counterpart on the bimah, Harav Yisroel Schorr.
The fact that we are here and we are still able to foster the furtherance of excellence in Hazzanuth, is only proof that the Boro Park Bumpkins, of which I am a proud alumni, have prevailed. If you have that warm and fuzzy feeling after reading this article of fun and reflection, please remember: We cannot do it alone. We need your help to keep Hazzanuth alive and healthy and in our synagogues. We need a whole generation of new Hazzanim, with new talent, with a new calling and a new derech eretz for the one who created us all our loving and ever faithful Almighty God. Moreover, we need you the devotee, the mavin, the lover of Hazzanuth!
Please go to our Support Page. Give to the Centennial Fund. Give to the JMCA. Give to Der Chazzonim Farband. Invest in our tradition invest in our people. I personally know youll feel very, very good about it.
Thank you so much for your support.
Note: The Boro Park Bumpkins [as I affectionately call them] were made up of a great all male fifty voice choir that sang every conceivable Jewish liturgical composition. Some learned by reading sheet music, others learned by rote; but it is an undeniable fact that the combined forces of this choir and cantors such as: Chagy, Hirchman, Koussevitsky and Stern that established them as second to none.
The Future of Our Past
Cantor Victor I. Beck, Past President
It is no secret that the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association of America & Canada [also known as Der Chazzanim Farband] is the oldest cantorial organization in North America. It is also no secret [except perhaps the youngest members of our profession] that the JMCA has had a glorious history and has boasted a membership that included the greatest cantoral talents of the past century. The history of the Cantorial Art in America cannot be told without relying heavily on the history and the membership of our organization. The legendary Cantors of the turn of the 20th century naturally gravitated to the JMCA when they emigrated to America. The JMCA nurtured them and they in turn nurtured the next generation of American Chazzanim.
We are the recipients of a rich and beautiful religious and musical heritage and as such, we have a responsibility to those who have bequeathed to us this invaluable heritage to make certain that it finds a means of transition into and beyond the 21st century. Meeting this challenge may define the reason d'etre, for the JMCA in this century. Failing is unthinkable. We must find a way to utilize the memories of our past and ensure the integrity and future of our profession. Most of us are very familiar with our history. We are the present, the future is ours to build on - the strong foundations of our past.
The future of the cantorial art may never again be what it was in the past, but it is up to us to determine how it will be defined in the future. Unless we take an active role in setting the standards of our profession, those standards will be determined and dictated by others. Standards must continue to be determined by those who understand that being a Cantor is not just a job or profession, but is an art and a calling. It is who we are as much as it is what we are. This is our challenge. Join us. We seek your support and help to meet this challenge so that we can honestly say that we have created the Future of our Past.
Put Cantors Back Where They Belong
When I began my cantorial career in New York in the late 1960`s, Jewish newspapers were full of shuls advertising their chazzanim. Today, however, we have a generation that has grown up with little or no recollection of the central role of the shul and its chazzan in Jewish life. They don`t know that shuls once were magnificent and formal or that prior to the Holocaust, nearly every shul in Europe had a full-time professional chazzan, often with a choir.
In Eastern Europe today one can see, in nearly every town and city, the empty shells that once were magnificent Orthodox houses of worship. Those who perished in the fires of the Holocaust and those who were fortunate enough to survive had packed these shuls. Every city had a shtot chazan (official city cantor). Not only the large cities, but smaller ones as well Munkacs, Sigeht, Satmar, Chust, Grosverdain, etc. had a shtot chazzan. Yossele Rosenblatt began his adult career as the shtot chazzan of Munkacs.
This halacha bears examination within a greater context as brought down by the Michaber. The previous halacha in Simon 53:24 says: "A community that needs to hire a rav and a chazan and has the funds to engage only one, if the rav is an outstanding gadol in Torah and halacha, he is to be hired; otherwise, the chazzan is first."
Baruch Hashem, Torah was saved from the fires of the Holocaust and a new and glorious chapter is being written in its study and growth. Our institutions of g`milas chasodim are thriving. But the pillar of avodah the shul, specifically rinah and tefilah has not, in my opinion, been adequately reconstructed. It is time to retrieve and rebuild that pillar of avodah from the ashes of the Holocaust.