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The Chazanim of the Great Synagogue, London

Rev. H. Mayerowitsch

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Chazanim of the Great Synagogue, London By the Rev. H. Mayerowitsch The Great Synagogue, destroyed by fire owing to enemy action on May nth, 1941 (Iyar 14th, 5701), was essentially known as the Cathe? dral Synagogue of the Ashkenazi Community of England. Its origin goes back to the seventeenth century,1 and its position as the proud mother of many leading synagogues as well as of the primary com? munal institutions, has been undisputed. Thus the Great Synagogue stood for two hundred and fifty years?though modest without, but all glorious within?like a mighty oak-tree, heavy with age and with strong branches, a living link with the distant past, a tremendous force of tradition behind it, with that indefinable air of the synagogue about it, that suggestion of sacred gatherings, which the modern synagogue so conspicuously lacks. From a well-preserved volume of congregational regulations (Tak kanoth) of 1722 it appears that the organisation and administration of the Great Synagogue have from its inception been dominated by a spirit of earnestness, responsibility, and human interest, and above all, by strict rules for the perpetuation of tradition (ritual and musical), and for the maintenance of order, decorum and dignity. It is laid down in the following terms: " Divine worship in the Synagogue should be so conducted as to ensure the decorum and devotional feeling, so essential to the elevation of the mind and the purification of the heart." This had been emphasised by the Tak kanah 78 which stipulates that: " No one but the permanendy ap? pointed Chazan shall conduct services in the Synagogue." (Since 1 James Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History, p. 133. Dr. Cecil Roth, " The Origin of the Great Synagogue," Jewish Chronicle Supplement, No. 122 (1931). G 85</page><page sequence="2">86 miscellanies in honour of e. n. adler 1756 he had to be dressed in the official garb.) An exception was, however, allowed only in the case of another accredited Chazan having Jahrzeit. During the last fifty or sixty years, one of the very few laymen who enjoyed the privilege of occupying the reading-desk at the Great Synagogue is our youthful octogenarian, to whom this book of Essays is presented, Mr. Elkan Nathan Adler, who reads Mincha and Maariv when observing Jahrzeit. The leaders of the Great Synagogue were at an early date awake to the potentialities of a " Good Chazan," but they never looked upon the Chazan as a mere luxury to be enjoyed on special Sabbaths or Festivals only, as was the practice in many congregations on the Continent; nor did they expect him to be merely a singer or Cantor (a title given in cathedrals and monastic churches to officials in charge of the music); the Chazanim of the Great Synagogue were obliged to attend synagogue and officiate on week-days, too, as it was con? sidered improper to receive payment for services rendered on Sabbath or on Holy Days. Moreover, they have invariably been men of proved ability and high character, and, having been invested with the status of a Minister of Religion (a status much envied abroad), have always taken their full share in the ministration to the religious needs and the general welfare of the congregation. The following Chazanim2 served the Great Synagogue during the two and a half centuries of its existence. Some are hardly known by name; others, however, left an indelible imprint on the pages of the liturgy and history of the Great Synagogue and their names will live for ever. 1690-1706. Jehuda Leib ben Moses of Lissa; 1706? Menachem Mendel; -1722. Joseph-; 1722-1750. Jechiel Michael ben Moses Joseph ; 1730- Samuel Hertz of Schwersenz ; 1746-1802. Itsik (Isaac) Polar of Holland. 2 Dr. Cecil Roth, in his History of the Great Synagogue, London, 1690-1940 (still, unfortunately, in manuscript), provides the names of the first three Chazanim, which he recovered from the earliest account-books and other scattered sources.</page><page sequence="3">THE CHAZANIM OF THE GREAT. SYNAGOGUE, LONDON 87 The Rev. Mr. Polak created a unique record by occupying the position at " Duke's Place "?as the Great Synagogue is commonly known?for fifty-six years. Apart from being a very competent Chazan, Polak had many accomplishments. A Prayer Book written by him on parchment is in the Jewish Museum; an engraving showing him clean shaven, with a white wig and a three-corner hat, etc., according to the fashion of the day, is preserved in the Board-room of the Great Synagogue. Polak's social standing may have warranted such an extravagant appearance, but not his income, which was then only ?62 per annum; the result obviously being that, so it is recorded, he fell into the hands of moneylenders, and, having been declared bankrupt, he was imprisoned just before the High Festivals. He was, however, ultimately released and his salary increased to ?j2 per annum. Isaac Polak was the Chazan under whom the popular vocalists Leoni (formerly Myer Lyon) and John Braham (formerly Abrahams) served as choristers. Incidentally, it may be appropriate here to dispel the impression that Leoni was Chazan at the Great Synagogue, the truth being that, after acting as a chorister at Duke's Place, Leoni became an opera singer of great fame. He appeared at Covent Garden and other theatres here and abroad. To his credit it is recorded that he remained an observing Jew and declined to appear on the stage on Friday evening and on Jewish Festivals. In his later years he re? turned to the Synagogue choir, and when in 1791 the German Congre? gation of Kingston, Jamaica, applied to the Great Synagogue for a suitable Chazan, Leoni was recommended and appointed; he died in Jamaica on November 6th, 1796. It is equally incorrect that Leoni was the composer of the popular tune of Yigdal for Friday evening. The truth is that the Yigdal was named after him from the circumstance that he supplied a copy of it to the Rev. Thomas Oliver, the hymn writer, who in 1770 together with the Rev. Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, paid a visit to the Great Synagogue. This visit is thus recorded in Wesley's Journal: " I was desirous to hear Mr. Leoni sing in the Jewish Syna? gogue. I never before saw a Jewish congregation behave so decendy.</page><page sequence="4">88 miscellanies in honour of e. n. adler Indeed the place is so solemn, that it might strike an awe upon those who have any thought of God." Oliver adapted the melody of Yigdal to the hymn, " God of Abraham Praise," and published it in 1781 as No. 601 in Hymns, Ancient and Modern for the services of the church. There is, however, no doubt whatsoever that the melody is of a much earlier date. 1814?1827. Myer Metz of Offenbach Political upheavals on the Continent, during which regular corres? pondence and travels were interrupted, caused an interregnum of twelve years between the death of Isaac Polak and the appointment of Myer Metz. The Committee were much relieved at having secured the services of what appeared to be the best available candidate for the post, and one of the honorary officers was empowered to find a house for the newly appointed Chazan and to furnish it for the sum not exceeding ^200. Metz was a generally beloved and respected official, and, when in 1827 he passed away, it was resolved : " That the funeral be conducted in the most respectful manner; 12 Mourning and 6 Hackney coaches be provided." 1815-1817. Nathan Solomon of Groningen Mr. Nathan Solomon was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of Chazan when Metz was elected in December, 1814, but, by re? quisition of a number of members, he was elected Second Reader. Thus the position of Second Reader was created and Solomon was the first to occupy this position. Unfortunately, the London fog affected his health and he had to relinquish his post after two years* service. He left the country, while the congregation undertook the care of his children. 1827-1829. Binom Heinich Eliassohn (Elias) of Darmstadt A condition of Mr. Elias' appointment was that he should bring with him a boy singer. He brought the fourteen-year-old Julius Mombach, who later became the famous composer and choir-director. Elias' tenure of office was also very short; he, too, had to resign his</page><page sequence="5">the chazanim of the great synagogue, london 89 post owing to failing health, resulting from a neglected chill. His son, who later became Director of Concerts at the Lyceum Theatre, made himself responsible for young Mombach's musical education. 1832?1871. Simon Ascher of Groningen Many candidates were tried for the post when the choice was made in favour of Simon Ascher. A contemporary writer records that44 the disappointed candidates were not sent away empty handed. The Great Synagogue had always a great reputation for the liberality and generosity with which it treated its officials, high and low." Ascher had a fine tenor voice and was known as the 44 Chazan par excellence" He was associated with the first efforts at organising a regular choir at the Great Synagogue. Formerly the only approach to a choir in Ashkenazi Synagogues consisted of two persons who aided the Chazan, one being the singer and the other the bass. The Committee, in carrying out a Resolution passed some years prior to Ascher's appointment, requested him to select several youths to undergo training. The Resolution ran: 44 That it would be the means of promoting true piety, and most essential to the interest of the rising generation of the Jews, if a certain number of young men were to be trained and educated so as to render them capable of filling the situation of Chazan." In 1841, Mombach, who was already recognised as a composer of Synagogue melodies, was appointed to instruct the young men in singing and to conduct the choir. But the hope of producing 44 home-grown " Chazanim has been deferred to this day. Ascher tendered his resignation in 1870, the year of the foundation of the United Synagogue. On November 2nd, 1870/5631, the follow? ing notice was published in the Jewish Chronicle: United Synagogue The following Resolution was unanimously adopted at a meeting of the Committee, pro tern., of the Great Synagogue held on October 31st, 1870. " That the Committee of the Great Synagogue in accepting the Resignation by the Rev. Simon Ascher of the post of first Reader of</page><page sequence="6">90 miscellanies in honour of e. n. adler the Great Synagogue, which he has held for the long period of thirty nine years, desires publicly to record their high sense of the talent and ability with which he has fulfilled the arduous duties of his important office, and to testify their gratitude for services which in no small degree have contributed to create for the Synagogue the position it has the honour to hold in the Community. The Committee pray that the Almighty may vouchsafe to Mr. Ascher in his well-merited retirement the blessing of a happy old age, cheered by the recollection of the respect, esteem and affection of his congregants, to whom he has become endeared by the charm and power of his sacred ministration. " (Signed) A. Asher, Secretary" The Rev. Mr. Ascher was the younger brother of the Kabronim Rabbi, Benjamin Henry Ascher, author of an English edition of the Boo\ of Life and other works. His daughter, Mrs. Floretta Vanne, of Colchester, a lady over eighty years of age, informs me that Simon Ascher had two daughters and one son. Flora, who had a magnifi? cent colloratura-soprano voice, married an Australian banker, Moses Fink or Finck, a close relative of the late Rev. Jacob Fink of Birming? ham; Bella, a good contralto, married Senor Bensabat, Vice-Consul of Portugal; and Joseph was private pianist and conductor to the Empress Eugenie of France. He resided at the Tuilleries, and is best remembered in England by his composition " Alice?where art thou? " He died in England. Ascher's grandson was the noted lawyer and newspaper proprietor of Melbourne, the Hon. Theodor Fink; one of Ascher's grand? daughters was married to Mr. Samuel Leon, LL.B., late Crown Prosecutor for the State of Victoria, Australia; a daughter of Mrs. Leon's brother, who married a Christian, is the wife of the Rajah of Pudukkota, and his son-and-heir is, therefore, of Jewish-Christian Hindu extraction. Thus the future Rajah of Pudukkota will be the great-great-grandson of a Chazan of Duke's Place Synagogue. What a remarkable instance of assimilation! 1851-1854. Aaron Levy Green A. L. Green was a precocious English-born Chazan and Preacher. At the age of fourteen he was allowed to conduct a service at the</page><page sequence="7">the chazanim of the great synagogue, london 0,1 Great Synagogue and he made a deep impression by his fine voice and his knowledge of the liturgy. When seventeen years of age he was appointed Minister-Reader of the Bristol congregation. In 1851, at the age of thirty, he was elected Second Reader of the Great Syna? gogue, and in 1854 he was elected to the Branch Synagogue at Great Portland Street, where his forceful personality found ample oudet for his great talents as Reader and Preacher, though he was often severely criticised for his " extreme liberal-mindedness." The Rev. Mr. Green took a leading part in the foundation of Jews' College, to which institution he left his valuable library of Judaica and Hebraica. Green was the uncle of a no less popular Minister-Reader of our time, the late Rev. A. A. Green of the Hampstead Synagogue. 1857-1876. Moses Keizer of The Hague The Rev. Mr. Keizer was a highly qualified " all-round " man. Apart from being a most competent Chazan, Baal Keriah and Baal Tekia, Keizer also acted as Secretary of the Synagogue. As an ardent social worker he was prominently associated with the foundation of the Jewish Board of Guardians, being its first Superintendent. It is due to Keizer's efforts that the beautiful music of Mombach, which he collected and edited, has been preserved to posterity. 1872?1911. Marcus Hast of Breslau If ever there lived a Chazan who was admired and revered by everyone, and who inspired his congregation not by vocal feats of virtuosity, but by deep piety, extreme refinement of manner and by strict adherence to tradition, it was Marcus Hast. A native of Warsaw, Hast held a position in Breslau when he re? ceived the invitation for a trial service at the Great Synagogue. His trial was a triumph. He not only carried away the large audience with his fine voice and dignified rendering of the service: he also impressed the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Nathan Marcus Adler, to such an extent that, when after the Friday evening service Mr. Nathaniel de Rothschild (later the first Lord Rothschild) asked him for his opinion, he replied: " His Hebrew is too good." Hast very soon</page><page sequence="8">02 miscellanies in honour of e. n. adler revealed himself to be a profound Hebrew scholar and a purist as far as both the Hebrew language and the Hebrew music were con? cerned. In his monumental work Avodath Ha\odesh, which comprises almost all the musical traditions of the Great Synagogue, apart from Hast's own compositions, he pleaded for pure Jewish music for the synagogue. 1888-1919. Abraham Elijahu Gordon Although a pupil of the famous travelling Chazan 44 Shaiki " Feinsinger, Mr. Gordon was a cultured Chazan of German style. His voice was of extraordinary compass and great sonority. His passion for music was unbounded, and attracted to his house not only many Chazanim and aspirants, but a host of vocalists. At one time he was interested in a choral society in which he discovered Philip Brozel, for whom he obtained training which led him to Covent Garden as a principal in opera. Many musical prodigies were brought to him and several, through the instrumentality of the Education Aid Society, gained distinction. Mr. Gordon was an indefatigable worker in charitable and com? munal causes, and his house in the East End was a veritable centre of useful activities. He was the father of remarkable children. His eldest son, Samuel, became a popular novelist and held the office of Secretary of the Great Synagogue for a long period; his second son, " H. H.," was a railway engineer in India and, for many years, after his return, became a member of the Stepney Borough Council, of the London County Council for Whitechapel, and of the Board of Management of the Great Synagogue. His eldest daughter is the wife of Rabbi Dr. Moses Hyamson, former Dayan in London, now of New York; and another daughter, Gertrude, was the wife of Mr. M. J. Landa, journalist, with whom she collaborated in writing several novels and a few plays, besides gaining a reputation of her own as " Aunt Naomi" by a children's column in the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish World, and by publishing two volumes of Jewish Fairy Tales.</page><page sequence="9">the chazanim of the great synagogue, london 93 1913-1930. Abraham Katz The election of the Rev. Mr. Katz to the Readership at the Great Synagogue followed a lively contest in which the only opposing candidate was Chazan David Steinberg of Odessa, Russia. It was, however, not a struggle of two equal candidates, but a conflict be? tween two schools of thought. The so-called " foreign " elements in the congregation fought keenly for Steinberg, who was unquestion? ably a Chazan of great attainments. He seemed, as it were, to take heaven and the congregation by storm; technically, no doubt, a re? markable feat, but ethically and aesthetically a little starding to people born and educated in this country. To these people Steinberg's service appeared to be nothing more than an artistic performance. Mr. Katz, on the other hand, although born and brought up in Russia, had, through holding positions in Tirnau, near Vienna, and at Am? sterdam, acquired the Western polish which he skilfully combined with the touching pathos and exuberance of Russia, with which he so much impressed the then Hon. Officers of the Great Synagogue. Mr. Katz had a tenor voice of moving beauty, and, in his rendering of the service, he was never pompous, but subtle and free from fuss; he hardly moved his features, and his demeanour revealed devotion and dignity. It must, however, be acknowledged that a great deal of Katz' success was due to the co-operation he had of that master of melody and contrapoint, Mr. Samuel Alman, then Choirmaster at the Great Synagogue, though Mr. Alman himself admitted to have found in Katz an admirable interpreter of his music, which he specially wrote for the Great Synagogue. As a result of this collaboration of Chazan and choir the services at the Great Synagogue reached a musical standard I never heard anywhere else, and no wonder it attracted such large congregations. 1921- . Hermann Mayerowitsch As the writer of this Essay, I must necessarily leave it to others to give an account of my work, extending now over a period of more than twenty years, as Reader of the Great Synagogue.</page><page sequence="10">94 miscellanies in honour of e. n. adler 1932-1937. Jacob Rivilis Mr. Rivilis came from a small Roumanian congregation, and, without even being one of the candidates for the office, " he came, sang, and conquered." This meteoric success he owed to his pleasant and flexible voice. But his physique proved unequal to the exacting duties of his position, and he was forced to resign after five years. He returned to his native country, where he died shortly after. 1937? . Simcha Kusevitsky Mr. Kusevitsky is the third of four brothers who are Chazanim of renown. Prior to his being offered the post at the Great Synagogue he held positions at Rovno, Poland, in Glasgow, and at the Stoke Newington Synagogue, London. His reputation as a Chazan was well founded, for, apart from his natural gift of a voluminous tenor voice of wide range and a rare musical soul, he possesses the traditional Chazanic instinct and temperament to a very high degree, coupled with a charming personality. Moreover, being still under forty years of age, there is yet a long period in front of him to distinguish himself in the service of the Great Synagogue, which, we pray and trust, may speedily rise again from its ruins as a symbol of the return of a tumultuous world to order and peace, to the glory of God and the honour of humanity.</page></plain_text>