“What is chazanus?” asked my ainikle.
“Have you ever heard of Yossele Rosenblatt?” I responded.
He shrugged his shoulders – a gesture meaning ich vais nisht (I don’t know). I then wondered whether others had the same response, and found out that many people know little or nothing about chazanus. I therefore decided to educate them, beginning in my own backyard, so to speak. I asked my ainikle to listen to a vintage recording made by Chazan Rosenblatt singing, “Achainu Kol Bais Yisroel – Our Brothers the House of Israel,” a prayer pleading to Hashem for rachmanus (compassion) on the Jewish people.
Before listening to the recording, we reviewed the translation of the prayer, which is located in the siddur (daily morning prayers, after the return of the Torah to the ark). We followed the translation as Chazan Rosenblatt chanted the tune. I believe it made a meaningful impression on my ainikle‘s understanding and feeling for the prayer. I then gave him a biography of Cantor Rosenblatt, written by his son Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt. Hopefully, in the future, when he hears the name of Yossele Rosenblatt, he will appreciate his beautiful chazanus.
Googling our Way to Chazanus
Chazanus was very popular in Europe and America. Many of our parents and grandparents listened to them and their recordings, enthralled – and also enjoyed arguing about who was best! I would like to describe several popular chazanim of yesteryear. You can “google” their biographies and read about their lives. You can also listen to them on YouTube. You will have a spiritual uplifting, guaranteed! So often, we speed through prayers and feel we are yotzeh (covered), so to speak. A chazan can help change our feelings toward the prayer being chanted; our comprehension of the tefila will increase, as well.
Nu, you may ask, “Who was the greatest chazan?” That is a question that has been debated for many years. A better question may be which chazan’s presentation of the prayer enhances your connection to the Ribono Shel Olam. So, let’s review the chazanim, and after listening to a recording by each, you can determine for yourself whether the chazan touched your heartstrings.
Cantor Josef Rosenblatt was affectionately known as Yossele. He was born in 1882 in the Ukraine. Cantor Rosenblatt sang the tefilos, and every melody is oysehr-gehvenlich (outstanding). Amazingly, the beauty of his renditions remains, even though the recording instruments were in their early stage. He also composed many of the tunes he sang.
Interestingly one of his Yiddish presentations is an early Zionist tune entitled “Aheim, Aheim, Briderlach Aheim – Home, Home, Brothers, Home,” written by Josef Rosenstein. The melody encourages aliyah (moving to Eretz Yisrael) and was written when anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe. (And when wasn’t it rampant? you may ask.) Here are some translated lines of the song. (You can actually observe a film of him singing the tune on YouTube!)
Please lend me your ear, so what I say you will hear.
I know that you have suffered lately, and need assistance greatly,
So let me prescribe your medicine. The relief it brings is sure,
It will help you in your anguish, and will make your heartache vanish,
This is not a jest: Do as I suggest.”
A home, a home, dear brothers, a home!
For near 2,000 years the earth did we roam,
Now at least a roof they offer, no more need to roam and suffer!
A home, oh brothers dear, a home!
An independent nation resting under its own dome.
A home, a place of rest, in your own little nest.
Remember, Israel, brother, don’t forget
Its soil and bracing air will make you strong and fair.
Carmel wine on all tables will be set, not to speak of all the honor
Men will pay in Israel’s banner, and no longer order him around.
Aheim briderlach aheim!”
The melody encouraged many Yidden to reevaluate their situation in galus, and many made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. (And, as the song goes, “Yetst izz dee tseit! – Now is the time!”
Moshe Koussevitsky was born in Smorgan, Vilna, in 1899. He became a chazan at a very early age, singing in Vilna and Warsaw synagogues, and in 1939, he narrowly escaped from the Nazi beasts. In 1947, he migrated to the United States.
My father and I had the privilege of attending one of Cantor Koussevitsky’s concerts, which took place in the Beth Tefiloh synagogue when it was located on Garrison Blvd. We sat in the balcony of the beautiful shul, and when Chazan Koussevitsky appeared, he requested the removal of the microphones – something that never occurs today! Voss kehn ich deer zogen (what can I tell you)? He sang a tune entitled “Akavia ben Mahalalel” (Pirkei Avos 3), which ends with the words that, one day we will face Hashem Melech Malchai Hamlachim (G-d) for a reckoning! As he ended the tune, his upper register was unbelievable, and the impact of the words and tone made us tsitter (tremble)!
Cantor Zaval Kwartin was born in the Ukraine in 1874. He became a legendary chazan in his youth. In addition to his fabulous voice, he composed various Judaic tunes – uncomplicated and to the point. Most chazanim were tenors, but cantor Kwartin had a unique baritone voice that reached above the baritone musical range. Cantor Kwartin’s rendition of “Tiher Rabbi Yishmoel Atzmo,” recited on Yom Kippur, is outstanding, as we feel the tsar (suffering) and the martyrdom of Rabbi Yishmoel and of the Jewish people. His rendition of this liturgy makes a strong impression on the listeners.
Cantor Leibele Waldman was born in New York City. (Hurrah for the U.S.A.) He was a child prodigy who began his cantorial life at the age of nine. One of his most famous tunes was “Der Amoliker Yid – The Jew of Yesteryear.” He was a lyric baritone and often sounded like a tenor. “Der AmolikerYid” is a fabulous tune that highlights his cantorial skill. Here are the words:
Where is the Jew of yesteryear?
He would arise with the sun each new day for the rebirth of his soul and spirit.
For he truly understood the gift of life
And how to ensure his days on earth by his gratitude to G-d.
Another day…another chance to renew your covenant with the G-d of Israel.
Cantor Sholom Katz was born in Romania and was proclaimed a child prodigy at the age of five. He developed into a superb cantor and sang in various shuls until the German chaiyess (animals) took charge of the nation. He was sent to a concentration camp, where he was scheduled for execution. Sholom made a plea to be able to chant the “Kel Molei Rachamin” for those who had already been murdered. Hearing his beautiful voice, the commandant told him, “Vanish Jew; a voice such as yours should not be stilled.” He fled into the forest. Cantor Katz arrived in America in 1950 and became one of the top cantors in the world. The Kel Molei Rachamim for the Holocaust kedoshim is a prayer never to be forgotten.
Ah klal (to sum up), the role of the chazan leading the prayers is comparable to that of the violin in an orchestra. The beautiful expressive notes of the violin yield an aura of sublime emotion. Similarly, a chazan’s rendition of a prayer pulls us out of the everyday world and transports us to a peak of emotion and kavanah (sincerity).