The Cantor of the Town

by Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

Cantorial issues never affected the town. There was never any need to advertise prior to the High Holy Days that they were searching for a qualified cantor for the Musaf services, as was the case in many other town where the issues surrounding cantors took a very important place.
Reb Eliezer the cantor of the town was a “Cantor” in the full sense of the word. He served as the prayer leader in the Great Beis Midrash and was the cantor of the masses of people in the town, of all of the artisans, merchants, and workshop owners who were not of Hassidic extraction and who had worshipped for generations in the Great Beis Midrash in accordance with the Ashkenazic prayer rite. He was especially the cantor of hundreds of pious women who on the High Holy Days all looked similar to each other, like cherubs with their white, shiny, clear clothing. These were pure and sincere women, who never turned their attention to differences of opinions and the opposing views of Hassidim and Misnagdim, or between the Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Chabad, and Arizal prayer rites. It was the woven prayer of a Jewish woman coming from her heart.

In the women's balcony, which was like a large gallery of pillars that occupied half of the space of the Beis Midrash, all of the women of the town gathered together in one unit, or more accurately – with one heart. There worshipped the wives of the Hassidim and Misnagdim, of the Zionists and Agudists, of the Aleksandrow and Gur Hassidim. When on occasion the modern elements recommended bringing a modern cantor for the High Holy Days, a cantor who knew how to sing with a choir, who worse a tall, velvet hat and held a tuning fork in his hands – the Gabbaim (trustees) of the synagogue would push aside this suggestion immediately, without bringing it to deliberation. For it was sufficient for these Gabbaim to hear the enthusiastic opinion of these women about the prayers of Reb Eliezer, which they found to grow more meaningful and sweeter every year, in order to push aside any recommendation of this nature.
The songs and melodies of Reb Eliezer the Cantor were the topic of the day among all that came to the Great Synagogue on the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Reb Eliezer was not a “Prayer leader” like Reb Shaul Tzvi in the synagogue of the Gur Hassidim, Reb Jeszaja of the synagogue of the Aleksandrow Hassidim, Reb Baruch the teacher in the synagogue of the Sokolow Hassidim, Reb Jankel Wibitker in “Chevra Mishnayos” or the other prayer leaders of the Hassidic prayer halls of the town. He was called “Reb Eliezer the Cantor” and that was fitting for him. His manner of standing at the prayer podium, his motions and enthusiastic melodies, as well as his clear, fine voice – all of these gave him the character of an experienced, professional cantor. I can still remember the unique image of his face, as if he stands alive before my eyes: He was of average height. He had a dark beard that was divided into two sections. The edges of the sections had turned silver, as if they were singed by the flame of advancing age. His cheeks were thin and sunken, which made his high, wide forehead stand out even further. His eyes were always raised upward, so that your gaze would never meet his. He could chat with you for hours without gazing directly at you with his eyes. He always made the impression on everyone that he had a special relationship with Heaven, a certain soulful attraction.

He occupied himself with his profession all the days of the year – or to be more specific, his wife and daughters worked at their profession – the baking of black rye. This bakery was called by his name: the Bakery of Reb Eliezer, even though he himself did not know how to place dough into a bucket.

His only occupation was to assist from time to time some sort of good deed in order to ease the burden upon some person. He spent the rest of his time in the Hassidic synagogue or in the Beis Midrash in front of an open book, as he silently hummed heartwarming melodies. He was always engrossed in thought. When he walked along the way, when he was standing, when he was sitting with a book, his thoughts always enveloped him completely. He always seemed like one who was caught in a place that was not his own, as if he was a wanderer in a strange place. For what was the purpose of all of the days and nights of the year, when it was impossible to pour himself out before the podium with prayers and supplications to the Holy One Blessed Be He, and to express the feelings of the heart and soul with such heartwarming and awe-inspiring hymns?
Indeed, this was the nature of Reb Eliezer the Cantor. It was as if his soul was created on the six days of creation for the sole purpose of the prayers on the High Holy Days, and the purpose of his life was only for those pleasant Musaf services that he performed with his voice in the town. Therefore, his life throughout the year was like a life lacking in content. Only as the High Holy Days neared, when Aharon the Shamash announced on Friday night his traditional announcement that on Saturday night at midnight, the Selichot service would take place, did the fire of life burn n the eyes of Reb Eliezer. His eyes appeared as burning coals.
To what is this similar? It is like a fish that is taken out of water, that flutters about and struggles bitterly as it does not have a drop of water to breathe. At the moment that it is returned to the water, it turns immediately into a new creature, influenced with pleasant, effervescent life.
Those days, the days of Selichot and the Ten Days of Penitence, were to him like the source of living waters, clear, fresh water, which restored his soul to its full life. Then, all of the melodies and tunes that were hidden away all year in the recesses of his heart were reawakened, and began to break out.

During those days, when he sat in his home, when he ate his meals, when he walked around the streets looking for a good deed to perform, one could hear from his mouth the pleasant melody of a hymn or a prayer. This was a sort of practice, a preparation for the High Holy Days, when the tune would break out with its full strength and sweetness.
Reb Eliezer did not conduct himself like other cantors, who would practice for many weeks with a choir prior to the High Holy Days, in order that the prayers should sound “just so”. He did not follow this pattern. He would say, “A cantor does not perform tricks. He has to prepare his heart, and the tunes and melodies would come out properly.”
The impression of those High Holy Days is still etched deep inside of me. The synagogue was filled to the brim, especially on Yom Kippur when even the “barber”, the only Sabbath desecrator in the city, was not missing. All of the worshippers were dressed in festive clothing. Meir and Binyumche, the two well-known water drawers whose characteristic pictures were publicized by the American “gazettes”, were seated next to the western table. Behind them were the porters and wagon drivers, who used to worship at the early Minyan, before sunrise, throughout the year. The women of the town peered through the windows of the women's gallery at the large congregation and the cantor standing next to the podium like a conductor. The cantor was standing there, his face like an angel, covered in his white Kitel and his Tallis that was decorated with many silver decorations. He was assisted by his two sons. He supplicated, sang pleasant melodies and poured out his prayers as an emissary of the congregation standing before the Holy One Blessed Be He.

Reb Eliezer composed new, original tunes for “Kevakarat”, and “Heyey Im Pipiyot”, etc. The congregation of worshippers reached the peak of emotion as he recited the hymn “Eleh Ezkera Venafshi Elay Esphecha”, whose theme is the Ten Martyrs of the Roman Government. His voice was soft or was weeping as he poured out his heart to all of the themes described in the moving words. The men and women of the congregation wept together with him.

Reb Eliezer was weak by nature. His shriveled and lean body always suffered from various ailments. Nevertheless, despite the fact that he poured out his entire essence and blood in his prayers, the High Holy Days were to him the source of health and strength. It was as if he did not live throughout the year except for the merit of these days.
Reb Eliezer's tenure lasted for tens of years without interruption. Throughout those years, he bestowed the best of his melodies, enchanting tunes and heartwarming singing upon our townsfolk, until that bitter and violent day when they were all brought to slaughter and buried in a large communal grave. Then Reb Eliezer the Cantor perished as well, may G-d avenge his death, and his voice was silenced forever.