Abba Yosef Weisgal

Abba Yosef Weisgal (1885-1981)

Abba Yosef Weisgal (1885-1981)

In the relatively provincial and culturally laid-back cultural atmosphere of Baltimore early in the last century, it may be assumed that the abbreviated  services of neighboring Reform temples exerted  a subtle pressure on the worship at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, the synagogue where Abba Yosef Weisgal served as hazzan from 1920 to 1974. Born in Kikol, northwestern Poland, to a family that had produced cantors for generations, in his late teens he traveled to Vienna to study both opera and hazzanut. These two genres of music were not so separated then; the great cantor-composers in 19th-century Vienna Staatsoper as a 19-year-old standee in 1905, had incorporated into their own work the sounds they heard in theaters, concert halls and churches (whose free recitals were open to one and all). Salomon Sulzer, Oberkantor at the Stadttempel from 1826 to 1882, had commissioned Schubert to set Psalms for the choir. When Abba Yosef attended the opera in Vienna (as a standee), he watched Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss conduct.

Weisgal arrived in the United States in 1920 and was shortly engaged as full-time cantor by the German-founded Chizuk Amuno congregation, one that he later described as being “Orthodox, yet Modern.”1  Chiefly, it managed to keep the duration of traditional worship within reasonable bounds; the time strictures normally associated with weekday chapel services, often recited by only a required quorum of ten adults, now penetrated the leisurely ritual of the Days of Awe.2   Worship was increasingly being curtailed on these most holy occasions  even though they were attended by a thousand or more Jews primed to undergo an intense and prolonged religious experience.3  The trend towards shortening these formerly grand services was socially inspired, and had no basis in the economics of survival. It was prompted by the overwhelming desire of an immigrant group to submerge its own culture into the dominant religious pattern of its adopted land–Protestantism– hence  a shorter worship service.4

The already established Reform movement had presented itself as “American Judaism,” implying that the ideals of America and Judaism were one.5  To varying degrees each individual synagogue was enticed by this appealing equation of external political freedom with internal religious freedom. The time seemed ripe for every community to choose its own variant of the newly transplanted Judaism, a veritable American ritual: Minhag Amerika.6  Outer differences were cast aside: modes of dress along with modes of chant. The hazzan was turned around to face the congregation so that services might be conducted in Protestant fashion.7

When Chizuk Amuno joined the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1947, a compromise was made in Weisgal’s case; he could face the Holy Ark when leading prayer, but had to read from the Torah scroll (among his cantorial duties for many years) facing the congregation. Where he drew the line was at the number of keva (Statutory) texts to be recited. He insisted upon retaining them all, including the special poetic insertions (piyyutim and s’lihot) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In order to leave room for the congregation’s cherished repertoire of featured choral compositions —introduced gradually by Abba over the 27 years he’d been there–Abba Weisgal relied upon rapid  psalmody as his primary chant-medium

This technique enlists a psalmodic (i.e., linear–as opposed to motivic) contour, the latter approach being more typical of Yossele Rosenblatt’s word-by-word musical explication of the Tahanun passage, Aheinu kol beit yisra’eil, for example, recorded during the First World War when Jewish communities in Poland found themselves in great peril. Working on the rim of ‘the Melting Pot that was New York City, then the epicenter of ‘Star Cantor’ activity, this modern-minded yet Old School hazzan—possessing an unusually pliable operatic baritone voice with tenor-like brightness in its upper register– arrived at an efficient recitative-like formula for preserving the continuum of Ashkenazic prayer chant in the partially assimilated American Conservative synagogue.

Weisgal never referred to what his habitual prayer chant as “Hebrew psalmody,” but that is exactly what emerged. Its notated documentation  was later preserved by his one-time  Assistant Cantor, Joseph Levine,  as the musical part of a doctoral dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary, entitled Emunat Abba. The 409 pages of transcription were published in 2006 by the Cantors Assembly, which also produced a CD of Hazzan Weisgal and the male choir of Chizuk Amuno Congregation performing live excerpts from many of the prayers transcribed in the book. Both the book and the CD are available from the Cantors Assembly (caoffice@aol.com ).

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 1. Weisgal’s first rabbi in Baltimore, Adolph Coblenz, periodically exchanged pulpits with neighboring Reform rabbis William Rosenau of Oheb Shalom and Richard Israel of Har Sinai (Baltimore Jewish Times, Nov. 4, 1930; 34; December 5, 1930: 32).2. Yamim Nora’im, a term first used by the Maharil (R. Jacob Moellin, 1365-1427); Kieval, p. 204.

3. Heilman, Synagogue Life (Chicago: Univeristy of  Chicago Press), 1976: 214. “Kavvanah, that feeling of worshipful devotion and involvement is rarely allowed ultimate exhibition… Such enthrallment is allowed and indeed expected during the Days of Awe… For all participants the prayers are longer, the singing more frequent, the time spent in shul protracted… The atmosphere proclaims itself as different through its special rituals, recognition of time and modification of liturgy.”

4. Moshe Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society), 1965: 6, 8. “Protestant thought and forms invariably affected the organizational structure and activity of other faiths in America… Any Jewish group was free to set up its own congregation as it saw fit, without giving thought to the congregations that preceded it. Above all, the new congregations did not fear interference from the organized Jewish community or from the government, as might be the case in Europe.”

5.  Ibid. pp. 1-12.

6. Title of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s Reform prayerbook, named after the Viennese community’s Unity Prayerbook (Einheitsgebetbuch) of 1840, edited by Rabbi Isaac Noah Mannheimer.

7. Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism (New York: Schocken Books), 1972: 92. “If the form of the service is to be revised… it must be the rabbi [who] is the obvious choice to discharge this responsibility; it is his counterpart in the Protestant Church who conducts the service.” At the time this Conservative opinion held sway for the rest of the movement (ca. 1946), Weisgal’s synagogue was still viewed as Orthodox and its services were led by the hazzan, according to all reports.

8. Currently serving as Editor for The Journal of Synagogue Music.

With grateful thanks to Cantor Joe Levine for permission to reprint this article from the The Journal of Synagogue Music.
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