Baruch Leib Rosowsky

Baruch Leib Rosowsky1841-1919

Baruch Leib Rosowsky

This great Lithuanian Chazan was born in the township of Nalibak, in the Province of Vilna. He came from a musical background: his father, Reb Hershel (cashier to the famous Friedland Brothers, the entrepreneurs of St. Petersburg), was a talented Baal-T’fillah, and his grandfather, Reb Shiomo Nalibaker frequently surprised his hearers with his dramatic tenor. Baruch Leib, like so many Lithuanian and Polish youngsters, spent his early years as a ‘Cheder Yingel’. and even as a young lad enchanted a Talmudical luminary with his musical prowess and he bewitched the Gaon with his youthful, clear soprano voice.In accordice with common practice, Baruch Leib served an apprenticeship as a ‘Yeshiva Bachur’ in Lithuanian Yeshivot. His father wished him to follow in his steps into commerce, but he was not gifted in that direction, and it was decided that he should train for a Chazan. Under the aegis of the Friedlands, Baruch Leib’s family reluctantly permitted him to audition before the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, Anton Rubinstein. This great musician was amazed at Baruch Leib’s phenomenal natural colorature and fine lyrical voice. Baruch Leib was to be the first Jewish student in the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, in an overtly anti-semitic atmosphere; contemporary with him was Tchaikovsky (then studying composition under his Professor Zaremba). All were friends of the ultra-orthodox Jew, clad in his ‘Jewish long garb’.

Baruch Leib studied singing and composition, and was soon popular enough to give concerts, under the championship of Rubinstein. He sang once in the Royal Palace, before a Grand Duchess. There were the usual difficulties over the ‘dietary laws’, and Baruch Leib mysteriously disappeared from the audience!

In order to learn the various “Shteigers” of C’hazanut, Baiuch Leib visited in the ’70’s of the 19th century, both Hirsh Weinraub (1811-1881) at Konigsherg, and Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890) in Vienna. He was most industrious in the studio of Weintraub, who revealed (in correspondence) that Baruch Leib fulfilled his compositions better than himself, and envisaged a glorious future for his pupil.

This prophecy was manifest in great measure. Baruch Leib was not only to become the greatest interpreter of Weintraub’s compositions. but the enthusiaatic exponent of the work of other great synagogue precentors. an exceptional executant of the original prayers of a series of great spiritual composers, taking great care with their depth and magnificence of form.

The recitative Nussach of Baruch Leib emerged as a freely flowing melodic form of a high standard: primarily imbued with the spirit of folks-melody and a highly interesting rhythm both these elements, and their conjunction with polished declamatory accents, and the contents of their texts, emphasised the highly developed feeling for form, cultivated in the ‘European-musical tradition’, mostly in the symphonic style.

Baruch Leib was eventually ‘called’ to the newly constructed ‘Choir-Shul’ of Riga (the 3rd seaport of Russia, 350 miles south west of St. Petersburg ), where he served almost without interruption for 48 years. He declined requests for his services from many of the Russian Jewish Communities, and devoted his time to synagogue-service, composition, Torah (he was a talmudical scholar) and secular education, with a bias towards ‘natural sciences’.

Baruch Leib was deeply involved in Talmudic studies, and would spend hours debating with the many luminaries who visited him. His ever searching nature, however, drove him to a serious study of science, and science students, visiting his beautiful daughter, dreaded the searching queries which he put to them. He was also interested in astronomy, and would search the heavens incessantly, insisting that ‘people were not animals, one needed to know what was happening in the universe’. Whenever there was a star-lit night, he would delight in seeking out ‘The Great Bear’ and various comets, and was as competent in that field as he was in ‘Ashrei’.

In spite of his fame, Baruch Leib was not interested in ‘Kavod’, and when his pupils, who included Joseph Schwartz and Herman Jadlovker, begged him to give recitals, he refused. To our great loss, he also categorically rejected recordings, even when implored to do so by many recording companies.

Notwithstanding his great adherence to “Yiddishkeit” Baruch Leib was an exceptionally tolerant person, and managed to find a good word for everyone. His typically sharp Jewish humour and wisdom were a delight to all who came into contact with him. Again, there is no photograph clear enough for reproduction here, but a photograph taken in his latter years shows him a a dignified personality with a square greying beard, and with a velvet biretta (a ‘Kappel’ with a large crown would be a better description) upon his head. He died at age of 78 in 1919.


David Eisenstadt (1890-1942), the great Choirmaster, who was later to become choir-leader of the famous T’lomazka Synagogue of Warsaw, worked in Riga between 1912-16. He then left for Rostov-on-Don, eventually arriving in Warsaw in 1921.  Writing in 1934, Eisenstadt remarked on Baruch Leib’s approach to ‘Haskallah’ which not only affected his own particular type of Chazanut, but also his correspondence. Baruch Leib would perform Wemtraub’s recitatives with depth and perception. Eisenstadt lamented that he had not heard Baruch Leib in his youth, but in his later years, each recitative was masterful: every trill and the coloratures were always clear and full of charm. He frequently met Baruch Leib at orchestral concerts, demonstrating his interest in secular music, and stated that he had rarely met a Chazan with such an appreciation of European Musicians.


He gave only two concerts during his lifetime; characteristically for the benefit of his fellow Jews. When a terrible famine struck the town of Samara (European Russia, 656 miles east-south-east of Moscow by rail, on the Volga’s left bank), the local governor instituted a concert, and Baruch Leib’s enormous success was greatly appreciated by the local authorities. The second concert was to aid the “Red Cross”, and he was awarded a document of appreciation from which the ‘cross’ had been omitted.

Asked why he did not publish his own compositions. he replied that it was not difficult to publish, but a much pcer achievement to write…

An old Chazan of Riga, Reb Isaac Rapaport, related that on a visit to Odesaa, he had heard the local Chazanim, and noted with surprise that none of them sang compositions by Solomon Weintraub (1781-1829), the father of Z’vi Hirsh. When he asked, he was laughed to scorn. On returning, he mentioned this anomaly to Baruch Leib, who replied in typical vein: ‘Have you ever been in a butcher’s shop and seen that under a rail of sausages, a dog barked continually? That is not to say that the sausages are not to the dog’s taste, but that they hang too high for him to reach. This is the reason for the disdain of the Chazanim of Odessa – they cannot attain such height !’

The great Abraham Moshe Bernstein, writing of his first introduction to Baruch Leib, was hoping to become his choir-leader at about 1890. Baruch Leib was, at that time, visiting the Chazan of Minsk. He was later to learn that Baruch Leib had asked the Minsker Chazan’s opinion of Bernstein, which was obviously favourable. Baruch Leib addressed Bernstein: ‘I am Rosowsky, Chazan of Riga. and invite you to be good enough to visit me’. This took place in the synagogue, and their conversation was noted with great interest by the worshippers. Baruch Leib would not discuss ‘business’ during a synagogue service, but subsequently told Bernstein that he had noted that he was a ‘M’nagen’. Would he care to serve him as choir-leader?

Bernstein accepted with alacrity, since Baruch Leib’s name was famed both in the Chazanic and secular worlds. Bernstein recalled an exceptionally fine-looking man with a ‘Hadrat Panim’, with both an aristocratic and ‘Ruach Hakodesh’ mien.

Baruch Leib Rosowsky was exceptionally proficient in his recitatives he possessed rich faculties of fantasy and improvisation which were both musical and beautifully imbued; they were elegantly phrased and impeccably delivered, and he emerged as inimitable in his art.

(Originally published in the Cantors’ Review, May 1979)