Berl Gottlieb’s cantorial career commenced at Ackerman when his famous father died at the early age of forty seven years having collapsed on the bima whilst singing Av Harachamim. In all, Beryl served four congregations during his thirty seven years as cantor, his other positions before coming to Newcastle being at Sadagora in Austria and Ungvar in Hungary.
Born in the year 1879 in Elizawetgrad, Ukraine, Ben joined his father’s choir when only six years of age and at the age of ten accompanied his father on his travels all over Russia. Ben had a remarkable soprano voice. It is said that when Yitzhak Elhanan Spector, the celebrated Rabbi of Kovno heard Berl sing, he said; “although the rabbis forbid us to hear the voice of a woman, the Almighty has endowed Jacob’s son with such a voice and it is permitted to enjoy such singing.” And he blessed him.
Berl married Anua Ziatman in 1902 and when Russian pogroms were ripe in 1905 the Jews being blamed for Russ
ia’s defeat by Japan – they left Russia and arrived in Sadagora. Their first son was born in Ackerman and two more sons and a daughter were born in Sadagora.
In the year 1909 Cantor Berl Gottlieb was appointed Chazan Rishon to the congregation in Ungvar, Hungary, the birthplace of Solomon Ganzfried author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. A fourth son was born here in the UK. He remained in Ungvar for thirteen years and was highly respected and greatly admired in the area. Berl was a st
aunch Zionist yet respected even by so called anti-Zionists who would declare; “If all Zionists were like Oberkantor Gottlieb, there would be no opposition to Zionism”.
In 1922 Berl intended emigrating to America, but whilst on a concert tour in Britain was persuaded to accept the vacant position to the Old Hebrew Congreation, Leazes Park Road, Newcastle, the Executive having been tipped off that an outstanding chazan was in the neighbouring town of Sunderland for the weekend. His family came over some six months later and were received with great reception in the community.
Cantor Gottlieb remained with the Newcastle community for the rest of his short life and died in 1937.
More than being admired for his own voice, Gottlieb was famous for the choirs he trained and conducted. In Ungvar where the Jewish population numbered over 5,000 he was Chief Cantor of the town and his synagogue alone had seating for 2,000. His choir there was exceptional in the sense that nearly all its members could sing solo. The people of Ungvar were experts on chazanut and the cantor would delight his congregants by frequently introducing new compositions. From Ungvar, he would travel to Poland, Romania and Hungary to engage new members with good and even exceptional voices.
Berl Gottlieb was a learned man deeply committed to Jewish learning and, of course, Jewish Music. Always being the perfect gentleman, he was highly respected for his conscientiousness at all times literally putting his heart and soul into every department of the duties he undertook, in addition to conducting synagogue services. Undoubtedly, his rendering of the weekly tefilot on Shabbat drew the congregation to the synagogue and it was no wonder or surprise when in 1925 the beautiful Byzantine styled interior of the Leazes Park Road Synagogue had to be extended because of the attraction of Cantor Gottlieb. It was a common sight to witness a full shul on Friday night to hear the cantor and choir. It was also known for chairs to be added around the shul at the Yomim Noraim when the cantors’ rendering of the ‘Kedusha’ or ‘Avodah’ strongly emphasised his knowledge of interpretation of the liturgy.
Few people are able to recall Berl Gottlieb’s arrival in Newcastle. His so called ‘trial’ at the Leazes Park Road Synagogue in 1922 (following his meeting with the committee) was said to be on a Shabbat when every seat was occupied. He was appointed at a salary of £10.00 per week quite a small fortune those days. His predecessor, Rev. Franklin. had also been a Shochet and Mohel but Gottlieb’s appointment was purely as Chazan.
Frequently, Berl Gottlieb would give concerts at the famous Stoll Theatre, Newcastle, usually to full houses. It was well known that when the suggestion to establish a Yeshiva at Gateshead materialised, the cantor gave his full support in raising funds.
Regretfully, Berl Gottlieb made only one recording which is in the possession of his eldest son and only poor photocopy of his compositions still exist although volumes of his fathers’ compositions are available under the title of “Hakol Kol Yaacov” edited by Berl’s son Dr. Isaac Gottlieb.
Being a true master in the Nusach Hat’filah, Ben Gottlieb trained his sons to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Two sons sang in his choir one later becoming choir master. One son became Chazan Sheni and Shochet at Newcastle (later a Doctor) but his eldest son Moshe, never developed a flair for chazanut, nor sang in his father’s choir, not having been blessed with the family ability.
An impressive black granite memorial stands close to the path-side at Hazelrigg cemetery in the northern area of the city. The inscription “In Memory of Cantor Ben Gottlieb son of Jacob the Heizeriker” draws attention not only from those who recall the great yet humble cantor, but also those who have heard stories still told of one of the most loved and esteemed chazanim the Newcastle community has ever been priviledged to hear.