Boruch Smus

Gershon Sirota1877 (1874?) - 1943

Gershon Sirota
1877 (1874?) – 1943

Few people, let alone Chazanim, can claim that they were members of the Palestine Police Band, or that they helped to erect the house of the great Hebrew Poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934). Chazan Boruch Smus can lay claim to these facts. He was born in Proskulov, a Province of Podolsk, Ukraine, in 1899, and, because of his involvement with the Bolsheviks in the late 1917 / 18’s, left Russia and went to the then Palestine as a pioneer Chalutz.

Smus, affectionately known as ‘Tunka’, is a natural baritone; he was self- taught, although he assisted at the services of Chazan Teblizki in Odessa. His, was a warm, baritonal voice, which no amount of training could achieve. He is, and was, an improvisor, a ‘Zoger’; he possesses a fine conception of Nussach, and, as many of his colleagues will testify, davens with a warm inspiration; his listeners rarely get tired of his performances, since his polished voice is easily adaptable, and he is equally at home in recitatives and solos.

Apart from his voice-production, he studied ‘sight-reading’ and can play several instruments. While in Palestine, he studied in the Conservatoire of Jerusalem, and davend at Tiberias as a temporary Chazan. He says that there were no Chazanim of any note in Palestine at the time that he was there, except Bardaki, who was in the ‘Churvah Shul’  who possessed a fine voice, was a warm-hearted man, and, in general, could be summed up as a fine person. Smus arrived in Palestine in 1919 and left in 1932.

While in Palestine, Chazan Smus first made the acquaintance of Chazan Zavel Kwartin: the latter was concertising in the Old City, in Mea Shearim. In keeping with his own pleasant character, Kwartin recognised the young Smus, whom he addressed as ‘Tunkele”, and told him then, in the 20’s that Smus’s voice was better than his own.

Those Chazanim who had the privilege of listening to Chazan Smus in the 1950’s, will recall his ‘Kwartinalisch’ Nussach. There was a definite influence. Chazan Smus also sang with Chazan Sirota in Tel Aviv, and used many of Sirota’s compositions.

When he arrived in England, having been sponsored by a lover of Chazanut, his first engagement was to daven on Yamim Noraim in the great Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel Road (which could seat 4,000 people), and to say Slichot there. For these services, he received the sum of £300, quite a sum for those days. His choirmaster was Chaikin, who was a machinist by trade but a superb musician. Chazan Smus recalls that many London Chazanim sped to purchase tickets for this event.

One of the underhand tricks employed by rivals is related by Chazan Smus. He was ‘called’ to Glasgow, but a loal Chazan issued a rumour that Smus had two wives. End of job!

Chazan Smus spoke warmly of the late Chazan Edelman of the Great Philpot Street Synagogue: ‘He was a golden man’. Smus knew Edelman from the time he arrived, and took lectures from him. When Edelman arrived in London, he received the princely sum of fifteen shillings per week, and, having four small children, had to learn to ‘lein’. that is, the cantillation of the Sidra, for which he received a further pittance. Chazan Smus recalled that Chazan Edelman would rock the cradle of his youngest child, while at the same time, intoning the Sidra!

Chazan Smus speaks highly of his contemporaries, especially Chazan Gotloib, who who was a ‘warm-hearted man’, the President of the Chazanim Federation, and in spite of his poverty, would give away his last sixpence, and walk to Shul during the weekdays!

During his years of service in London, Smus himself had frequently to battle with poverty.

To sum up: Chazan Boruch Smus is a Chazan of the “Old School’. His, is no polished ‘degreed’ Chazanut – it is the work of a devoted and warm-hearted Jewish heart.

(This is an edited interview that Chazan Smus gave to Mr Elie Delibe,editor of the Cantors’ Review and published in November 1972)