Chaim Shmuel Milch

Chaim Shmuel Milchdied 1983

Chaim Shmuel Milch
died 1983

A gem has to be set in the appropriate mount in order to be fully appreciated. Since the subject of our “Profile” was born and studied and married in Warsaw, let us examine Poland’s capital city as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. No less than 250,000 Jews occupied it, and, in addition to the many secular institutions, it teemed with a mass of synagogues. The ‘crown’ of these was the famous ‘T’lomazke Shul’. This aristocratic House of Prayer was dedicated on the Eve of the New Year, 1878, Chazan Gritzhendler being the Chazan Rishon.Entry was by ticket only: Carrying on Shabbat was permitted  – the City possessed an Eruv. There were also ten beadles who patrolled the synagogue to ensure decorum. Chazan Gritzhendler was a bass-baritone, and was eventually succeeded by the great Chazan Gershon Sirota in 1909, whose choirmaster was Leo Liow. The Rabbis were Samuel Abraham Poznansky and Rabbi Professor Moshe Schorr.

Chazan Milch recalls the ‘T’lomazke’: “There were about twenty- five to thirty choristers, all clad in canonicals. The late Chazan Shechter, later of the Cricklewood Synagogue, London, and Chazan Greenstein, the father-in-law of the late Chazan Gershon Boyars of the Hampstead Synagogue, London, were in the choir.  Shechter had a fine bass-baritone voice. Both tried for the post of Chazan Sheni, but Chazan Pinchas Sherman was eventually elected in 1909, at the age of twenty-two”.

Chazan Sherman, a cultured man, was the founder in 1933 and Editor of the famous Yiddish language Cantors’ Journal “Die Chazonim Velt”. which dealt with all aspects of Chazanut and Chazanirn. until it foundered with the Holocaust.

There was also the other famous ‘Nodzik’s Shul’, where the Chazan was Mittelberg, who possessed a fine ‘pianissimo’, and who was eventually succeeded by the great Shlomo Hershman, later of Manchester. The choirmaster was the distinguished musician Abraham Davidovitz. Chazan Jacob Goldstein was in the choir, and was later appointed Chazan Sheni.

It was into this setting that our subject, Chazan Milch entered his life in Chazanut. Milch hails from an aristocratic but orthodox background based in Warsaw. His father, Reb Moshe Z’vi, although not a Chassid, nevertheless permitted his only son to study, for some time, in the Chassidic Dynastic Yeshiva of ‘Gur’, known as the ‘Gerer Yeshiva’, and Milch can still recall the saintly ‘Gerer Rebbe’, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (1847-1905).

His father, although not a Chazan, had been to Yeshiva with Chazan Gritzhendler, and subsequently went with a cousin to Breslau, in Germany, to study music, Milch says of his father: “He loved the traditional music, and was steeped in the ‘Nusach Ha’T’filiah”. The Milch family business consisted of wholesaling cosmetics until the First World War.

Milch recalls his early beginnings: as a Cheder-Yinge!’, he loved to sing, and, noting that a fellow student was leaving, was informcd that he was ‘off to rehearsal’ at the ‘Nodzik’s Shul’. Milch joined him, and after hearing the lad, Davidovitz agreed to admit him into the choir, if he brought a letter of consent from his father. Milch senior, being a man of business, was reluctant to allow his son to Chazanut, but relented on the mother’s persuasion. Milch possessed an alto voice, and was just nine years old.

After Chazan Gritzhendler’s retirement from the ‘T’lomazke’, he was appointed supervisor of an orphanage for Jewish children, and conducted the Services. He had considerable influence on the young Milch, noting signs of beauty in his voice, and advised him not to use his voice for two years, in order that it should remain unforced. Turning to Davdovitz, one of his primary emphases was ‘Perush Hamilot’ understanding the meaning of the prayers. At the age of sixteen, Milch possessed a natural lyrical baritone, and busied himself in developing his pianissimo’, a feature which he practised with great success throughout his Chazzanic career.

Involving himself in communal affairs, he organised an “Aguda”, a youth service for young men, which eventually about two hundred lads attended. There was even a Rabbi to instruct them in Torah.

While Milch was still in Warsaw, he davened in both ‘Reichman’s Shul’, and the ‘Prager Shul’, the choirmaster of the latter being one Greenstein; since they were traditional synagogues, he was not permitted canonicals, (robes), but was presented with a ‘Gartel’ (the silken plaited Chassidic belt). In fact, recalled Milch, Chazan Naphtali Halter, famous in East London, also wore a ‘Gartel’. In the meantime, Milch married a charming young lady of good family, and gradually developed his Chazanut by sheer hard work, but at that time took no voice-production lessons.

In the late 1920’s, he went to Germany to supervise family property, but his visa described him as a ‘businessman’, a description which was to serve him badly later on. He heard that there was a vacancy in the ‘Tifferet Yisraei Synagogue’ of Berlin, which was situated in a high-class neighbourhood, and auditioned during the week. Asked by the ‘Gabbai’ to sing a ‘Hashkiveinu’, he improvised. In fact, although he is an accomplished musician, Milch usually improvised at the Amud. His audition was advertised in the Jewish Press, and he arrived to a packed synagogue. Here, he wore canonicals. An agreement was immediately struck at an excellent salary, for, by then, his family was blessed by three children. He remained in Berlin for some years, taking voice-production lessons at ‘Stern’s Conservatoire’. His ‘businessman’s’ visa had become invalid, but on the initiative of the honorary officers, it was extended until well after the Yomim Noraim,

He then visited Paris to meet a brother-in-law, and davened a Shabbat in the ‘Rue Pavee Synagogue’, where Rabbi Isaac Herzog, later to be Chief Rabbi of Palestine was the ‘Rav’. Milch, however, disliked the ‘Boulevardian Life’ of Parisian Jewry, and Rabbi Herzog advised him to leave.

There were so-called ‘impresarios’ in London: Weissman, and Sussman (the printer of New Road, who was a ‘character’ in his own right). Weissman approached Milch with a definite proposition, and he arrived in London in the 1930’s, with his family following later.

This time, he arranged a proper visa as a ‘Reader’, and visited Professor Alman for an audition. The latter was impressed. Milch recalls that he davened a Shabbat in East London’s “Philpot Street S’fardishe Shul. Urged on by his impresario, Weissman, he then applied for the post of Chazan Rishon of the ‘Bethnal Green Great Synagogue’. There were, however, other candidates: Chazanim Aitshul and Simcha Tessler, However, he davened a Shabbat, and was subsequently elected at a reasonable salary. He remained in this post for eighteen years. Sirokin, an eccentric, was his choirmaster.

In 1955, he left for the ‘Great Garden Street Synagogue’ (now in Greatorex Street), and was unanimously elected at an excellent salary. One of his ‘plums’ was the many weddings performed there, for it was then fashionable to marry at ‘Great Garden Street’.

Unlike today, congregants were not preoccupied with ‘time’ and many long compositions were rendered. Milch sang Alman’s ‘S’firat HaOmer’, and Rovner’s monumental ‘Emet V’Emunah (which can last over thirty minutes)!

He occasionally visited other synagogues: he davened in ‘Ainsworth Road’ (now the “Yavneh Synagogue”), and even in “Duke’s Place”, when the present Chief Rabbi (Rabbi Jakobovitz) was Minister there. He received many invitations to take positions within the United Synagogue, but elected to remain with the ‘Federation’. He first resided in Victoria Park Road Hackney, and when War came in 1939, evacuated his family to Bedford, commuting to London for Shabbat. He moved to North London after the war,

He came to Clapton Synagogue, the “Sha’are Shomayim” by chance. One of his members at ‘Great Garden Street’, who was also a member of Clapton Synagogue had died. Asked to officiate at the funeral, he demurred. But, unfortunately, and tragically, Chazan Altshul, the incumbent., dropped dead on the spot. Milch concluded the Service. After this sad event, he was unanimously elected to office, the colleague of Rabbi Rashbass. He remained at the Clapton Synagogue until his retirement.

(This profile of Chazan Milch was written by Mr Elie Delible in 1980
and published in the Cantor’s Review)
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