The office of hazzan has a most unique position in Judaism, unparalleled in other faiths. The Synagogue Cantor, while a virtuoso performer of a folk art, is a man of piety and learning. Representing an entire congregation, in his musical declamation of sacred texts. Though a creative artist, he must serve as a guardian of Israel’s musical heritage. Shomer N’ginot Yisrael, as the late Leib Glantz so aptly declared.
These many qualities were embodied in the person of Jacob Goldstein, a man who served Jewish communities in Europe and America with brilliance and dedication for over four decades.
Born June 4. 1900 in Warsaw to a most devout family, the young Jacob grew up in the atmosphere of Hassidism, his parents being related to the famous “wonder Rabbi”, the Ostrovtzer Rebbe. During the years of his youth, Jacob received a traditional Talmudic education, for which he came to be recognized as a Lamdan, a learned one.
At age eighteen he married Toba, a distant cousin, and began his musical career. Under the direction of Abraham Dawidowitch he served as a chorister in the Nozhik Synagogue of Warsaw. A short time later he was named assistant Cantor under Solomon Hershman.
During these years he studied at the Chopin Conservatory, from which he graduated without the knowledge of his pious parents. His voice developed into that of an heroic Wagnerian tenor and he was encouraged to sing in the Warsaw Opera; however most fortunately, because of a strong commitment to the sacred calling of hazzanut and the traditional life-style of Judaism he did not forsake the Cantorate.
A short time later he became cantor in Rovno, (where Jacob Samuel Morogowsky, known to the world as “Zeidel Rovner” had served some years earlier). After several years he was named Chief Cantor of the Vilna Choral Synagogue, Taharat Hakodesh, where he succeeded noted composers Abraham Moshe Bernstein and Eliahu Zaludkowsky.
ln Vilna Goldstein established himself as a cantor of world stature. Maturing artistically through his studies with Bernsztein, his home became a mecca for artists representative of all facets of the community‘s cultural life. Among his frequent associates were a variety of musicians, writers and dramatists, including members of the famed Vilna Troupe.
Due to ever increasing evidences of anti-semitism Cantor Goldstein left Vilna for England in 1933. Here he was named Hazzan of the New Synagogue, Egerton Road, in the Stamford Hill section of London, one of the most prestigious positions in the country.
In England Goldstein became the object widespread respect and admiration, in some circles approaching the adulation of the masses for a folk hero.
Illustrative of his station in communal life, Goldstein was introduced in 1949 to a visiting Cantor Samuel Vigoda with a short anecdote told by the chairman of the London Conference of Hazzanim. A group of Jews in London’s East End gather around the foyer of a local record shop, listening with great scrutiny to recent discs recorded by prominent operatic voices. A group spokesman declared. “Good, but it’s not like our Yankel Goldstein”. Consent was unanimous.
Though Goldstein’s reputation was broadened by his numerous appearances on behalf of a variety of charitable causes including the World Zionist Organization and the Keren Kayemet L’yisrael, particularly noteworthy was his contribution to British morale during the critical war years, when thousands were confined to London’s bomb shelters. His singing served as a source of both joy and inspiration in those darkest hours of England’s existence.
None the less Goldstein found himself artistically confined by the regulations of England’s United Synagogue. Although special dispensation by the Chief Rabbinate enabled him to appear in a most artistically triumphant performance of Handel’s Samson, his concert activities as a rule were confined to the continent (Paris in particular) and Israel, where he was a special guest of Chief Rabbi Herzog. Accordingly Goldstein came to America in I951, making his debut at a special Maariv Concert at the
East Side’s Bialystoker Synagogue, with Meyer Machtenberg as his conductor. Greeted with critical acclaim he later appeared widely, including a Carnegie Hall performance with Leo Low as well as numerous broadcasts. He served congregations in the Crotona Park section of the Bronx and Congregation Sons of lsrael in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, until his sudden passing May 11 1961. Both he and his wife, who passed on three years later, were buried in Jerusalem.
NOTES BY BARRY SEROTA 1981
From the record ‘The Art of Cantor Goldstein’