Jacob Gottlieb’s father was Shochet in the Ukraine, in a town near Odessa, where Jacob was born in the year 1852. Five years later, Jacob’s father was appointed head of the Shochetim of Odessa, which then already had a sizable Jewish community, with famous Cantors. It was at this time, that Cantor Jacob sung with Betzalel Odesser, who prophesied that one day Jacob would become famous.The original name of the family was Milman, but Jacob had an older brother who, being the eldest, was exempt from military duties and in order to avoid military service, Jacob was registered as ‘Gotloib’ meaning “Praising the Lord”, and the place of birth was given as Constantinople. It is interesting to note that Odessa itself, was known as Khadzhibey when under the Turkish rule seven decades before Cantor Jacob’s birth.
At the age of nine, little Jacob, already conducted services in small synagogues by bribing the beadles with offal which he took from his father the Shochet. When only 13, he already formed a choir of his own and the famous Jacob Bachmann (1846-1905) of Budapest, sang bass in Jacob’s choir.
At 18, he got married to a very wealthy man’s daughter. He had no intention of making a living as a hazan, but sang only for pleasure. However, his father-in-law lost his wealth and Cantor Jacob took up the profession of a hazan. Very soon he became famous and competed with the other Cantors mentioned previously.
His style was simple, hassidic, melodious, and rhythmic which could easily be learned by the public after hearing it a few times, indeed that was the case. Nissi’s compositions were, however, more complicated and not so easily learned. The well known Hassidic Kaddish which appears in Velvel Pasternak’s songs, (vol. 2 1971 No. 105), which is sung after the Mussaph Service on the High Holydays, is actually Jacob Gottlieb’s composition. The Haneiroth Halalu from Hanukah, is sung in many parts of Israel. The reason is, that a daughter of Cantor Jacob being a teacher in Bessarabia, taught many of her pupils this melody. Many Cantors claim to have been his pupils, the last one died in Liverpool at the age of 86. Gershon Siroto also claimed to have sung with Cantor Jacob.
Many legends were circulated during Cantor Jacob’s lifetime, one of them was, that the Cantors being jealous of his popularity, poisoned him and caused his huskiness, as originally he had a clear voice. The actual fact is that during the Pogroms in 1881, he hid in a damp cellar for three days and thus his voice became husky.
Yerucham Hakatan after hearing Cantor Jacob said: “The husky-voiced Jacob should be known as Jacob the demolisher, for he demolishes the reputation of all the other cantors.”
His first post was in Odessa, then at Yelisavetgrad and later at Biyalitzerkov (White Church), though the Jews called it in Hebrew, White Field, and in Yiddish, it was known as Shvartz Timeh, where he spent most of his life but during the last few years before his death in 1900, he was Hazan in Bessarabia, Ackerman.
Most Cantors, were given six months’ leave during the year and this was the time they travelled the whole length and breadth of Russia, conducting services during weekdays and Sabbaths, travelling in their own coach with coachman. During the weekdays, entrance was by ticket only. In the larger cities they spent many weeks singing in different synagogues.
The choir boys were apprenticed with a hazan, lived with the family, and if they were very young, they helped with the home chores and looked after the babies. During their travels they stayed with different members of the Shul. Naturally, the Cantor and his famous “Itchi Bass” and the son, “Berl” the Soprano, stayed at the best places with the wardens.
“ltche Bass” had a powerful bass-profundo and when he sung, the walls in the little synagogues used to tremble. When there was loud wailing and crying noises in the womens’ gallery during an emotional part of the service, “Itche” silenced them by singing aloud “Women let there be silence”. The local wits referred to this outburst as “Itche’s Solo”. The actual choir consisted only of about ten people. These were augmented by enrolling local talent in the towns and villages. Cantor Jacob always placed his coachman into his choir, to make it look bigger. But, as the audience saw that he wasn’t singing, Cantor Jacob explained that: “this man leads the choir.”
Later, these members of the choir became Cantors. The fame of these Cantors with their choirs, spread amongst the non-Jewish population and many of the leaders and members of the nobility attended the services. In some places, especially at the time of Hanucah, the local brass band joined in giving concerts. The present writer well recalls this happening in his own father’s choir when instrumental musicians joined the choir over 50 years ago in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, where his father, Berl Gottlieb was Cantor.
Cantor Jacob was quite well-to-do, since in addition to the money he made, many presents in silver and gold were showered upon him, and at his death at the age of 47, many large trunks of gold and silver articles were found.
Though Cantor Gottlieb wrote his compositions for choir and Cantor, one can detect that he was a passionate singer and made many a congregant cry. One incident, in which a wealthy man had a wager with Cantor Jacob, that no matter how emotionally the Cantor will sing, he will be unmoved. The wager was for a gold pocket watch. Cantor Gottlieb started singing and developed his theme, the wealthy man, after ten minutes, could contain himself no longer and burst out with a loud unnatural cry, and had to admit defeat.
In the year 1900, Cantor Jacob’s second son, Ben, the Soprano, was called up for military service in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. Cantor Jacob was very upset in case his son would be accepted into the Russian Army. In one of the Kiev synagogues he conducted a service on his own without a choir and during the long Av Harachamin (Father of Mercy), he collapsed, was taken to the hospital and subsequently died without regaining consciousness. The doctors diagnosed cerebral haemorrhage as the cause of death.
Cantor Jacob was about 6 feet tall, had peioth (sidelocks) and a large wild mousy-coloured beard, which later became grey. He used to move his hands upwards during his singing. He was a very entertaining conversationalist and told many a tale which held the listeners in great suspense. His wife, who was an only child, was irritable and bad-tempered. She came from a very wealthy home and had to look after, not only her own children but also many members of the choir who lived with them. She often used to scold Cantor Jacob in front of the choir, whereupon Cantor Jacob struck the tuning fork and exclaimed “this is a false note”.
Though his career covered only about 30 years, he left an indelible impression on the Jewish community in Russia, where his tunes were sung for many decades after his death.
by his son Isaac Gottlieb)