It is an odd paradox that when reconstructing the biographies of Chazanim of the past, the ‘Great,’ it is comparatively easy, though not all that simple, to write their ‘lives’, whereas attempting to compile the story of a man who left us little more than forty years ago, is far more difficult!
This is certainly true of the late, lamented, and vastly talented Chazan Jacob Riviis, who died, in his early fifties, in 1938. Chazan Leo Bryll (then Chazan of the Bayswater Synagogue) and a fellow Kishinevian, wrote a valediction for the London Yiddish daily “Die Zeit” on May 24th, 1938, and it is mainly on this obituary that this short article is based.
Chazan Bryll, in a beautiful flowing Yiddish, gives a pitiful summing-up of the life of one of the imposing Chazanim of the Kishinev Great Synagogue.
Rivilis was born at Kishinev (then in Russia), not far from Odessa into a sphere of Orthodox Judaism and Cantorial Music. He was raised in a musically inclined family, and sang in his youth in the choirs of Razumni and Minkovsky, experiences which brought to him a love of Chazanut, which lasted to his latter days.
He studied at the local university, and graduated as a Doctor of Jurisprudence, and he also pursued studies at the Odessa Conservatoire in voice production, and sang much opera. However, his talents were directed mainly at synagogue music of the traditional style, and he praised the Lord for the gift with which he had been endowed.
The youthful Bryll conducted the choir of the Great Synagogue of Kishinev – the cradle of Chazanut – and therefore had the opportunity of observing the debut of Chazan Riviis. Chazan Bryll in what might be styled ‘youthful recollections’, recalls the scene graphically:
‘The Synagogue, large and cold, dimly lit, was packed with an over-critical congregation. One which had heard ‘Zeidel,’ Rovner, Razumni’s recitatives, Minkovsky’s chants, Kalesnik’s compositions, Roitman and Steinberg’s prayers, assembled to compare the talents of the young Chazan.
There was a nervous silence in the holy Temple of Music: the cheerless faces mirrored the pessimism, as worshippers waited impatiently to deliver their sentence. How great, however, was their surprise, when a wealth of fresh, free tones, enlivened the large congregation. Gradually, the frozen faces thawed, and, after ‘L’cha Dodi’, the smiles turned to warmness and friendliness towards the young man, who stood, petrified, before his critical audience.
‘Those who had come as critics, left as friends. It was generally acknowledged that Chazan Rivilis possessed a superlative voice, and the culture and gentleness to interpret the warmest prayers. Following that first Shabbat, the Kishinev Community accepted Riviis, not only as a son, but as a worthy successor to the long line of his distinguished and illustrious predecessors.”
The friends, Rivilis, and Bryll, worshipped and performed together, until Chazan Bryll left to study, and Rivilis, following the tradition of the Russian Chazanim, gave concerts in Poland, Austria, Germany, Rumania, and America, eventually coming to London.
He occupied the prestigious position of Chazan Rishon of the Great Synagogue, Duke’s Place, for only five years, between 1932-37. A contemporary recalls him as a pleasant and friendly man, and handsome, as we can see from his portrait. Rivilis possessed a sweet, light and effortless tenor voice, which was much appreciated by his listeners. There was, however, a poor relationship with one of the Senior Wardens, and heavy duties, which the delicate musician was unable to sustain.
A Chazan, in those years, was expected to carry out tasks which, although they are still performed by colleagues, were then far more arduous. In addition to the Reading of the Law, he was also expected to render Services (Alman was the choirmaster) which were lengthy and sapping. Weddings, also, took their toll: after the Chuppah, there was a dinner, at which the Chazan was expected to sing. The main evening dinner, usually lavish, entailed not only the ‘Sheva B’rachot’, but attendance at least until 11 p.m. Morning Services each day were at seven, and the Chazan was required to attend, no matter how weary he was. Rivilis decided to return to Rumania: (Kishinev was in Russia until 1918, when it was annexed to Rumania, then in 1940, Russia took it back). On his return, he was Chazan of the Maria Synagogue, in Bucharest,for a short time, till his death.
Chazan Bryll’s obituary mentions his ‘gentlemanliness’, and states that hundreds of people attended his funeral. He left a wife, and a sixteen-year old son. Unfortunately, he left us no music, but a lasting impression of a kindly, learned and superlative Chazan.
Cantors’ Review, April 1980)