Shlomo Rawitz

Shlomo Rawitz

The people who live in a small street in Tel-Aviv, the Cremia Street, all recognise the little figure who walks hurriedly in short paces and quietly sings to himself songs of prayers or folk melodies. He is a curious figure with an almost Chinese countenance but is, indeed, one of the great educators of Chazanim this century. This is the chazan Shlomo Rawitz.

A Chazan, a composer, a musician and a choir master who always penetrates the unknown and seeks new ideas in the field of Chazanut. If one asks him his age he humbly replies, ‘Well, probably over eighty.” However, some believe that he has passed the four-score and ten mark already. Chazanut is his life, his vision and his aspiration. It has been in his blood since childhood for as a boy of 12 he composed his own liturgical compositions.

Shlomo Rawitz was born in Novogrodic in the district of Minsk in Russia. His father Moshe Rawitz was a Chasid and a scholar in Rabbinics. His grand-father, Levi Gross, emigrated to Israel in 1893 after selling all his wealth, and settled in Jerusalem. Rawitz’s elder brother Benjamin was Chazan for 20 years in Klausenberg and died in Aushwitz. His other brother Samuel was a teacher of piano and was killed by the Nazis when they invaded Russia.

When he was 15 years old Rawitz went to study music in Odessa and Kiev. After two years he completed his studies with distinction and at the early age of 17 he was appointed Chazan in the ‘Shablei’ Community. From there he was invited to a larger Congregation in Lublin. At the age of 21 he set out to further his studies of music and Chazanut in Vienna where he received his diploma. He later returned to Russia. After the death of the famous Chazan Boruch Leib Rosovski in Riga, Rawitz became Chazan in his place. When his fame grew he was invited to Johannesburg – South Africa which was at the time a centre of Jewish immigration from Lithuania.

His Zionist consciousness brought him soon to Israel, first as a tourist in 1925 and later, in 1935 he came to Palestine and settled with his family in Tel-Aviv. One of his sons Levi was already there living on a Kibbutz.

In those days the city of Tel- Aviv had established a Centre for Cultural activities under the name ‘Ohel Shem.’  Their main function was to hold Shabbat public meetings which they called ‘Oneg Shabbat Messibot.’ The president of this institute was the famous national poet and writer Chayim Nachman Bialik.

Bialik was a lover of Chazanut and learned to know Rawitz and admire him for his talent. He invited Rawitz to form a choir to perform at the Oneg Shabbat lectures. The most popular part was of course the entertainment to which most of the people came. They used to wait outside the hall until the speakers were finished and then the doors were opened to admit the very many people who had come to hear Rawitz’s choir with its superb boy soloists.

The Oneg Shabbat became very well known in Tel-Aviv and through it Rawitz soon became popular and made a good name for himself. Very soon he was invited to serve as first Chazan in the Great Synagogue in Tel-Aviv where he stayed for 20 years.

Rawitz has since raised several generations of Chazanim. Some occupy positions in England and many more throughout the world.

He devoted much time rewriting compositions of the great classic composers with the correct Hebrew pronounciation. He has also published articles in various magazines both in Israel and abroad. He has, of course, composed melodies for all festivals and special occasions and indeed every Shabbat there was a new tune in the Oneg Shabbat programme based on the Haphtorah text. Many of these melodies have been published by the Ohel Shem Institute.

In 1964 there came to the public his life-times work, his book “Kol Israel” in two volumes. A rare book of its kind, it is an anthology of all the Nusschaot Hatephillot for Shabbat and all the festivals. It is a source book for all Chazanim young and old.

Rawitz was the initiator for the establishment of a school for Chazanim in Tel-Aviv, the Seminar ‘Selah.’which was founded in 1953. This school has produced Chazanim who now occupy positions throughout the world.

When Rawitz is asked why he does not retire from all his activities and relax in his old age he replies, ‘Why should I rest when I can still work?’ Indeed he still forms choirs to prepare programmes for concerts and festivals. He remains the senior teacher in the Seminar ‘Selah’ and frequents the Bilu School where he used to be the music tutor and still guides the Boys’ Choir.

His health is, wondrously, always in perfect condition. He tells his friends that his eyes, ears and heart are as good now as they were when he was 20. He rises every day at 5 a.m. says his prayers reads a paper, listens to the radio whilst eating his small breakfast, and goes out for a walk in the fresh air. When he returns he settles himself down to continue his main work, the preparation of his many lessons.

Rawitz defines Israeli Chazanut as being Chazanut in the correct Sephardi pronounciation with the traditional Nusach of the prayers. He is strictly against prolongation of the service but insists that the prayers are sung and must not be dry or dull. ‘One must not omit the Jewish point and must always try to express it somehow, We must get rid of alien melodies which were planted in various compositions of our liturgy. In other words, we must not go down to the level and desires of the audiences but must raise them to our standard and educate them.’

For more than half a century Rawitz fulfilled a difficult task with great devotion and sincerity.

(Written by Rev J Landenberg, a pupil of Cantor Rawitz, and first
published in the Cantors’ Review, February 1971)