In those times, the only spiritual enjoyment for the Jews was, listening to a good Chazan on Shabbat. So, in addition to being a learned person, he had also to be an extremely gifted singer, with an outstanding voice, and the ability to bring his listeners into ecstasy and spiritual uplift.
A Chazan in the Shtot Shul had to possess even greater qualities and a higher standard of talent than elsewhere. He had to be a singer of Virtuoso-Chazanut, able to improvise with religious warmth and feeling – what is known in Yiddish as a Zoger, and above all, he had to be able to introduce sweet melodies and occasionally vary them to uplift his listeners during the chanting of the prayers. He had to possess a natural coloratura which would thrill the people and stir their souls.
One such Chazan was the ‘Vilner Balhabessel’, a young singer who made his first impact upon his generation at the age of thirteen. He roused in the hearts of his listeners a sense of spiritual enthusiasm. The memory of this man always glowed warmly in the hearts of his contemporaries. They would recall, with heartfelt thanks and great pride that they had had the privilege of hearing the ‘Vilner Baihabessel’.
His real name was YOEL DOVID LOEWENSTEIN (according to other sources his name was LEVINSOHN, or even STRASHINSKY), born in 1816 in Libai (Latvia). At the age of eleven he already impressed critical connoisseurs with his melodious voice and was nicknamed ‘Der Yingale’ – ‘the young one’. His father was Reb Zvi Hirsh, the City Chazan in Vilna at that same Shul during the years 1822-1830, who died young, when Yoel Dovid was a boy of fourteen.
When Yoel Dovid became Bar Mitzvah, he was naturally ‘called-up’ in the Vilna ‘Shtot Shul’. To the surprise of the people present, after reciting his Haftorah, he went on to daven the Mussaf. As soon as he began to sing ‘Y’kum Purkon’, the word spread throughout the neighbourhood, that the young YoeI Dovid was officiating. The Shul was very soon packed to capacity, people listening with astonishment to his beautiful voice. He sang with such sweetness, that the Congregation was swept off its feet as it acclaimed his thrilling singing, with heartfelt warmth.
This was the beginning of his career. From time to time, he was asked to perform Services at the Shul. After the sudden death of his father, he was called to be the unofficial Chazan of the Community, in spite of his youth. The young lad, endowed with genius and uninhibited talent, was beloved and cherished by the people of Vilna almost to a degree of idolatry.
Eventually, they appointed him to be Chazan of the Shul, although there was another, older, Chazan. Not until six years later, at the age of twenty, was he given the official Appointment Contract, known as the ‘K’sav Chazanut’, signed by the Parnasim of the Kebillah and by famous Rabbis of the day.
Soon after the appointment of Yoel Dovid as Chazan of the Vilna ‘Shtot Shul, a wealthy member of the Congregation, Reb Mordechai Shtrashun, one of the Parnesim, took him as a son-in-law, and granted him an allowance for life. Thus, the young talented singer, until then affectionally called ‘Der Yingele’, received his pet-name ‘Der Vilner Balhabessel’, the Yiddish diminutive of ‘Baal Habayit’.
It was probably the first time in the history of this Synagogue that such a young boy had been selected to be its Chazan. With his sweet, lyrical, yet immature tenor voice, coupled with expressiveness and coloratura, he was reputed to send his listeners into raptures and breathtaking ecstacy.
From all parts of Lithuania, Chazanim and lovers of Chazanut streamed to Vilna to hear, and also behold, this phenomenon, the ‘Vilner Baihabessel’. He sang tunes in folk-style, which possessed an Eastern flavour, appealing to the taste of Vilna Jews.
Up to that time, Yoel Dovid lived in an environment of strict Jewish traditional life, He wore a long ‘Kapote’, a form of frock-coat, and even grew ‘peyot’, sidelocks, as was customary among religious people of that time. He lived within the realm of Jewish life which dared not mix with the gentile world. To study European classical music would be regarded as a betrayal of traditional behaviour. Although his family strongly advised him to give up his strange yearnings, he nevertheless decided to become acquainted with the non-Jewish ‘Secular Music’.
At the age of twenty-three, almost ten years after becoming a Chazan, Yoel Dovid began to study music, a thing which he had longed to do for many years. He studied under a famous Polish musician Stanislav Moniushko, who, in 1839, established himself as a teacher and composer, after writing the Polish opera “Halinka”.
Moniushko actually lived next door to Yoel Dovid: the young Chazan constantly heard, until late at night, the strains of piano and violin coming through his window, filling his heart with a desire to familiarise himself with this music. He began to study and made steady progress under the tutelage of Moniushko. He perfected his violin playing, which he had begun as a child, and also developed his voice.
For a long time, his tutor sought to persuade him to abandon his occupation, and set about becoming an opera singer. However, the composer realised that this would not be easy. He therefore suggested that Yoel Dovid leave with him for Warsaw, where he would arrange concerts, and introduce him to the ‘musical world’ in Warsaw, which was then a centre of music.
After much deliberation, and in spite of the protests of his wife and her parents, Yoel Dovid decided to leave for Warsaw, This was a turning point in is life, which eventually led to his tragic end. Although he was warmly welcomed by the Jewish Community in Warsaw, and also gave successful concerts before the Polish public, his life seemed to have altered completely.
The sudden change of environment, coming from a relatively small, and strictly religious community into a new world, caused him to become a different person, and his attitude to life changed too. He forsook Chazanut and sought to become an opera singer, but, alas, lost both worlds
A great number of tales were written about the fate of Yoel Dovid in his latter years. However, most of them include the same incident which brought about an illness from which he never recovered. It is said that while in Warsaw, during one of his concerts, he was attracted by a young gentile woman singer, a daughter of a Polish aristocrat (according to some biographers, she was a married countess), and while his love for her grew, it caused him to plunge into a deep melancholy.
From Warsaw he went to Vienna to meet the great Chazan of that time, Solomon Sulzer. Although Sulzer received him cordially, this meeting proved to be another shock to the young man. Yoel Dovid had regarded himself as an outstandingly good singer: suddenly, this fantasy was shattered, after he had listened to Sulzer in his Synagogue. When Yoel Dovid heard Sulzer’s powerful voice, he felt that his own voice and singing were only those of a child by comparison. It seemed that his brief contact with the wider world made him discontented with his narrow lot.
He remained so long in Warsaw, that his wife and the Elders of the Vilna Community had to go there to fetch him back. On returning to Vilna, his state of health declined, his depression increased, and he fell into a state of profound melancholia.
He was torn between a sense of duty to his religious office and loyalty to his family and his people on the one hand, and the dazzling attractions of an operatic career and the beautiful countess on the other.
As a result, he was unable to sing as before. In the mental derangement which followed, he abandoned his musical career, left his wife and children, and became a ‘Baal T’shuva’ (penitant). It was then customary for people who wished to atone for their sins to become wanderers, walking from community to community in silence, occupying themselves in studying the Talmud, like the old type of Porush (recluse).
There exists a contemporary account of this self-imposed exile: one Isaac Lachmann, the author of a collection of Synagogue Tunes, heard him in Dubno, where he had been recognised by someone, and persuaded to officiate one Shabbat.
“Never in my life” said Lachmann, “have I heard such a voice, such a performance, such a holy spirit expressed in worship. Never in my life have I heard such a coloratura, which seemed to issue living garlands of pearls from his mouth, which flew in the air of the Synagogue. His voice was a lyric tenor, rather weak, for he was greatly worn, and more spirit than body. It was a year before his death. He seemed to stand before the pulpit entranced, oblivious of his surroundings, swaying in the ‘higher spheres’. His singing was effortless, and he hardly moved his lips. It was more an exhalation of soul than a sounding of voice”.
Finally, his family traced him, and placed him in an asylum in Warsaw, where he died in 1850, at the tragically early age of thirty-four.