Chazzan Zalmon Yavneh was born on October 18th 1904 in Asipovichy, not far from Minsk, in Belarus. He grew up in an orthodox atmosphere and as a small child was introduced to Chassidic melodies, sung by his father, Reb Yonah Yavneh. Reb Yonah was famous in the area for being a pious and learned man and was a popular Ba’al Tefiloh in local shuls. At a very young age Chazzan Zalmon Yavneh was accquainted with the entire Nusach and frequently sang in public.
In 1922 the Yavneh family fled because of local antisemitism and settled in the U.S.A., where Zalmon and his younger brother Ephraim studied music with several accomplished teachers (among them Grimard and Shnipelinsky). It wasn’t long before he received public recognition for his outstanding renditions of Chazzonus. In 1926 he was offered the position of Chazzan Rishon of the Institutional Synagogue, one of the prominent orthodox shuls in New York City. When the shul moved to the West Side of Manhattan in 1937 (and changed it’s name to the West Side Institutional Synagogue), Chazzan Yavneh was prevailed upon to stay with the congregation. He once again accepted the offer and, in fact, he remained with that congregation his entire life. He was honoured for his 50 years of service by both the shul itself as the Khazonim Farband for his 50 year service to the ministry in 1976. Chazzan Yavneh was a respected member of the Khazonim Farband (of which he was the president in 1958), which lead to him being made honorary president for life in 1962.
On June 26th 1927 Zalmon married Anna (1904-1998), a native of Palestine, with whom he had 5 children; four sons and one daughter.
During his life Chazan Yavneh gave many concerts and sang for the radio on several occasions. He participated in many charitable activities; besides giving concerts for charity he was also very commited to visiting penal institutes, hospitals and homes for the elderly. He received many awards: meritorious service and dedication to Judaism, Jewish War Veterans (1946), meritorious service, interest, and dedication, Sing Sing Prison (1950), honorary cantor certification, Hebrew Union School of Sacred Music (1953).
Although Chazzan Yavneh’s musical knowledge was limited (he couldn’t read music) he did compose and published several volumes of liturgical music. He relied on his soul to lead the service and prefered to improvise on the spot. His enormous skillsof improvisation made him a Zogger par exellence. This resulted in him being known as ‘The N’shomo Chazzan’.
He was a dramatic tenor, whose vocal power and intensity had much resemblence to the legendary Chazzan Kapov-Kagan. When Chazzan Yavneh got asked what he was thinking of when he sang with so much soulfulness and emotion, he replied: ‘I think of the pogroms I witnessed in my youth.’
His brother, Ephraim Yavneh (1910-1998), was an accomplished Chazzan in his own right and was also known for his expertise in improvisation. Zalmon Yavneh never recorded professionally, but several private recordings were made during services and concerts. A few of these recordings were publiced on longplay records: ‘The N’shomo Cantor’ in 1960 and ‘In Concert’ in 1964.
Chazzan Zalmon Yavneh passed away at age 74 on May 28th 1979 in South Fallsburg, NY. He was a real ‘Mentsh’ and one of the best Zogger Chazzonim in Jewish history. He is still greatly missed by the Jewish community and will forever be remembered for all his kindness and his exceptional devoted davening.
(With many thanks to Jeffrey P. Lieuwen for this biography)