A Moshe Kussevitsky Story

A STORY FROM THE LIFE OF MOSHE

KUSEVITZKY

(Taken from the Cantors’ Review, December 1971. No author 
or source is mentioned)

When Moshe Kusevitzky was in his prime as the Chazan of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw, he had the privilege to be visited by the famous singer and Cantor Joseph Schmidt. This was in the summer of 1934. Chazan Kusevitzky welcomed him and invited him to officiate as ‘Guest Chazan’ at his Shool. Schmidt must have been a humble man, for he accepted the offer only partially, and Davened Shacharit only! After the service, Kusevitzky invited several people to a Kiddush in honour of his important guest. Among them were David Aizenstadt, the Choirmaster,David Polman, the President of the Tlomazki Shool, and the Chazan Sheni, Pinchas Sherman.

After refreshing their hearts, Schmidt turned to Kusevitzky half jokingly, and said “I cannot understand why you have not yet been to Palestine, to let the people there enjoy your singing” Kusevitzky was a little put out, and, pointing to his manager, Mr. Danzigerkorn, said “If he, the enthusiastic Zionist, has not yet visited Eretz Yisrael, why do you complain to me?”

The manager rose to the occasion: “Promise me,” he said “that soon we shall go for a visit to Eretz Yisrael”. Kusevitzky went out for a while, and returned with his passport, gave it to his manager, and said “I don’t care if we have the fares to return, the main thing is that the people of Eretz Yisrael should enjoy my singing!”

Three weeks later, they sailed for Palestine. Kusevitzky appeared at concerts all over the country, and had an enormous success. Audiences welcomed him everywhere with great enthusiasm, and he was overwhelmed and deeply touched. This might have been the turning point which led to his decision to try to settle in Palestine. One day, Kusevitzky surprised his manager by saying: ” I have made up my mind to settle in Eretz Yisrael, and have decided to let my wife know about it”. She was still in Warsaw. Several days afterwards, Kusevitzky and his manager were guests at the house of a prominent member of the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, a Mr. Goodman.

While talking to him, they learned that the Chazan Shlomo Ravitz, who was the Chief Cantor of the Great Synagogue at that time, was about to resign his post. Kusevitzky asked Mr. Goodman to arrange a meeting for him with the Wardens of the Synagogue.

The Senior Warden of the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv was, at that time, the well-known Mizrachi Leader David Zvi Pincas. He was also the Bank Manager of the Mizrachi Bank. The meeting took place in the Bank office, and Kusevitzky came straight to the point: “Mr.President”, he said, “I would like that you should be my Gabbai, and I, your Chief Cantor. My conditions are very moderate:
I would require proper living accommodation, a three year contract, and a monthly salary of £12. I should need a period of two months a year” (possibly to recuperate) “and the right to concertise abroad. I also ask for a large and well trained choir”.

Mr. Pincas listened impatiently, but Kusevitzky continued: “Indeed, I come, as you know, from Warsaw, where I serve in one of the greatest Synagogues of the world. I live there like a king, and am short of nothing. Yet now, that I have decided to settle in Eretz Yisrael, and be with my People here, I am willing to live on a small income and change the kind of life to which I am accustomed.”

Mr. Pincas answered him that Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv could not afford to engage a Chazan of Kusevitzky’s calibre, and maintain a large choir as well. Neither had they the means to supply a house for him.This conversation was abruptly interruped by Mr. Pincas himself, who stood up and said “I hope we shall surely have another opportunity to inert you here again in Eretz Yisrael.”

Kusevizky left the office feeling deeply depressed. In the meantime, his wife replied from Warsaw that she was willing to come to live in Palestine, in fact, she accepted with favour her husband’s suggestion for settling in Eretz Yisrael.

Some days later, a party in honour of Kusevitzky took place at the home of the Hebrew author Aharon Leib Grossman. Present, were many of Kusevitzky’s admirers and lovers of Chazanut, and all urged him not to give up his decision to settle in Eretz Yisrael. Various plans were mooted, among them one preposterous plan that a committeeshould purchase a plot of land from Chazan Kwartin and build there a Synagogue seating one thousand people! The sale of the tickets would secure Kusevitzky’s income. It is interesting to note, that in his desperation to settle in Eretz Yisrael, Kusevitzky permitted himself to be persuaded to this absurd idea!

Things went even further: Kusevitzky himself mentioned the plan to his colleague and friend Leo Liow, the choirmaster, conductor and composer, who was in Palestine at the time. According to this plan, Kusevitzky and Liow were to officiate at the High Festivals for no recompense, in order to enable the Committee to obtain the plot of land from the income of the tickets.

Furthermore, it was suggested that after the High Festivals, Kusevitzky and Liow would go to the Unitcd States and collect the necessary funds to ensure the erection of the new Synagogue.

At the time of Kusevitaky’s visit to Palestine, there was also a well-known Warsaw philanthropist, Samuel Gornian, who was a Chasid of the famous Rabbi of Ger. On hearing Kusevitzky’s plan, he agreed to help, on the condition that a Yeshiva be incorporated within the building! However, nothing concrete ever came of the whole scheme, and the enthusiasm with which the Committee had begun to work gradually subsided.

Kusevitzky returned to Warsaw a frustrated man: he would speak to no-one. But, in spite of his bitter feelings, he could no longer live with a peaceful mind. A year later, he returned to Eretz Yisrael, for another Concert Tour, and as a Guest Chazan in various Shools. Again, the public welcomed him with tremendous excitement. He toured the Land, this time with his wife, and enjoyed seeing every new town and settlement. Before he returned to Poland, he said to his friends: “There is one prayer in my heart, that the Almighty should enable me to come to live in Eretz Yisrael and that I should be able to pray without any recompense.”

He planned to leave Warsaw and come to live in Palestine, and officiate only at High Festivals in America. This plan would enable him to secure sustenance in Yisrael without favours from others, and to be independant. However, this idea never came to reality. The World War began in 1939, and interrupted all his dreams. He and his family were extremely lucky to manage to escape to Russia. There, he appeared as an opera singer, and managed to be employed as such for a while. But he did not let any opportunity go by to sing before a Jewish audience, and bring a Jewish song or a motif from the Festival Prayers. His success as a singer saved him and all his family during the war.

After the War, he came to Poland for a short time, only to witness the terrible destruction and the tragedy of the Holocaust which occurred to the great and wonderful Jewish Communities of Poland. After having arranged a Memorial Service in Kieltz, he left with his family for London. His brothers remained there for some years, but he went to New York, and accepted the position of Chief Cantor in the great ‘Bet Eil Synagogue’, where he served for many years, until his death in 1965.

It is retailed that before he died, he called his wife, and asked her to see that he should be buried in Jerusalem. What thus, was denied him during his lifetime,he attained after his death.

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