Choral Shul of Moscow




(published in the March 1972 edition)

obj2124geo1561pg111p9I was about eleven when I auditioned for a place in the Moscow “Choral Shool. The Chazan at the time was Jacob Guzman, who had a brilliant lyrical baritone, with fine diction. He was there before me until the Revolution, and then he went to Antwerp, Manchester and the United States of America. Eventually he settled in Eretz Yisroel.

We were a choir of about 25 boys. I was ‘solo soprano’ and there were 20 other sopranos and altos. We were all encouraged to learn an instrument, and I chose the violin, which was to stand me in good stead later in my adult life. The congregation paid for this extra tuition.

It is an extraordinary thing: Moscow, in those days, had a Jewish population of only about 22, 000, because of the Decree passed by the Grand Duke Sergei in 1896, when Jews could only reside within the “Pale of Settlement”, Russian-Poland, Lithuania, and White-Russia. Jews who wished to live in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev, had to be of two categories: the first were the offspring of “Nikolaiski Soldat”, that is, of men who had served, mostly involuntarily, in the Russian Army, from the ages of 8 to 10, which endeavoured to convert them to the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church. Quite a few were converted, being so young, but many managed to ‘stick it out’, and remained Jews, and it was the children of these who were permitted to live in the capital cities.

The second group were the “Perviguldi Kupetz”, that is, ‘First Quality Merchants’, in other words, Jews who bought their rights These were rich merchants who paid a very high tax for the privilege of living in Moscow and the other cities. Students who graduated from Universities were also permitted to remain there.

Because of these restrictions, it was difficult to get good Chazanim and choristers, and we were paid living wages: A Chazan might get 100 roubles a month, and a leading chorister, such as I, 25 roubles a month. It was a career for a boy: he could comfortably support his family, at a time when a worker earned 6 roubles a week.

My parents were separated by this ‘Urkaz’, or decree. My father was a learned Talmudist, and lived in my beautiful home-town, Yanova, where there was a Yeshiva. It was a beautiful place. My mother, having been married previously to a “Nikolaiski Soldat”, had the right to live in Moscow, and she was the housekeeper to the millionaire, Poliakoff. Although Madam Poliakoff was not orthodox, she entertained a great deal, and had two Kosher kitchens,  one ‘Fleishik’ and one ‘Milchik’, and my mother was very froom. She earned 25 roubles a month, and used to send money home. We had meat more than twice a week, whereas others could only afford it once.

For the rich Jews, like the Poliakoffs, there was no shortage. They had a ‘palace’ and entertained frequently. I remember that a ‘Shochet’ used to come in, and ‘shecht’ quail and other little birds.

I ought to say that I began my career in a place named Liebau, which is now an important Russian military port, but when I wanted to come to Moscow, my mother said “Mir Gem in Shool”. Zavel Silberts was then the choirmaster to Chazan Guzman, and I requested an audition. I was instructed to sing, and sang the Tenor Aria from ‘Rigoletto’, ‘Questa o Quella’ in A Flat. Silberts said: “You are engaged, I haven’t got a voice like yours in my choir2. He telephoned one of the Wardens, and I got 50 roubles a month. I was a soprano, and was singing in E Flat, like a woman!

A male chorister got 30 roubles a month. The choirmaster was also well paid. He had a beautiful flat, nicely furnished, and had enough money to buy himself a good piano and records. Chazan Guzman used to quarrel with Silberts: he would shout at him ‘Goluach’, for Silberts was clean-shaven. The latter was a very good musician: he graduated in Composition in the Moscow Conservatoire, where Guzman also graduated. Zavel Silberts went eventually to America. He published a book, and formed the ‘Silberts Choir’ which is still in existence. When I was a boy, he may have been 40 years old.

Chazan Guzman’s Chazanut was elementary and in reality, he was more of an opera singer, and gave concerts in the Small Hall of the Conservatoire. I used to sing solos and give concerts, especially at Purim time. The choir also used to sing at weddings, like here, in England, but used different compositions, of course.

We also sang at funerals. Being children, we liked it. We sang at the Synagogue, first, and then at the cemetery. This was outside Moscow, in a heavily wooded forest. Nearby, was a ‘tea-house’, and we boys would arrive about one hour early, and have tea there and play football during our wait. When the cortge arrived, we sang at the graveside.

Of course, these ‘Jewish Musical Funerals’ were for the rich only. I remember when Poliakoff died we were present, and had a really good time. The choir was given 6 weeks holiday a year, in the summer. The Shool was closed, and there was only a little ‘Beis Hamedrash’ left. Those who wished to go, were sent to a ‘Datcha’, which was a wooden villa. It was wonderful. We had Kosher food. It was a long way from Moscow: 3 days journey. I must have been twelve yearsof age.

I was Bar Mitzvah in Moscow: reading the Parsha was nothing to me: I had had a good Jewish training. We were all trained, and could read anything. There was little fuss over a Bar Mitzvah: no Kiddush, or celebrations. I had no formal schooling: I had private tutors, because I couldn’t go to school, not being ‘registered’ as a Moscow resident. I lodged with the porter of the Synagogue. The gendarme knew (he patrolled our vicinity, and I paid him a few roubles a month). Sometimes, they raided Jewish houses, when he would let me know in advance.

I remember when Chazan Sirota was allowed to appear in Moscow, for Warsaw was then a part of Russia. He came, once, for a concert, and I sang with him. He was wonderful – a great voice and a great Chazan – and a fine personality. He had to obtain a special permit to come to Moscow, for only 48 hours His concert was not at the Synagogue, but may have been at the Conservatoire Hall.

My mother would have liked me to stay in Moscow with her, but Madame Poliakoff was not obliging. She was afraid of infringing the Government Laws, and we had no ‘right’ to be in Moscow.

I never saw my father again, until (when I was on the way to England) we met, by arrangement, in a small town named Wrotzlava. My mother brought me to England, to her brother, who was a Rabbi at Leicester and a well-known Talmudist, in May, 1914. She stayed until July, 1914, then returned to Russia, until she died in 1930.

I ought to emphasise that my monthly wages were enough for me to support my family. I did very well, and gave money to my mother.
When I came to England, I met Chazan Guzman in Manchester. He was very glad to see me and welcomed me. I first tried to become a singer, but this was not satisfactory, for I could not find a good teacher. When, at last, I found one, he told me that although I had a ‘top C’, I still had a lot to learn.

Eventually, I married and earned my living by playing the violin in cinemas and hotels. I used to get £10 per week, with £3 to £4 in tips, which was excellent, if you consider that a worker’s weekly wage was £3. However, after 1930, this became a very unsettled way of living.