Lazar Lowy


He was a patriarchal figure with a flowing grey beard –  the first Chazan in my life, and my most revered teacher of Chazanut: my late grandfather of blessed memory. Perhaps my love for him makes me romanticise his image somewhat, but as I recall it, his face had that simple dignity with which Rembrandt endowed the portraits of his Amsterdam Rabbis. He lives in my memory as a Chazan of outstanding qualities, and besides possessing a natUral tenor voice of rare timbre, he was also a master of colorature, which reminded one of strings of pearls.

I always spent my school holidays with my grandparents in Papa, a small Hungarian town, not far from the Austrian border, and usually remained there over the High Festivals. Grandfather did not actually give me lessons in Chazanut, yet I learnt more from him than from my subsequent teachers. Listening to his renderings his interpretations of the prayer text  – was the best practical lesson one could imagine.

The synagogue in Papa was an imposing structure, the like of which very few provincial congregations could boast; it was a magnificent edifice, and a little out of proportion with the relatively small town, and insignificant size of the congregation. It was built in a basilical style, with double colonnades, and many arches reaching up to the exquisitely ornamented stained glass windows, depicting biblical scenes. When my grandfather conducted the Services, his voice seemed to echo from every corner of the synagogue, and although he never had a choir to accompany him, his melodious voice and exact rhythm created such perfect harmony that one could, as it were, hear many voices at the same time.

He served his community for forty years, and in 1931, the Royal Hungarian Ministry of Fducation and Culture sent him a special letter of recognition, for his long and faithful service to the Papa Congregation. “The Obercanter”, as he was affectionately called, was one of the most popular figures in town. On Sabbaths and Festivals before Minchah in the afternoon, he would don his white waistcoat with the golden chain, his shiny frock-coat and his top-hat, and go for a walk through the main street of the town. There he would meet some of his congregants with their families, exchange greetings, and acknowledge compliments on his beautiful singing.

When the Second World War was over in 1945, and I was appointed Chazan in Budapest, Rabbi Dr. Akiva Eisenberg (now Chief Rabbi of Austria) and myself, were invited to Papa for the reconsecration of the synagogue which had been defiled by the Germans. It was a painful experience to enter this synagogue again, and find nothing save the bare walls – telling a story of cruelty and destruction. It was a pitiful sight indeed to find in front of the interior, a large gaping hole in the wall, the recess whih had once housed the Holy Ark with the sacred scrolls in it. But, even greater, was the destruction of the once flourishing Jewish Community which was now reduced to a handful of mainly young people who had survived the deportation and concentration camps. This tiny congregation was seated on plain wooden benches which were especially brought into the synagogue for that purpose.

The burgomaster of the town and a number of church dignitaries sat in the front row, feeling rather embarrassed, and trying in vain to put on an expression of ‘surprise and innocence’! It was a simple ceremony, and Dr. Eisenberg, in his passionate address recalled the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, a catastrophe which, according to our sages, had also befallen the people because of causeless hatred. The Rededication Service concluded with the Memorial Prayer which wasP interrupted only by gusts of wind which blew in through the gaping holes which had once held the magnificent stained glass windows. The guests of honour filed out of the synagogue with their heads bowed in shame.

I do not know what has become of that remnant congregation in Páa, and whether the synagogue has ever been re-decorated and used for worship. Those who survived the Holocaust, particularly the young people, probably left long ago to settle in Israel or in other countries. But the figure of my late grandfather, my first and most eminent teacher of Chazanut lives on in my memory, and I will always think of him with a feeling of gratitude and admiration.

(Taken from the April 1980 edition)