(Click for Part 1)
Hazzan Moses Master and his choir at Adath Yeshurun ca. 1930s. Young members of synagogue choirs learned from older choir members, choir masters and cantors. They in turn transmitted their knowledge to future generations.
The Last Teachers
Almost two years ago I met with Arie Subar, who is the cantor at the Beth Ora Congregation in Ville St-Laurent. He is one of the remaining hazzanim (cantors) from a golden era of hazzanut and synagogue music in Montreal that began in the 1920s and probably came to an end by 2000, although many might say it was fading earlier. Subar arrived here in 1961 from Israel and began his career at the newly amalgamated Shomrim Laboker, Beth Yehuda and Shaare Tfillah on Westbury Avenue in Snowdon. Just a few years earlier the three synagogues had operated independently in different buildings around the Lower Plateau.
Subar is a preserver of hazzanut (cantorial music). In 1971, he published a book about the hazzanim of Montreal, which included biographies and photos of the many cantors in the city at the time, as well as whatever information he could collect about the city’s former cantors from as early as the 1920s. He became a leader of the Council of Hazzanim of Greater Montreal, and is now perhaps the last teacher for new hazzanim in the city who are searching for extra training.
Courtesy of Arie Subar (www.cantorariesubar.com)
Subar was born in Israel and comes from a line of cantors. His father, his grandfather and great-grandfather were cantors in British Palestine (and Ottoman Palestine before that). He learned the nusach (modes for different prayer services) from his grandfather who presumably learned it from his father. His current students, among the shrinking number of hazzanim in Montreal, will hopefully pass on to future generations the knowledge that Subar gained from his ancestors and from Montreal’s mid-century greats.
2,000 Years of Tradition
If that sounds like a long tradition, consider that hazzanut itself has 2,000 years of history, with roots that go back as far as the 2nd Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Though we will never know how prayer services sounded back then, we do know that some of the words and prayers still said today come from that era, and some scholars claim that the nusach derives from the Temple services.
Think of hazzanut as a series of building blocks that are constantly added to or rearranged as Jews moved from one place to another around the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. New components were added as Jews came into contact with different musical traditions, new prayers were added to the liturgy over the years by different rabbis and poets, and cantors and choirs developed new styles, which reflected the mood of the people in times of peace, success, violence or danger.
Selections from Hazzan Moses Master’s sheet music collection show the variety of influences he brought over from Europe in the 1920s. Courtesy of CJCCCNA.
By the time cantorial music arrived at the banks of the St. Lawrence River around the turn of the 20th century, it was deeply affected by Classical music, formal music education, the reforms and counter-reforms of 19th century Judaism, and increasingly large choirs and complex arrangements. Those cantors arriving from Eastern Europe brought in their song a certain amount of mourning and sadness from centuries of hardship, as well as rich traditions of ornamentation and improvisation.
Cantors needed to know the words of the service almost by heart, the specific nusach that pertained to the given service of the week (there were dozens), have the ability to read music, understand the text so they could interpret its meaning through improvisation, and know the various melodies that different congregations sang for different songs.
From Hazzanut to Jazzland to French Canadian Folk Music
For Eastern European Jews, arriving in Montreal between the 1880s and 1920s, this music was what Subar calls “the bread and butter of the people.” Even the many Jewish immigrants who were non-observant or irreligious found comfort in this music or saw it in romantic terms – as a type of Jewish folk music. The editor of the Keneder Adler, Montreal’s Yiddish daily, was also a musicologist. Israel Rabinovitch, a secular Labour Zionist, would devote some of the space of the paper, which did not have a particularly religious outlook, to discussing hazzanut and Jewish music.
Israel Rabinovitch speaking, ca. 1950s. To his left sit Samuel Bronfman and MP Leon Crestohl. Courtesy of CJCCCNA.
An article in the Keneder Adler by Israel Rabinovitch on different tunes for Shir Hashirim (King Soloman’s Song of Songs) with musical notation, April 17, 1935. Courtesy of CJCCCNA.
Rabinovitch also published a book on the same topic in 1940, called Musik by Yidn (translated as On Jewish Music.) The renowned Canadian author A. M. Klein, worked down the hall from Rabinovitch in the Keneder Adler building at 4075 St-Laurent, and translated it in 1952. We learned about the close ties between these two individuals when we interviewed Jack Wolofsky, whose grandfather Hirsch Wolofsky was owner and publisher of the Keneder Adler. Jack Wolofsky worked at the newspaper every evening as a teenager in the 1940s.
Jack Wolofsky in his office. Above him hangs the eagle from his grandfather’s Yiddish daily, the Keneder Adler (Canadian Eagle).
Wolofsky told me a bit about this rare book when I met him at his office in Côte-des-Neiges in October. He mentioned that there was an entire chapter dedicated to Jewish influences on jazz. I found this fascinating but quickly forgot about that detail.
Musik by Yidn (Israel Rabinovitch)
A few weeks later, my parents were on a trip to New York to help clean out my grandparents’ apartment. My mother let me know that she had brought back a copy of Rabinovitch’s book. (This isn’t entirely accidental. My grandmother lived in Montreal until 1948 and her parents were Labour Zionists who ran in the same circle as Rabinovitch.) I can barely read Yiddish, but just a quick perusing of the book’s table of contents revealed that there in fact was a chapter titled “Unzer Haimische Klezmer in Jazz-Land.”
The book also includes sections about cantorial nusach and interestingly, a couple of chapters dedicated to the similarities between French Canadian folk music and traditional Jewish music. Rabinovitch wrote during an era of great misunderstanding and tension between Jews and French Canadians that had been punctuated by clear moments of antisemitism. But like A. M. Klein would do in The Rocking Chair a few years later, Rabinovitch looked beyond the borders of his community and sought to find commonalities with Canada’s other minority.
Chapter in Rabinovitch’s Musik by Yidn comparing traditional Jewish music with French Canadian folk music.
A meeting of Le Cercle Juif, a pioneering group that promoted Franco-Catholic and Jewish relations, ca. 1950s. Israel Rabinovitch sits at the far left. Courtesy of CJCCCNA.
(To be continued…)
Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal
Visit IMJM’s new walking tour: Between These Walls: Hidden Sounds of Hazzanut in Montreal