His voice had the strength of a pipe organ and the gentleness of a violin, but most of all it had the power to make men weep.
His personality was at once sweet and imperious, his bearing unassuming yet regal, and when he entered a room all eyes and ears were instantly upon him. His mere presence at the amud was enough to transform his surroundings, to make the talkative fall silent and the dozers sit up straight.
To be counted among his listeners was an honor not taken lightly, and even on the most sweltering mid-summer mornings the crowds at his marathon Shabbos services never seemed to care that air conditioning was not allowed while Moshe Koussevitzky was leading the congregation in prayer.
The Koussevitzkys were a musical family living along the Russian-Polish border at the time of Moshe’s birth on June 9 (Tammuz 1), 1899. His father, Avigdor, was a music teacher and his mother, Alta, an accomplished pianist. Moshe and his three brothers, David, Jacob and Simcha, were all child prodigies, but it was clear early on that Moshe was destined for greatness.
Following a childhood and adolescence spent under the tutelage of a series of demanding choirmasters and teachers including Shimon Alter, Ephraim Shliapok and Eliyahu Salutkowsky, Moshe moved to Vilna in 1920 where he served as cantor first at the Sawel Synagogue and later at the Vilna Stadt shul.
In 1928 Moshe was appointed cantor of Warsaw’s famed Tlomatzke Synagogue, succeeding the legendary Gershon Sirota. Moshe’s years in Warsaw coincided with the spread of his reputation to all parts of the Jewish world, and his concerts in Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Brussels, Antwerp and London were always major events in those cities.
He made two trips to Palestine, in 1934 and 1936, and the atmosphere surrounding each visit was compared by one writer to that of a national holiday. His American debut came in 1938, at New York’s Carnegie Hall, for which he received rave reviews. A number of synagogues here made him lucrative offers to stay, but he made it clear that he had no intention of abandoning Tlomatzke.
In 1939 Moshe’s idyllic life in Warsaw was shattered by the onset of World War II. Despite a number of close calls, including arrest by the Gestapo, Moshe managed to escape Nazi-occupied Poland and find refuge with his family – wife Raya and children Sonia and Alexander – in the Soviet Union. He embarked on a new career as a Russian concert and opera star, and among his many honors he received the Stalin Order of Merit for his contributions to war morale.
Moshe and his family came to the U.S. in 1947. (Moshe’s mother and two of his brothers, David and Jacob, also settled in the U.S. while brother Simcha established himself as a cantor in South Africa.)
Performing at Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall and several other prestigious venues, Moshe soon had American music critics swooning in admiration – and a recording contract from RCA Victor. For the third time in his life, Moshe had charted a new course for himself.
In 1952 Moshe was hired by Congregation Beth El of Brooklyn, a synagogue known for the scholarship of its rabbi, Israel Schorr, and the roster of world-class cantors who had graced its sanctuary since the early 1920’s. Moshe resided in Great Neck, Long Island, and kept an apartment in Boro Park for his Saturdays at Beth El.
But with achievement and renown came tragedy. Within a few years of his arrival in America, Moshe lost first his wife and then his daughter. He maintained a close relationship with his granddaughter and took an active role in helping his son-in-law raise the child, but there was still a considerable void in his personal life through the mid-1950’s.
Moshe eventually remarried, and his new wife, Bernice, devoted herself to his comfort and well-being during the final years of his life. Moshe’s son, Alexander, a chazzan himself who was associated for many years with the Utopia Jewish Center in Queens, died in 1975, just 48 years old.
Memories of Moshe
The late cantor Zachary Schwarzberg recalled hearing Moshe in Warsaw in the 1930’s. A member of the Nozik shul choir, Schwarzberg, then in his early teens, would occasionally sleep at his uncle’s house for Shabbos in order to attend services at the nearby Tlomatzke Synagogue.
“He was only in his thirties, but he was already considered the king of chazzanus,” said Schwarzberg. “His voice was that of a lion, but at the same time it was incomparably sweet.”
Years later, Schwarzberg had the opportunity to hear Moshe perform on several occasions in New York, and he concurs with the view – widely shared among Koussevitzky aficionados – that Moshe’s voice was, at that point, even better than it had been a quarter-century earlier.
Benzion Miller, chazzan since 1981 at what is now Young Israel-Beth El of Boro Park, calls Moshe’s range “phenomenal,” declaring that without question Moshe was in “a class by himself.” Known for his varied, improvisational style of davening, Miller nevertheless acknowledges that over the years he increasingly appropriated Moshe’s style, difficult as it is for most chazzanim.
Cantor Binyamin Siller, president of the Cantors Ministers Guild of the U.S. and Canada, was in his youth a member of the Beth El choir and remembers Moshe with a mixture of love and awe. “I had the privilege of hardly missing a davening of Moshe’s between 1955 and 1966,” he says. “My father had always thought that nobody was greater than Mordechai Hershman, with whom he’d studied, but his assessment changed once he heard Moshe.”
One of Siller’s most treasured memories is of the time he performed for Moshe at the Koussevitzkys’ home in Great Neck.
“It was July 1965,” he recalls, “and Moshe was a very gracious host, offering my parents and me refreshments and repeatedly asking us if there was anything he could get us. Then he sat down at the piano and accompanied me on a couple of songs, after which he turned to my parents and said with a smile, ‘This young man has a lot of chutzpah; he picks some of my hardest compositions and does them so well.’
“As you can imagine, this meant the world to me. Afterward, I asked him to sign a drawing I’d made of him. As he was signing it, he winked and said, ‘Now if this were only Marc Chagall’s autograph, it might actually be worth something…’ “
The late cantor Oizer Neuman, once the lead soloist in Beth El’s choir, related the following anecdote as indicative of Moshe’s manner and method. “I started the solo of V’u Yashmienu on a higher note than usual, as per the request of Ben Friedman, the choir leader. While I was singing, however, I saw that Mr. Friedman was getting noticeably nervous, and that he kept glancing over at Moshe and then looking at me. I had no idea what was happening. After the davening, Mr. Friedman took my hand and we walked over to Chazzan Koussevitzky who, though he didn’t look angry, said to me quite firmly: ‘That was very nice, but please don’t do it again.’
“I didn’t understand what he meant by that, but later my father remarked that he had never heard Moshe’s voice go so high, and he asked me why I, as the soloist, had started the piece on such a high note. I explained that I was only following the signal of the choir leader.
“Well, the next month, when we reached that point in the davening, Moshe smiled, winked, and pointed with his finger down, so of course I started lower. When we were finished, Moshe came over and said with a huge grin, ‘Much, much better.’
“That was Moshe – he was very demanding, and he let you know if he wasn’t satisfied, but at the same time he was quick with praise and always went out of his way to show his appreciation.”
Cantor Robert Vegh was a soloist in the Beth El choir in the early 1960’s and describes Moshe as having had “simply the perfect voice, the perfect nusach, the perfect range.”
Vegh says he can vividly recall Moshe’s Hoshannas, when “the chazzan would walk the aisles with such poise, holding his lulav and esrog, not a flicker in his hands or his eyes as he sang. His voice just radiated through the shul, and many in the standing-room-only crowd had tears running down their faces.”
Due to a full schedule of concerts and appearances in concert halls and synagogues throughout the country and abroad, Moshe generally davened one Shabbos a month (usually Rosh Chodesh) at Beth El. The service would commence at 8:30 a.m. and end sometime between 1:30 and 2 p.m.
“Someone once asked him,” says Siller, “why he insisted on punishing himself with a five-hour davening. Moshe replied, ‘Since I’m always on the road, I can only daven for my people at Beth El once a month – and I think they deserve my absolute best.’ “
A special characteristic of Moshe’s was the total sovereignty he exercised over the congregation. “He commanded the shul,” says Siller. “If there was excessive noise, he would just stop, turn around and gaze at everyone in his line of vision. At that point it would grow so quiet you could hear a pin drop.”
A well-known story about Moshe illustrates both his strict requirement of proper decorum and his understated sense of humor. Just as he was about to begin the Shacharis Shemoneh Esrei one Shabbos, a mild disturbance over a seat broke out in the rear of the packed shul. Moshe, as was his custom, would not start until full order was restored. The gabbai, increasingly agitated, banged for order and shouted in Yiddish: “Silence, please! The chazzan cannot daven!”
To which Moshe quickly responded, also in Yiddish: “The chazzan can indeed daven – but will not until it’s quiet.”
Moshe was always mindful of his audience, never for a moment forgetting that it was the love he received from the masses, perhaps even more than the acclaim he won from his peers, that sustained his prominence.
“After every davening,” says Siller, “people would crowd around and bombard him with questions and comments. And Moshe would patiently stand there, literally dripping with sweat, completely drained from his performance. But he wouldn’t leave until everyone had the chance to speak with him.”
“People used to come from all over the world to hear him,” recalls Vegh, “so after a typical service you’d have them eagerly rushing up to him saying, ‘Hi, I’m from Brazil,’ or ‘Hello, I’m from London.’ And there were always the old-timers who remembered him from Europe and wanted to shmooze about mutual friends and acquaintances. It didn’t matter who you were or what you had to say; Moshe made you feel like there was nothing in the world he’d like better than to stand and chat – even if what he really wanted was a towel, a cup of tea and some peace and quiet.”
It is not known when exactly Moshe realized he was dying, but by late 1965 he was already exhibiting the physical ravages of the cancer that would ultimately claim him. He was able to continue performing until almost the very end, however, and in May 1966 gave a concert, at the old Brooklyn Jewish Center on Eastern Parkway, considered by many to be one of his all-time best.
“There were more than a thousand people in attendance,” says Siller, “and I think he knew his time was limited and wanted to give the crowd everything he had in him.”
At the conclusion of that concert, Rabbi Schorr of Beth El observed to Moshe, “Your ‘Sheyebaneh Beis Hamikdash’ is getting better and better – in fact, this was the best I’ve ever heard it.”
Moshe nodded and said, “We are coming closer to reclaiming the Kotel.”
Moshe would not live to see it, but 13 months later, in June 1967, the Kotel was indeed redeemed.
“That last concert was truly memorable,” says Vegh. “He was, by then, on all types of medication, and he had lost a tremendous amount of weight. The story that went around at first was that he had a sugar problem; I don’t think most people knew it was cancer until after Shavuos that year.”
“Moshe davened Shavuos at Beth El,” remembers Siller, “and for the most part his voice was as powerful as ever. By then it was common knowledge that something was seriously wrong with his health, but I don’t think anyone, outside of his family and maybe a few of his closest friends, knew just how serious his condition was.”
“He was fabulous that final Shavuos,” agrees Vegh. “I think he had a problem with Musaf one day, but otherwise you couldn’t tell anything was wrong. Unbelievably, he was gone in a matter of weeks, on August 23, Elul 7, to be precise.”
As he lay on his deathbed that August at his home in Great Neck, Moshe picked up the phone and called his good friend, the renowned operatic tenor Jan Peerce. Moshe sang to Peerce for several minutes, sounding strong and perfect as ever. Then, with a mix of bewilderment and resignation, he said in Yiddish, “Can you imagine, Jan, that in a very short period of time this voice is going to go into the earth?”
But Moshe could not have been more wrong. The body may have gone into the earth, but the voice – the voice lives. It lives whenever and wherever anyone listens to a Koussevitzky recording. It lives every time an aspiring chazzan tries to emulate the Koussevitzky style. It lives anywhere two or more Koussevitzky devotees talk about the man who to them will always be the King of the Cantors.
And it lives through the memories of those who will never forget.