Born in 1941, Cantor Joseph Malovany serves as rector of the Institute of Jewish Traditional Liturgical Music in Leipzig, Germany; dean of the Academy of Jewish Music in Moscow; professor of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University in New York; and cantor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue.
He’s sung with such orchestras as the Israel Philharmonic, the London Classical, the New York Symphony, the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Russian State Symphony, and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and has received numerous honors, including the Cross of Merit – Commander of the Legion of Honor, which is Poland’s equivalent of knighthood.
He recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: Where did you grow up? What’s your early background?
Cantor Malovany: I was born and grew up in Tel Aviv where I went to the Bilu school. It was famous all over the world because of its shul, which had a choir of 40 boys led by Shlomo Ravitz, who was a famous chazzan. When I was eight-and-a-half years old, I was already davening Kabbalas Shabbos [for the amud] accompanied by the choir.
Excluding Barchu, I presume.
No, including Barchu. At the time, Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman was the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and he permitted it as a matter of chinuch. Later there were some halachic objections, so Rav Unterman said our teacher, Shlomo Ravitz, should sing Barchu and Kaddish together with the boy.
If you were already leading the davening at Bilu as an eight-year-old boy, you must have been quite musical.
When I was six years old, my mother sold her wedding ring so she could afford to buy a piano for me. That was the same year I started studying at the Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv.
When did you know you would become a chazzan by profession?
I actually originally wanted to become a conductor and studied classical piano and conducting at the Academy of Music of Tel Aviv.
But I found out that in order to get into the world of symphonic conducting, a very important component is entering international conducting competitions. I applied and was accepted to quite a few, but all of them required [conducting] on Shabbos, and I was not prepared to give up an inch in my frumkeit. As an einekel of Reb Avraham Michael Malovany and Reb Yosef Stein – who learned b’chavrusa with the Satmar Rebbe in Europe – it was out of the question.
So it was at that crucial moment that I decided to apply my knowledge of music to chazzanus and become a chazzan.
So you left the world of classical music behind?
No, I still practice every day for 30-45 minutes. I have a huge grand piano at home, and this morning, for example, I played Brahms’s sonata in F sharp minor and Bach’s chromatic fantasy.
In fact, when I have a concert with an orchestra where I am the only one performing, I insist on conducting one symphonic classical music piece for my own pleasure – “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini, for example, or Verde’s “The Force of Destiny.”
Who were your cantorial “heroes” growing up?
First was my teacher Shlomo Ravitz. Then there was Moshe Koussevitzky and his brother David Koussevitzky, whom I knew very well and loved very much. I knew Moshe too. In fact, I accompanied him on the piano when he gave an outdoor concert for 5,000 Israeli soldiers on a July day in the 1960s.
Of course I also liked Yossele Rosenblatt very much, and Mordechai Hershman too. Hershman was not a composer but he had such a beautiful voice and his interpretation was always so sublime that it got to me.
How do you view your job as a chazzan?
A chazzan first and foremost has to regard himself as a shaliach tzibbur. The prayer “Hineni” on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur says a shaliach tzibbur should have a beard, should have a nice voice, and should be “me’urav bedaas im habriyos,” involved in the life of his community. This is extremely important.
Number two, I always tell my students that before you ever try to be a chazzan, you have to be a baal tefillah. A baal tefillah is someone who is extremely well versed with the nusach, with the musical motifs of davening. Every tefillah – take Yishtabach or Ahavah Rabah for example – has a musical motif and that’s the way to sing it. If you sing a congregational melody, it should be built on this motif; if it isn’t, at least come back to it somehow. If you don’t, you are breaking a traditional chain that goes back a couple of thousand years.
Sometimes I hear a shaliach tzibbur sing a pop chassidic melody – which is not pop and not chassidic. It’s nothing. It has no quality. It comes from the nightclubs. There is nothing Jewish there. I would even venture to say it’s a chillul hakodesh. What right do people have to bring the banging of the disco into the synagogue?
In an interview several years ago, you criticized people who study Gemara during davening.
Yes, I’m very critical because, I think, they have no kavanah in their tefillah. They’re just saying the words to be yotzei and then they’re into the learning. What did Shlomo Hamelech say? There is a time for everything. So there is a time for tefillah and a time for learning. I learn the Daf Yomi every morning at 6:30 in my shul. I love learning, but tefillah is tefillah and learning is learning.
Who are some of the famous personalities you’ve met over the years?
Let’s start with Israel. I’ve been friendly with Israeli prime ministers beginning with Golda Meir, who was very musical. She liked chazzanus, and her son was a cellist.
The highlight among the prime ministers was of course Menachem Begin. I remember when he turned 65 I was invited to sing at his birthday and he told me what chazzanus pieces to sing. I was very close with him.
I was also friendly with Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Arik Sharon. Arik loved chazzanus; he was not a big maven but he loved it.
How about other world leaders?
I’ve met Gorbachev several times. His English is not so great but whenever I see him, I tell him a couple of jokes about himself – which someone translates for him – and he’s on the floor.
I met Putin only once and that was for International Holocaust Day in 2005, 60 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. I was invited to do all the tefillos. I remember I asked the president of Poland, “Can you please introduce me to President Putin?” So he says “Volodya, come here. This is Joseph Malovany. He’s my cantor. He sang in my royal castle, and you have to invite him to sing in the Kremlin.” After that we went aside and chatted for about 5-7 minutes on all kinds of interesting things.
Until recently you used to travel often to Eastern Europe. Why?
When the Soviet Union began to crumble I felt that there was a need to do something for Soviet Jewry. I knew they were musical and I thought chazzanus would do a lot for them. So when I received an invitation to come to Moscow, I went and helped establish the Moscow Academy of Jewish Music and the Moscow Jewish Men’s Choir. Until today this choir travels all over the world. It’s my creation – all the music they sing, all the arrangements, everything.
What was it like traveling to the Soviet Union before the Cold War ended?
I had a run-in with the KGB because in a speech I referred to “St. Petersburg” when the city’s official name was still Leningrad. I remember two guys came Friday night to our hotel room and wanted to give me a hard time. I said to them, “If you arrest me for saying that, within an hour President Reagan is going to be on the phone with Gorbachev and you’ll be in trouble for creating an international crisis.”
So nothing [happened]. But as they were leaving the room, they noticed that my wife had lit Shabbos candles. One of the KGB officials looked and looked and then said, “I remember my grandmother lighting candles like this and she did something with the hands.” I looked at him – I had tears in my eyes – and said, “Was it your mother’s mother?” He said, “Yes.” I said to him, “I have news for you. You’re Jewish. What are you giving me a hard time for?” I gave him a hug and we drank vodka.
Have you had any interactions with famous rabbinic personalities? Chassidic rebbes, for example?
I had three chassidic rebbes. First was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, with whom I had an unbelievable relationship. The second was the Satmar Rebbe, whom I told you learned b’chavrusa with my grandfather in Europe. When I used to go into the Satmar Rebbe, he would stand up and say, “I’m standing up not for you; I’m standing up in honor of your grandfather.”
And the third was the old Bobover Rebbe, Reb Shlomo. He was very musical. I once met him in England, and he asked me for my haskama on a new melody he had composed. His meshorerim sang it for me, and I thought that, musically speaking – for a person who had no knowledge of music to be able to compose such a thing with modulations to different keys – it was genius. When they finished it, the Rebbe said to me, “Nu, what do you say?” I said to him, “A niggun like this can only be composed b’ruach hakodesh.”
He became [a bit startled] and said, “Yossele Rosenblatt once spent Shabbos in Bobov and a similar story happened. My father, Rav Bentzion, asked Reb Yossele for his opinion on a niggun he composed and he said the very same words. ‘Only b’ruach hakodesh.’”Elliot Resnick