In our journey into the history of First Congregation Anshei Sfard of Boro Park, we have noted that the rabbonim throughout its century of existence were of a special caliber, unique men of scholarship and public service who were a rare breed in their surroundings.
But the chazzanim of the Sfardishe shul over the decades were likewise special, none more than the king of chazzanus, a man who combined every possible good quality that made him a wondrous chazzan and at the same time guarded his soul so that he would remain pure to his holy craft.
His time in America was distinguished throughout by his heroism, his clarity of thought, and the company he kept, not compromising one iota on his deeply held values, and never forgetting for a moment that he was a shliach tzibbur in praising Hashem, thus increasing kevod Shomayim. The way in which he withstood his nisyonos remains a source of wonder and amazement to this day.
So many old timers from Boro Park of the ‘20s had this as one of their earliest memories. Throngs of people crowded the intersection of Fourteenth Avenue and Forty-Fifth Street in an effort to hear that magical, legendary voice emanating from the open windows of the Sfardishe shul, warming their hearts and souls.
It is something that was a great point of pride to those Boro Parkers of yore, and something that is talked about to this day by the leadership of the shul, which still retains an original copy of their contract with the chazzan for the Yomim Nora’im of the year 1932, the second to last during which his voice would inspire Jewish hearts on this earth.
Born into Regality
Ruzhin is a dynasty that is known for its royalty. Yossele was born in the year 1882 to his father, Refoel Sholom, who was a chossid of the rebbes of Sadigura, a branch of the Ruzhiner dynasty.
For his entire life, Yossele carried himself with a certain aristocracy. His father and grandfathers were great baalei tefillah as well, and from the youngest age, Yossele was a natural, gravitating to his place alongside his father at the amud, a place that he would soon surpass, rising to worldwide fame.
In a conversation with Heint, conducted at his sprawling suite at Krakow’s Europejski Hotel while on a tour in Europe in 1928, Yossele recalled his earliest days and the journey of his career to date: “I was the tenth child, a son, born after nine daughters… My father was a very poor man, who served as the chazzan in a very small shul in our town of Bella-Tsarkow, in the Kiev region of Ukraine.
“The great chazzanim Yeruchom Hakatan and Nissan Belzer were my mother’s cousins, and all her brothers were phenomenal baalei menagnim. So I inherited music from both sides of the family. As a young boy, I internalized all of the niggunim that my father would rehearse with his choir…and at the age of 4, I joined them. When I was seven years old, my family was exiled from Russia, since my father had been there on a Turkish visa. We landed in Sadigur, in Galicia…where we starved. The chazzan, Reb Srulche, discovered me and brought me to daven by the rebbe.
A Steady Ascent
“When my father went to the rebbe and said that he has no parnassah, the rebbe advised him to take me along and become a wandering chazzan. First we went to Chernovitz, where we earned 10 gold coins per Shabbos – a fortune by our standards. After ten weeks, we continued on. I began to sing my own compositions. They brought us down to Lember, and to Krakow, where they entered the story of my appearance in the kehillah ledgers. In Vienna, I davened in the famous ‘Shiff Shul’ for 100 gulden!
“In Vienna, Oberkantor Dan Fuchs wanted to place me into conservatory…but I didn’t want to become a goy…so I declined, denying myself a world career.”
The story is told that as a bochur, Yossele would sneak away for spiritual nourishment by the Chortkover Rebbe. Once, he was asked to daven for the amud. As soon as he finished, the rebbe emotionally exclaimed, “I am confident that he will one day be a gadol b’Yisroel!” When Yossele offered to remain on as a steady baal tefillah, the rebbe demurred. “No,” he said, “your mission is to inspire Jews everywhere.”
In his conversation with Heint, Yossele added, “At the age of 18, I married a daughter of Reb Yidel Kaufman, a Bobover chossid, who was the shochet in a town near Krakow. My wife’s brothers are all menagnim as well. I spent a few years as a chazzan in Pressburg, where my choir consisted of talmidim of the Pressburg Yeshiva.”
When the pressure from America did not let up, Yossele took the advice of his rabbeim and made his way to American shores to begin a new golden era of chazzanus.
Immediately upon arriving in America, he was treated like royalty…unlike other chazzanim who immigrated and needed to make a name for themselves.
It was here where his replicated abilities would receive a true worldwide audience. The voice and the range that have never been heard since were only matched by his heart, which gave us such timely classics that are perpetuated for eternity, sung in every corner of the earth.
In the coming installment of this profile on the life a legendary talent – whose yiras Shomayim always came first – we will explore his time in America, as well as his years in Boro Park of yesteryear.
To be continued…