A decade before one of the most heartbreaking letters ever published in the local Jewish press, a poster appeared in the Hill District with 12 faces, at least 10 of them smiling.
The smiling faces belong to the boys of the Congregation Oher Chodesh choir. In robes and shawls, with prayer books in hand, they surround Cantor David Messeroff, who is not smiling but is not stern either. His face expresses a quiet, humble, reserved dignity.
At the top, in Hebrew, are the words: L’shmoa el ha-rina v’el ha-tefilah. “To hear the songs and the prayers.” And at the bottom, in Yiddish, it reads, “Come hear Cantor Messeroff recite selichot, Saturday, August 28th.” The original Yiddish is somehow more magical: Kumt heren Chazzan Messeroff zoggen slichos Shabbos ovv dem 28ten August.
Messeroff came from Romania in 1924 and assumed a post at Congregation Agudath Achim, which had been founded a year earlier by families on Herron Hill. Sometime around 1934, he moved to Congregation Oher Chodesh, the Roumanian shul, now known as New Light. He worked there for years with choir leader Benjamin Brodie, who is the other unsmiling face. The poster most likely advertises their selichot services from 1937.
This was the Golden Age of Chazzunnus, the period between the wars when the operatic, melismatic, soul-squeezing style of cantorial singing enjoyed its widest popularity in America. The great chazzanim of the day — Rosenblatt, Kwartin, Pinchik, Oysher — all came to Pittsburgh to lead services and give performances for discriminating audiences.
Between those highly anticipated appearances, dozens of workaday clergy like Cantor Messeroff led Orthodox and Conservative services all over the region. (These were the days when the Reform movement resisted the cantor.) High Holiday services were the best promoted, of course, but look through the newspapers of that era and you’ll find all sorts of smaller gigs. Anytime a cantor “officiated” a life cycle event, they likely sang a song.
Few of these local cantors are widely known today. As a class, they are all more obscure than the local rabbinic figures of their era. But in their day, they must have been treasured: few Hill District congregations had a full-time rabbi but many had a chazzan.
And yet, the cantors seemed to sense their standing was unstable. Just a few months after leading High Holiday services at Oher Chodesh in late 1937, Messeroff joined his colleagues to start the Jewish Minsters Cantors Association of Pittsburgh and Vicinity.
Rev. Elias Zaludkowsky of Congregation Beth Shalom led the group. Messeroff was appointed its secretary. Whatever minutes he took have long since been lost. All that remains are a few clippings announcing dates for concerts that only might have occurred.
Zaludkowsky died unexpectedly in 1943, and Messeroff succeeded him as president of the Cantor’s Association of Pittsburgh. Before the High Holidays in 1945, he wrote an essay in the Jewish Criterion, explaining the role of the cantor in the prayer service: “For a long time after the High Holidays, a deep, sweet echo remains in our hearts. Yes, the Cantor has always been, in Jewish religious life, a fellow-feeling personality who helps us forget the wounds that are in our hearts, which are there, above all, in exile.”
By the end of World War II, the young people who started fleeing Europe by the thousands in the 1880s were entering their 70s, their 80s, their 90s. Each January, they would gather at the Jewish Home for the Aged to dedicate new yahrzeit plaques while a member of the Cantor’s Association recited “El Moleh Rachamim.”
But the last babies of the immigrant era, brought over in the early 1920s, were American teenagers, high on swing. Perhaps the wounds changed, or perhaps scar tissue formed.
In February 1948, the Cantor’s Association of Pittsburgh published an open letter to the entire community in the local Jewish press. It began, “Dear Friends: For a long time the Cantors of Pittsburgh have felt that Pittsburgh Jewry have not given them consideration. The community attitude has not been warm enough, and quite restrained in comparison to the relations between the Cantors and the general public in other towns, whether they be smaller or larger cities. We are therefore taking this means of asking you, ‘Why?’”
They weren’t complaining about synagogue attendance or religious observance. It was more basic: People weren’t inviting local cantors to sing at special occasions anymore.
“The Cantor has for many years always participated in Jewish life, both on happy and sorrowful occasions. He wishes to continue to do so now, and asks that the community does not forget him — for you, Pittsburgh Jewry, with your many, many eventful occasions, must take the Cantor to your heart once again. He is ever your willing servant.”
It was a matter of livelihood. Even a cantor employed by a congregation only drew a small salary, which he bolstered with honoraria from officiating weddings and funerals. Long before this style of singing left the synagogue, it drifted away from daily Jewish life.
Love for the greats created enthusiasm that allowed a culture to exist. The inverse was also true: When the merely good couldn’t find work, the greats were left hanging in the air. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.