Pictures at the exhibition: personal reflections of Elwood Shule

A version of this article was written for Elwood’s 75th anniversary.

Chazan Levy z”l did not look at all well.  Despite his ubiquitous gentle smile, he suddenly assumed a worrying demeanour that was a portent to his passing on Rosh Hashono over a year later.  A year prior to his Petira, Elwood approached me to assume the role of chazan over the high holidays. The persistence of Fred Antman and my father eventually swayed me. Leading the prayers is more than putting on a Tallis and indulging in an operatic odyssey through traditional liturgy. One becomes the shaliach (messenger) of the congregation and on these days of awe, that responsibility continues to rest heavily. Acclimatisation to the role is probably contraindicated.

As a member of second-generation holocaust survivors, my psyche is hopelessly infused with the existential tragedy of Jewish history. Elwood Shule was and remains a potent source of concentrated post-holocaust trauma that cannot be excised from my id. Booba Toba ע’’ה had posed the first halachic question to the newly inducted Rabbi Chaim Gutnick z”l, standing at his door with a freshly slaughtered chicken in tow. Over 50 years ago, the young un-bearded Rabbi Gutnick’s first official wedding at Elwood was that of my parents. He later also served as the sandek on my bris. Our familial ties to Elwood are entwined through a vibrant tradition.

Those were the days.

On the high holidays, holocaust survivors packed the shule. It was standing room only. A veritable cornucopia of characters paraded like “pictures at the exhibition”, as they ascended to shake Rabbi Gutnick’s hand, followed by that of my beloved teacher Chazan Adler z”l. It seemed that an assessment of each persons success, health and nachas over the past year was dissected among those hallowed pews, mimicking the judgement that was ironically taking place in heaven at that same moment. From the ostentatious, to the miserly gvir, and from the nebach to the do-gooder, we trembled as Chazan Adler

Chazan Avraham Adler ז’ל

intoned those ancient tunes. Rabbi Chaim Gutnick expertly captured the moment with his unique emotion-laden oratory. In those days, congregants had an innate sense of holiness, irrespective of their level of observance, having been infused with a quality traditional Jewish education that equipped them to comfortably navigate the words of the machzor with sincerity and conviction. On a regular Shabbos, the array of characters was no less interesting to this lad.

Pacing back and forth in the Beis Medrash the tall, hunched and sad man who seemed to sleep at Shule, was engaged in a frightening, surreal, and animated discussion with an SS officer threatening to abduct his wife and children. I was to learn that this traumatic experience was true and had led a once highly intelligent man to be reduced to a haunting figure who “talked to himself.” An indelible picture was etched.

The shorter man, dressed in a stained, dark, and sombre suit, lived in a bungalow behind the shule. Davening with the aid of a magnifying glass, we were terrified with his angry countenance, not to mention the acidic yiddish invective that materialised if we got “too close”.

The “political cabinet” consisting of a set of quasi ministers (aka mispallelim) sat at the back of the shule. The State of Israel and its geopolitical place was the inescapable weekly topic. From the mayvens who were never wrong, to the quiet observers who occasionally piped up with a solution to the problems of the world, shabbos davening functioned as a social event, where survivors from different parts of Europe were drawn together at the back of a Shule in Elwood, in free Australia.

My public singing probably began at Chedva. I vividly recall Reb Shmuel Althaus z”l himself an accomplished Baal T’filla, encouraging me to sing “Moscow Nights” as I was hoisted onto a table to the delight of a fashionable array of diners. Rabbi Groner z”l was another source of inspiration, and I was to become a soloist in the Yeshivah Choir. My first “gig” was singing with the Italian band Los Latinos at my cousin Leiba’s wedding, perched on my Uncle Ya’acov’s  ז’ל shoulders.

It was time to begin the preparation for my Bar Mitzvah. I could never have imagined how that experience would unfold. My father, knowing that I was blessed with a voice, approached Chazan Adler ז’ל to instruct me. I had learned to play violin for several years and acquired an appreciation of music. Many of Chazan Adler’s tunes had  found a home in my subconscious iTunes library. We used to meet in the boardroom. The lessons were uneventful. Somehow, as Yom Tov approached, I found myself having lessons at Chazan Adler’s flat in Dickens Street. It was small and cosy. The Chazente, Mrs Adler ע’’ה was always cooking something aromatic. We seemed to run through the Bar Mitzvah lesson quickly. After that, Chazan Adler would search among his folders of chazonus. He never used his “full” voice, always practising in falsetto. On occasion, he would insert magic spray into his throat. For a little boy, this scene bordered on the comical. The Bar Mitzvah lesson had effectively ended; what was I still doing there?

After setting the key with his pitchfork, Chazan Adler would begin. Peering over his shoulder, I became aware that he was singing directly from notes. As if I hadn’t had enough of violin lessons; I was now confronted with another musical challenge. I learned how to warm-up my voice (although I use less conventional methods these days before and during a Simcha) and how to practice breathing properly.  I was blessed with a decent musical memory and still remember Chazan Adler singing Hasom Nafsheinu with the band at my own Bar Mitzvah. Although this was a new song that I haven’t heard since, I still vividly hear him. On one occasion, Chazan Adler began singing Odom Yesodo Me-ofor. I recognised the tune, as it had been used in the previous year. Instinctively, I began to harmonise, after which a broad smile broke out on his face. Mrs Adler was also listening at the doorway. Sadly, the Chazan and his wife were childless and I was to later learn from Rabbi Groner ז’ל, that this was a source of great pain for the Adlers. Rabbi Groner recalled he once covered for Rabbi Gutnick when the latter was overseas, and that Chazan Adler had indulged in a lengthy piece during Ahava Raba wherein the Chazan poured out his soul  with bitter tears because they were childless. Rabbi Groner remarked that he could still feel the hairs on his neck standing during that piece.

After cajoling and parental encouragement, I found myself at the Bima singing a few pieces with the Chazan on the high holidays. Chazan Adler was clever. I remember how he had me commence Unesane Tokef in my as yet unbroken voice. Normally this would have been at his lower register because of the octave jump at Ki Hu Noiro. Because I started the stanza, I could also sing the beginning at the top of my register, after which Chazan Adler could take over in a more comfortable key. During my own davening each year I still use this same tune, although I have to always remember to start low to achieve the octaval bump.

My Bar Mitzvah arrived. The Shule faced a different direction in those days. Putting on my Zeyda Yidel’s ז’ל Tallis, I nervously ascended to the bima standing on a wooden step so that my small frame was able to see the words of the Torah.  My job was somewhat easier because there were many extra aliyos, I had time to look at the next few verses and revise. It was only natural that our sons Tzvi Yehuda and most recently Yossi would also have their Bar Mitzvahs in the same shule and on the same bima. Happily, they both didn’t require that wooden step, being taller.

After my Bar Mitzvah I sang with Chazan Adler for one more year. Much to my father’s disappointment, I didn’t want to continue with singing lessons. Apart from lessons involving violin, school, gym and swimming, I couldn’t understand why I had to be different to other boys. Did they have singing lessons? Did they have to accompany the Chazan on high holidays? Footy, soccer and cricket beckoned. Chazan Adler was to later remind my father “I could have taught him more.” It never remotely occurred to me, back then, that I would be enlisted some 30 years later as the Chazan on high holidays. I still hear my father reminding me of Chazan Adler’s words as we walked the “long way” home every second shabbos.

Those walks were an experience.

We’d start with Kiddush at my great-uncle Avrohom’s ז’ל house in Avoca Court. We’d then snake our way to Zevke’s house. Zevke z”l, whose daughter was a pop singer, sold toys and if I was a “good” boy at Shule my father allowed me to go into Zevke’s house and see what was “new”. Every now and again, a toy found its way into our home, first at “The Avenue” and then at  “Rockbrook Road”. After Zevke’s, we’d drop off the famed butcher Mr Kramer, and the entourage would continue towards Carlisle Street.

The pace could only be described as “leisurely”.

Apart from the fact that my Uncle Ya’acov z”l had sore legs on account of poor blood flow, Carlisle Street presented shop-after-shop selling shmattes. We’d stop, and the entourage would peer at the stock and prices nisht shabbes geret and then take a few more steps. I was so bored! Why didn’t we go home directly? It was a privilege, in retrospect, when the unassuming Tzadik Reb Chaim Yaffe z”l would accompany us on those walks. He was a profound Talmid Chochom but he was an even bigger mench. As I reminisce, he reminds me very much of Rav Abaranok z”l another teacher of mine who was also a giant when it came to exemplary and unassuming menchlichkeit.

My last conversation with Chazan Adler occurred only a few days before his passing. Chazan Adler was living in a Jewish old-age home in Vienna. Rabbi Chaim Gutnick had just passed away a few weeks earlier.  Sitting in my office at RMIT, I impulsively rang the Chazan. After a few failed attempts we spoke. He was overjoyed to speak with me and asked about the well being of a host of congregants. It became clear in the course of our conversation that he had not heard of Rabbi Gutnick’s passing, so I had the odious duty to inform him. The Chazan’s pained krechtzing in response to the news forms another picture at the exhibition. Eerily, it was only a few short days after the phone conversation that I was to learn of Chazan Adler‘s own passing.

Chazan Adler lives on! I almost exclusively sing his tunes each year. These and other “pictures at the exhibition” influenced and continue to shape the thoughts that go through my mind.

Regards from Kuala Lumpur where Lehavdil someone is doing chazonus through a loudspeaker for a different religion and driving me bonkers.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have nought to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

8 thoughts on “Pictures at the exhibition: personal reflections of Elwood Shule”

  1. great piece – you write like you sing – very well imho
    so how are Leiba and Matthew these days?
    they are / were good friends of my sister (6 yrs older)…
    did you know Benzcion Rosencwaijg obm?
    he was close friend of my family for many years
    kol tuv PH

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    1. Thank Pinchas. Yes, Leiba and Matthew are good. One child married (Aviva).
      Of course I knew Benzcion. Unfortunately, I attended his funeral. He was the Gabay when I started Davening for the Amud. I used to visit him at the Montefiore, and also bought trinkets from him for my wife 🙂 back in those days. He was another character. He told me about his 1st wife (and I think 2 boys) who perished in the Holocaust. He had a connection to the Glasmans as well, as I recall. He had an interesting type of “Yetzer Hora” that we don’t see anymore. At Katanga they used to fight (literally) to get to the Amud. Some of them had Yohr Tzeit after their cats, and davened the shabbos before, the shabbos after, during the week on the day, and got maftir. This is a good Yetzer Hora, although not one I could ever understand 🙂 Benczion had a Yetzer Hora for being Gabay. You couldn’t take that away from him with an axe. Clearly the hergesh was something he took with him from Poland. Towards the later years, it became a tad comical as his hearing was in decline. He’d sing along with the Chazan 🙂 His voice wasn’t bad, but because he was largely deaf, he’d be out of time and synch and drove us mad! I remember having to give him a “dirty” look to try and get him to stop. Nowadays, the Gabay at Elwood also has a tendency to sing along, but he is tone deaf, and if and when I give him the look he starts laughing. These days, I just stop and glare 🙂 Okay, okay, you have to understand, there are quiet pivotal moments and sometimes it sounds like a cat has come to the Amud and joined me 🙂
      Benczion was generous. I remember he donated a bus for MDA and Elwood has a weekly Shabbos Kiddush sponsored by his estate, not to mention a Sefer Torah. He loved children but alas he lost his precious ones.
      These were special souls

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  2. Isaac
    Your piece brought back memories of my time in Elwood Shule.
    It would be a good idea to record something about some of the chachters from the Shule:
    Hans Bachrach, Mr Myer the matzevah kritzer, Mr Isaacovich, Yankel Slonim, Yudel Slonim, Mr Hirsch, Mr Cherny, Reb Chaim Reicher, Mr Tabak ( I think) who donated a sefer torah to the shule, Mr Gandel, Mr Salzberg, Fiavel( I think) etc etc Mr Aron,

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    1. Moshe you are a fair bit older than I. Messrs Bachrach, Reicher, Cherny, Saltzberg, Myer were either not there or I was too young to know them. You are welcome to write your impressions in a guest post

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  3. Isaac, I just came across this entry in your blog, quite by a roundabout way, through searching the internet for items related to Chazan Adler, z”l. I well remember your intor to Unetaneh Tokef, with the Chazan coming in at Ki Hu Nora. Chaval al de’avdin.

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    1. I can proudly advise that until this year Elwood had me following exactly that Nusach and my kids thing its strange if someone doesnt do it that way. When I did it with Chazan Adler as a boy i sang up the octave naturally. When i do it on my own i have to go up the octave myself with a dry throat. Need to be careful not to start too high or I am a gonner!

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