The Forgotten Legacy of a Cantor Who Lost His Voice

Years after Zalman Pollack was a star of the Jewish world, his life's work was rediscovered...

Richard Shavei-Tzion
Zalman Pollack and some of his invaluable notes, now part of the National Sound Archive and Music Department at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem

A couple of regular folks are walking down a Jerusalem street one balmy evening in the 1990s, when they notice a number of abandoned cartons on the sidewalk, undoubtedly on their way to the municipal garbage dump. Their interest piqued, they look inside and to their great surprise find hundreds of original handwritten sheets of musical notes, each signed, “Rights reserved by Zalman Pollack.”

Pollack’s notes on a traditional High Holiday prayer. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

There are also old photographs, as well as other memorabilia. Understanding that these documents may have great value, they take them to the National Library of Israel. These kindly folks may not understand the full extent of their actions, but they have just saved a unique musical jewel from destruction.

Zalman Pollack was an unusual man who lived a somewhat tragic life. He was born in 1901 in Ptrovo Selo, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), a city that was well known for its abundance of competent cantors. His early years were characterized by the roaming of a Jewish nomad. In 1919 he made aliyah, immigrating to the Land of Israel with his mother. Shortly thereafter he was injured in the Arab riots of 1921. In 1922, despite being offered a cantorial position in the synagogue of Rishon LeZion, he returned to Europe. There he continued his studies and then served as cantor in Sarajevo and Vienna from 1926, finally returning to the Land of Israel in 1934, where he lived until he passed away in 1985, aged 84.

Zalman Pollack’s High Holiday service performance was billed as a “traditional, authentic prayer” from the “former chief cantor of Sarajevo and Vienna”. Published in Ha’aretz on September 4, 1942; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

From 1934 to the end of the 1940s, Pollack flourished as a well-known cantor in the Land of Israel, appearing in synagogues around the country. Unfortunately there are no known recordings of Pollack at the height of his cantorial career.

He was among the founders of Israel’s Cantors’ Association in 1937, remaining active in the organization for many years. At the age of 47 he married Margalit Agassi. The couple remained childless.

Then quite tragically, around 1949, his voice inexplicably cracked and he could no longer sing, except in an indistinct high pitched voice. Zalman Pollack had lost the tool of his art – his voice, permanently.

For the rest of his life, he devoted his energies to notating music, both traditional modes and his own compositions, and educating budding cantors and prayer leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Zalman Pollack. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge
Pollack’s notes on the traditional Ne’ilah service for the conclusion of Yom Kippur. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Using his manuscripts, as well as recordings of himself singing the entire traditional prayer service (in falsetto voice), he founded a one-man school, which he named after King David, the “sweet singer of Israel.” He operated classes for beginners as well as for advanced students, and wrote different versions of tunes, those appropriate for expert cantors and simpler ones for amateur practitioners. His graduates can be heard to this day, singing in houses of prayer around the Ashkenazi world. Amongst his noted pupils were cantors Dudu Fisher, Binyamin Muller, Asher Hainowitz and Yehoshua Lerrer.

One of his students, Gabi Lindenberg, describes lessons at Pollack’s home on Harlap Street in Jerusalem in the 1960s:

“He was an extremely modest man and charged a lowly fee for his services. His wife, who was a sickly woman, would serve tea and cookies. As he could not sing, he would play tapes that he had recorded, in his barely audible raspy voice and give me verbal instructions and comments. He demanded a high level from his students. He cared for them deeply and, being childless, saw in them a chain of continuity, the bearers of his legacy.”

Contemporary to Pollack’s teaching career, other cantorial schools led by Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, Shlomo Ravitz and Leibele Glantz were operating. These men had the big advantage of being active cantors and were better connected to specific synagogues and institutions. It is therefore poignant to read Pollack’s self-written “PR” notices, alongside many newspaper clippings he collected, attesting to his previous greatness as a cantor and prayer leader.

Zalman Pollack as a young cantor in the Land of Israel. Newspaper clipping from the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel
Newspaper clipping Pollack saved of an advertisement for one of his performances, which appeared in the December 21, 1934 edition of Ha’aretz. Click image to enlarge; the issue is also available online

And indeed, he succeeded in attracting many students, yet still lived in relative poverty, which probably explains why he desperately tried to prevent the pirated use of his precious materials without due remuneration. Pollack never fulfilled his aspiration of publishing his works.

Researching Pollack’s archive at the National Library, the late Binyamin Glickman, a cantor, choir master and educator, attempted to produce a volume of Pollack’s musical notations for Shabbat services. One of the challenges he faced was the fact that Pollack often wrote the notes but omitted the staves (the “sticks”), which indicate the length of each note. Any musician will tell you that without the staves, you cannot fathom the rhythm of the piece.

But, as it turned out, another small miracle had occurred.

As a youngster, Johannesburg native Rafi Barnett, a distinguished prayer leader in his own right, had first been invited to serve a community over the High Holidays in 1974. He asked the noted cantor Binyamin Muller of Antwerp, officiating at the time in Johannesburg, for his advice as to the appropriate melodies. Muller told Rafi that he had been a pupil of Zalman Pollack and had in his possession some extremely rare recordings.

Those precious recordings of that barely audible high pitched voice actualized the copious written notes that Pollack had transcribed by hand, and in fact at least 13 hours(!) of recordings were subsequently found.

To explore rare recordings of Pollack and his students, click the image above!

Years later, Barnett, now living in Jerusalem, chanced upon Gabi Lindenberg, who had recordings of himself singing under Pollack’s instruction. Together they approached Dr. Amalia Kedem, a musicologist and cataloger of the music archives at the National Library, who had already been deeply involved in sorting Pollack’s manuscripts and collecting his recordings. And so it was that the written notations found on the street and vocal renditions which emerged in South Africa were unified to complete the puzzle of Pollack’s music.

Pollack possessed a deep knowledge of the nuances of customs of various European communities, thus for example notating the similar but different tunes for the High Holidays of the “Eastern European” and “Hungarian” traditions. His archive is therefore an invaluable historical testimony of a tradition destroyed in the flames of the Holocaust.

Cantor Moshe Nordheim, featured in these clips singing tunes he learned from Zalman Pollack, donated a number of rare recordings of Pollack to the National Library of Israel:

Pollack also notated the prayer rites prevalent in Israel, providing important input regarding the scarcely documented oral tradition of Ashkenazi synagogue music in Mandatory Palestine and the early years of Israeli statehood.

His contribution to the rebuilding of the European cantorial traditions in Israel may have remained relatively anonymous, but thanks to the efforts of Amalia Kedem and the National Library of Israel, it is secure and his treasure trove is available on the Library’s website. He may not have left children, but Zalman Pollack’s students continue to give voice to his musical legacy.

Lindenberg remembers Pollack saying, “Classical music is pleasant to the ear, but chazzanut [cantorial singing] is pleasing to the soul.”

The Zalman Pollack Archive is part of the National Sound Archive and Music Department at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Dozens of recordings of Pollack and his students are available online, including this particularly moving recording of him and his student, Zelig Braverman.

The author thanks Amalia Kedem for her kindness.

A version of this article was previously published in The Times of Israel. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.


Comments for this article

Loading more article loading_anomation