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Chazzanut Online - Articles

Jacob Koussevitzky

1903 - 1959


By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler

Of the four Koussevitzky brothers, it was said that Jacob was the best 'Ba'al Tefillah.' It's very difficult to explain exactly what this means, but the implication is that he made a greater impact with the way he interpreted the words, and his usage of the traditional melodic lines (Nusach) than he did with his voice.

This doesn't mean that he didn't have a fine voice - he certainly did, (he was actually a lyric tenor), but Jacob had a way of penetrating to the heart of a prayer that makes a far greater impression on the listener, than a voice does on its own.

Jacob was the second of the Koussevitzky boys and was born to Alta and Avigdor Koussevitzky in Smorgon, in Russian Poland.

From a very early age he took lessons in singing and Chazanut and studied with various tutors, including the famous Chazan Ravitch in Kharkov. As a youngster he was chorister in Vilna in the choirs of Chazanim Avraham Moshe Bernstein and Bernstein's successor Eliyahu Zaludkowsky, who were both famous cantors in their time.

When his brother Moshe was Chazan in the Vilna State Synagogue, shortly after the end of the first world war, Jacob was the tenor soloist in his choir, and it wasn't long after that he was appointed Chazan himself in Kremenetze, where his younger brother David served as his choirmaster. Some years later they went to Lemberg, where they continued to work together.

David went off to start his own career as a Cantor and in 1936 Jacob came to London, where he was appointed to one of the leading Synagogues in the capital at that time, the Dalston Synagogue in Poet's Road.

It's been reported that on his first appearance there he sang Kaddish to the tune of 'John Brown's Body!' This apparently took the formal Anglo-Jews of Dalston completely by surprise. But their reaction took Jacob by surprise too. It would seem that Jacob had never heard of 'John Brown's Body.' This was a melody that he had heard and used for Kaddish in Lemberg, and as far as he was concerned, this was where it came from!

From Poet's Road, Jacob went to the Western Synagogue and in 1951 he decided to go to the Americas. For two years he was Chazan of the Congregation Rosh Pinah in Winnipeg, Canada and in 1953 he became Chazan at the Jewish centre of Kew Gardens Hills in New York. Sadly he was only there for six years before he died.

That Jacob did not become as famous as Moshe and David, is probably due to the fact that, although he did give concerts, his true milieu was on the Bimah. He was more of a 'davener' than he was a performer and this comes through very clearly in the lovely recordings he has left us.

Thanks to Mr Herman Greenbourne for some of the information in this article.

© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler

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