1893 - 1990
By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler
Samuel Vigoda is generally considered to be one of the last of the star
Chazanim of the 'Golden Age.'
He was born in Dobrzin, near Warsaw where his father was the
Chazan/Shochet but, as Vigoda said himself, '...he wore two hats, and
with the two hats he didn't make a living.' The young Samuel was very
unimpressed with the hard life that his father led and never intended
to become a Chazan himself.
To try to improve his lot, Vigoda senior took his family to Hungary.
One day, Yossele Rosenblatt came to their town to officiate at a wedding.
At the reception Vigoda senior sang, assisted by Samuel and his brother
and, being very impressed, Rosenblatt asked that the boys be allowed to
come to Pressburg to sing with him regularly.
Being assured that Rosenblatt would take good care of them, Samuel and
his brother went to live in Rosenblatt's home, where they remained for
two and a half years.
When Rosenblatt left for Hamburg, Samuel returned home and began to
study medicine, but his studies were interrupted by the First World War
when he was conscripted into the Hungarian Army. At the end of the war,
he was discharged with the rank of first lieutenant.
Since the University of Cluj, where he had begun his medical studies,
was now part of Rumania, and as the University of Budapest, because of
their quota system, wouldn't accept him, Vigoda, (somewhat fortunately
for the world of Chazanut) found himself unable to return to medicine,
and turned to Chazanut as a way of making a living.
Vigoda held some very fine positions in Budapest and was soon making a
very good name for himself. When word got out about him, people flocked
to hear the new, young wonder-Chazan.
The opportunity came for Vigoda to travel and he decided to go to Zurich.
Overhearing, after an audition, that his potential appointment was
in jeopardy if he wasn't married, Vigoda got his sister to write him
letters, so that he could say that they came from his wife!
After Zurich, Vigoda went to Germany and then Amsterdam, where he did
very well, officiating in various synagogues. A wealthy diamond-dealer
who befriended him, arranged for him to obtain a visa to America, on
the strength of his singing of an aria from 'La Juive.'
Before going to the States, he went to Paris where he also officiated in
many congregations, and was offered a position in the largest Orthodox
one on the Rue Pave, which he didn't accept.
On arriving in the States, Vigoda contacted Rosenblatt, who arranged for
him to officiate that very Shabbat in Rosenblatt's own Shul, Congregation
Oheb Zedek, in New York. Indeed, this was a position that he was to be
appointed to, when Rosenblatt left.
Samuel Vigoda lived well into his nineties, and was feted by Chazanim
until the very end of his life. He travelled extensively, giving concerts
in practically every large city in the United States and Canada. He
was a composer, as well as a performer, and left behind some treasured
recordings of his remarkable singing.
© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler
Keywords: Samuel Vigoda, Valerie Vigoda, Valery, Groovelily, biography.
- Site of Vigoda's granddaughter Valerie, who is an
electric violinist and singer, and founding member of the pop trio
GrooveLily! The Forward
interwieved Valerie about her band and her background.