(Courtesy: Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler)

Jacob Samuel Maragovsky was named ‘Zeidel’ by his mother, Sarah, for his late grandfather, and eventually served as Chazan in Rovno, in the Province of Vohlin, Russia, hence, his name. His few biographers clash on the date of his death. Was it 1942 or 1943? In fact he died in 1943, at the age of 87. What, however, is certain is that he was born in 1856 in the Ukranian city of Radomsk, in the Province of Kiev, 31 miles west of that city.

His father, Isaac, was a merchant, probably in grain, who died early, leaving a young widow, and the eighteen-month old ‘Zeidel’. The mother took a small room in the house of the local Chazan, Moshe Shpalinsky, known as ‘Moshe Radomsker’, where she eked out a miserable existence, dealing in leather.

Even at the early age of eight, Zeidel showed musicality. He possessed a fine alto (later to be a ‘middle-range’ tenor), and the Chazan implored the mother to let her son join his choir. She, however, was firm, her son would be a Rabbi, and Zeidel studied assiduously in the local Shul, absorbing the Torah. He inevitably made acquaintance with the local Chassidim, and sang with them at various simchot. It was unavoidable, therefore, that his name should be brought to the notice of the ‘Marakyever Rebbe’, Yaakov Yitzhak Twersky, who, enchanted with his primitive Chazanut, ordered him to his ‘Court’, and engaged him to daven there for the Yomim Naraim!

Zeidel, knowing that his Nussach was almost non-existent, pleaded for time in order to study the various Nusschaot, and, after his marriage at the age of sixteen, undertook his first Slichot. It was a fiasco! Nevertheless, the ‘Rebbe’ insisted that Zeidel was ‘one in his generation’, and his subsequent worship during the Yomim Noraim was so successful, that the name ‘Zeidel Radomsker’ became famed throughout the district.

He had, in the meantime, become a successful flour merchant, and proceeded to study musical notation, taking lessons from a local chorister. He spent all day at his shop, and worked at his studies. It was at this time (1874) that he created his first composition ‘Titbarach Lanetzach’. There was, at this time, a talented Chazan in the local Shul, whose name was Jacob Marmar, and who davened with a large choir; this man had much in common with Zeidel, and was overwhelmed on hearing the ‘Titbarach’. After many corrections by Marmar, this composition has remained one of the finest creations of Zeidel Rovner.

In spite of his success as a merchant, he was invited by the local Jewish merchants to daven Yomim Noraim in Kiev, and since his mother lived there, Zeidel accepted. He was to daven in Kiev for five Yomim Noraim, and a contemporary Jewish violinist, Aaron Moshe Padhuzer, taught him for a short time. Zeidel thus absorbed the rudiments of music and ‘sight-reading’, which, being highly musical, he speedily learned.

He became noted as a Chazan of importance, and the ‘Marakyever Rebbe’ had a personal interview with him, stating that it was time for him to leave commerce, and devote himself to Chazanut. He advised the formation of a choir, and virtually ordained that Zeidel became a Chazan. The latter, by this time prosperous as a merchant, was not quite so enchanted by this ‘order’, but the rebbe’s word was sacrosanct. He returned to Radomsk, and again pleaded for intercession, but it was to no avail. The Rebbe said that it was time that ‘Zeidel Radomsker’ should involve himself in the ‘Melechet Hakodesh’ and so he would achieve a long and happily fulfilled life.

His first position was in the Vohlin provincial city of Zaslav, where, truth to tell, there had been acrimonious parties who could not agree on the choice of a Chazan. One of the most reliable Chassidim was deputed to visit the ‘Marakyever Rebbe’, and ask for advice. Naturally, he recommended Zeidel.

In 1881, at the commencement of Rosh Chodesh Ellul, he arrived at Zaslav with the emissary, and commenced with the ‘Yom Kippur Katan’ Service. Both warring parties enthusiastically acceptd him, and placed him on an annual contract. He was, in the meantime, to daven only on the Yomim Noraim. Later, he gathered a suitable choir, and peace was restored to the Shul.

Zeidel, who had hitherto little regard for his virtuosity, began to feel the responsibility, and reflected on the fact, that, if he were to daven with a choir, he lacked choral compositions. He therefore began to compose the series of now famous items, including ‘Ezrat Avoteinu’, ‘U’vmakhalot’, ‘Ki Chol Peh’, ‘K’dusha’, the monumental ‘Emet V’emuna’ and ‘S’firah’, Other later compositions were ‘Halleluka’ (for orchestra) 1897, ‘Ahavti’ (1899) and ‘Kinot’, (1922). He wrote voluminously.

His works were greeted with enthusiasm, and at the close of the year’s contract, he was elected to the Rovner Shul  (1882-1884), also in the Province of Vohlin. During this time at Rovno, he began to study composition and theory more deeply, and re-wrote many of his earlier compositions. Gradually, his name became famed over the breadth of Russia.

In 1884, when Nissi Beizer (Nissan Spivak: 1824-1906) of Lithuanian origin, left Kishinev, where he had held sway for fifteen years, his former large Shul was left Chazan-less, and he personally recommended Zeidel as his successor. It was natural, one supposes, that the Rovner baalei-habbatim should view such a move with disfavour, and it took Zeidel two years to disengage himself to daven a ‘T’filat Shabbat’ at Kishinev. He was to remain forever with the name ‘Zeidel Rovner’.

In 1896, after he would not agree to various reforms in the Service of his community, he left for Berditchev, where he replaced the great ‘Yerucham HaKatan’ (Yerucham Biindman: 1798-1891). Here, he remained for seven years, and in 1903, was invited to London, where he remained for one year at the now defunct Machzikei Hadass. His compositions and Chazanut made a great impression on London’s Jewry. In 1904, he travelled to Lemberg, the capital city of Galicia, where he was accepted in the principal Shul, and remained there until 1911. He then returned to his old Rovno for three years.

In 1914, after many attempts at dissuasion, he arrived in New York. Writing at an advanced age (see “The Shul and the Chazanim Velt”, Warsaw, Vol. 3. 1939, one of the last issues before the ‘Churban’) he bemoans the death of his late wife (he celebrated his Golden Wedding in 1924) and states that there remained one son and daughter to look after him in his poorly furnished apartment in ‘down-town’ New York. Looking back on his illustrious career, he muses that Pinie Minkcowsky (1859- 1924) was a childhood friend at Radomsk; he had always been ‘frum’ and descended from a long line of Orthodox ancestors. He had been warmly received on his arrival in New York, and gave a concert at Carnegie Hall, with a large choir and orchestra, under the baton of the late conductor, Cherry. In fact, he was the first Chazan to innovate ‘orchestral accompaniment’. The Hall was crammed, and many hundreds were turned away; police had to be called in to restore order. He was, further, lauded by his colleagues at a specially organised banquet, and many of his early choristers, now professional men of standing, were present. He was to give many concerts in the United States, but would never forget his first. Among his pupils were such eminent Chazanim as Steinberg, Roitman, Rapaport, Hershman, and Brie.

He was already established in Kishinev (Capital of Besserabia, then in Russia) when the notorious pogroms began (1903). He gave concerts in various cities, and even non-Jews attended, not only in the synagogue, but also in the concert platform. He created many compositions for choir/orchestra, and many of his choristers later became famous Chazanim, In fact, such was his fame, that he once sang at a military club in Kishinev, when in the audience was the infamous Krisheven, instigator of the pogroms, who pronounced himself ‘over-awed’! He also sang before a military audience in Tarnapol, and cortducted the choir and orchestra.

He writes about contemporaries: “Nissi Beizer was easily brought to anger, and there were ‘friends’ who sought to bring Zeidel into conflict with Nissi: the latter did not possess a ‘voice’. (Chazan Abraham Frachtenberg, writing in The History of Chazanut, New York, 1924, p.163, says that he did not even possess much musical knowledge, but his choral work, and his masterful choir-direction brought him great fame). Many of his pupils became opera singers, and others, great Chazanim. He married Yerucham HaKatan’s niece, and was buried, at his request, at Sadagora, a small market town near Czernovitz, (the seat of the Chassidic Dynasty of the Friedmann’s). ‘Nissi’, says Zeidel, ‘made Berditchev great’. One night, he heard ‘Yerucham HaKatan’ reciting ‘Tikun Chazot’. He later met him, and heard some of his compositions: ‘Ata Nigleta’ and ‘Ez’kra Elokim’, which moved him to tears.

Truth to tell, Zeidel Rovner was similar to Nizzi Beizer: his voice, his Chazanut, although melodious, brought him little fame. It was his many compositions, both for choir and orchestra, which gave him ‘greatness’.

There was rivalry between Nissi and Yerucham HaKatan, but aftet the latter’s death, Nissi wept,  ‘The Crown has fallen from our heads.’ Once, while in the district, Zeidel tried to visit Nissi’s burial-place, but was prevented by a heavy snowfall; ever conscious of the danger to a Chazan of exposing himself to inclement weather, he tearfully abandoned the attempt.

He had been well treated at Rovno, but it was ordained that he travel, and take other positions: Nissi had recommended him to Kishinev. The great Jacob Bachman (l846-l905), who possessed a wonderful voice, was also a Chazan in Kishinev. Then, Bachman moved to Odessa. At round the same time, there was in that city, a Chazan named ‘Pitzi Abras’ (1820-1884), and there was the resultant ‘rivalry’ between the Bachman-Abras Camps! The only Chazan who kept aloof from communal politics was Nissi Blumenthal (1805-1903), who was not only a Chazan, but a ‘Maskil’ – an intellectual. Even the great Razumni had served at Kishinev, but had left for Odessa. Rovner summed the situation up as follows: ‘Kishinev was the vestibule, Odessa the Salon’.
His ‘Knot compositions were also famous: he seldom shared the Bimah, but, in December, 1931, (when he was seventy-five years old) he gave a concert in Newark, New Jersey, in a ‘Grand Psalm Concert’, sharing the Bimah with such luminaries as Chazanim Berele Chagy, Yossele Rosenblatt, David Roitman, Israel Brie and Aaron Katchko, and the young Slomele Mandel. The programme consisted of Rovner’s cornpoitions, and was supported by a large orchestra and choir, Among the items were ‘Malach Yirgezu Amim’, ‘L’ David Mizmor’, ‘Mizmor Shir Chanukat Habayit’, and ‘Hallelu et HaShem Kol Goyim’.

When the Austnan Emperor, Francis Joseph was eighty in 1911, Rovner wrote a composition based on Psalm 61 ‘Yomim al yemei Melech tosif sh’notav dor-vador’ and dedicated it to the Emperor. It was duly played by the orchestra of the Austrian Army. Note that T’hillim’ was one of Rovner’s specialities.

it is to be regretted that no suitable photograph clear enough for reproduction by lithography exists, but he is pictured in “The History of Chazanut”, New York, 1924, as a benign-faced patriarchal figure, with a large white beard. He is seated at his desk, writing music. Nathan Stolnitz, in his “Music in Jewish Life”, Toronto, 1957, uses a newspaper picture of 1928, where he appears as a tall, majestic figure, holding the hand of the young Toronto boy-Chazan, Michele Borsuk.