Jerry Lurie, the fortieth president of Temple Oheb Shalom, is passionate about history. Early in his term, he pronounced that we would correct an egregious omission in the history of this 160 year old congregation. We would rectify an age old mistake by commissioning a portrait of our first cantor, Alois Kaiser, and dedicate it before he left office. Jerry does not miss an opportunity to connect us to our history. He refers to his beloved synagogue by its correct title, “Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City,” thereby linking us with the city in which we were born and nurtured and to which we owe a great debt. Our recent commitment to BUILD rededicates us to Baltimore City. It confirms that even though many of us live in Baltimore and even Howard Counties, our fate, and that of Oheb Shalom, is dependent upon the health of the city in which we reside. Jerry was also quite aware that even though Cantor Kaiser died on January 5, 1908, the only member of our clergy to die while still actively serving the congregation, his legacy has not been properly memorialized by the congregation he loved and who loved him in return. So, with the proper motivation, Jerry authorized our Executive Director, Ken Davidson, to have a portrait painted from a photograph of Cantor Kaiser. You will see the result of this process in a few minutes.
Alois Kaiser was born on November 10, 1840, in Szobotist, Hungary. We know nothing about his parents, except that they obtained the coveted privilege of being able to move to Vienna, meaning they must have been fairly well to do. He received his first instruction in the congregation school of Dr. Henry Zirndorf, one of the most respected teachers of the day. He later attended the Realschule and the Teacher’s Seminary. Showing an early aptitude for music, he was placed in the Vienna Conservatory of Music and, at the age of ten, began singing in the choir of the celebrated Viennese Cantor, Solomon Sulzer, the well-known composer of 19th century synagogue music. At the tender age of 19, in 1859, he became assistant cantor in the synagogue of Funfhaus, a suburb of Vienna. He excelled in his apprenticeship and three years later, was called to serve as cantor at the Neuesynagoge in Prague, a quite prestigious position.
Throughout his life, Cantor Kaiser was a disciple of the great Sulzer. He made it his life’s task to continue Sulzer’s vision of synthesizing the Jewish cantorial tradition with Western artistic musical standards. As he studied with Sulzer, he imbibed the rich heritage of miSinai (from Sinai) tunes, all of which actually dated to medieval Rhineland Jewry, and other melodies of Ashkenazi Jewry, which Sulzer had been careful to preserve, revitalize and incorporate into his artistic settings and into the new Viennese rite.[i]
Like so many other German Jewish young men, Kaiser yearned for the political freedom which was denied to him in Central Europe. In 1866, he immigrated to New York and was soon employed as Cantor of Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City, the largest synagogue in Baltimore and the home of the renowned Rabbi Benjamin Szold. The two of them made a great team, as they were engaged in a new and uncharted enterprise, creating a modern synagogue compatible with American sensibilities. Throughout his career, he was convinced, as he wrote, “that the ancient melodies, chants, and tunes of the synagogue have lost none of their original charm, and while in order to adapt them to modern tastes, we may have to clothe them in a new garb,” by which he meant restylization, reharmonization, and adaptations to Reform liturgical and ritual adjustments, even including English versions.[ii] Cantor Kaiser was a prolific composer as well as a scholar of Jewish music. He collaborated with two fellow immigrant cantors, Moritz Goldstein and Samuel Welsch, to compile, edit, and publish a four volume anthology of Jewish music, Zimrath Yah, between 1873 and 1886. The publication of this anthology caused him to become known throughout the country as America’s greatest cantor. Cantor Kaiser dreamed of creating a hymnal that could be used by all American synagogues. His dream came true when a group of prominent Jewish women from Chicago invited him and Cantor William Sparger of Temple Emanuel of the City of New York to compile a book of Jewish music for the Jewish Women’s Congress of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The first part of the book contained fifty seven well established melodies adapted as hymns for the new Western style synagogue. The second part contained original musical compositions for the synagogue by the stars of synagogue music, Lewandowski, Sulzer, Naumberg, and even Kaiser himself.[iii]
As a token of its esteem for this prestigious work, the Central Conference of American Rabbis made Cantor Kaiser an honorary member. This organization of Reform rabbis just released its new Union Prayerbook in 1894 and invited Cantor Kaiser to create and edit a new hymnal as a companion piece to the prayerbook. Thus was born the first edition of the Union Hymnal, first published in 1897, edited by our own Cantor Alois Kaiser. I hold up a copy of the second edition of the Union Hymnal from 1932 which contains four of Cantor Kaiser’s original compositions. While many of his pieces contain a flowery and grandiose English libretto that is foreign to our contemporary ears, the melodies are adapted from authentic Ashkenazic musical tradition. As Cantor Kaiser wrote, “These songs of Zion, they are our heritage, entrusted to our care and cultivation. Let us zealously preserve them, for we are their watchmen and guardians. We have brought them with us from across the seas; let us imbed them firmly in the hearts of our American brethren that they may abide there forever.”
Cantor Kaiser died prematurely at the age of sixty-eight, still serving his congregation and known as the greatest cantor in America. Tonight we pay our proper respects to Cantor Alois Kaiser, the first senior cantor of Temple Oheb Shalom, one whose portrait most deservedly will take its place on our hallowed walls.
I invite our President, Jerry Lurie, to formally dedicate Cantor Kaiser’s portrait.
[i] Milkin Archive of Jewish Music