A Tradition of Synagogue Music in our Community

June 17, 2021

By Michael Eskin 


The important role that music plays in synagogue services has its origins in the Temple services in Jerusalem. The term chazzan is found frequently in the Talmudic literature where it refers to various types of officials or overseers. During the Geonic period, when the geonim were heads of the Rabbinic Academies in Babylon (580-1038), there was a growth in liturgy but a decline in Hebrew knowledge. This necessitated the creation of a permanent position of a service leader. In fact, the Chazzan Haknesset, the overseer of the synagogue, was the forerunner of the cantor. His duties required removing the Torah scrolls from the ark and blowing the shofar to announce the start of the Sabbath and Festivals. As required, he could also chant the services. It was during this period that Jews demanded a beautiful service, filled with inspiring musical content and liturgical poems referred to as PIYUTIM. This resulted in the chazzanim composing and selecting melodies for various texts. An excellent example of one of many piyuttim is “Adon Olam”. 


Early cantorial music was oral and largely improvised. After the emancipation of European Jewry in the 19th century, chazzanim started to notate melodies using the rules of Western harmony by composing pieces for chazzan and choir. The musical and liturgical practices of Eastern Europe was essentially derived from the medieval German tradition—referred to as “minhag Ashkenazi,” while the Sephardim had their own cantorial tradition.




The first synagogue service in Winnipeg was held by 21 Jewish families in the late 1870’s at the Oddfellows Hall on Princess Street with Cantor Abraham Benjamin. Cantor Benjamin arrived in 1881 from New Orleans and served as a rabbi, teacher and schochet (ritual slaughterer) for a number of years in Winnipeg, retiring in 1894. The growth of the Jewish community resulted in some of the smaller synagogues uniting to form the Shaarey Zedek Congregation in 1890 on the corner King and Cameron Streets. As is typical in many synagogues, there was a breakaway group composed of the more orthodox members, who formed the Rosh Pina Congregation in 1893.  


The arrival of Moses Jacob, a young Russia-trained cantor, in 1908 was an important landmark in the development of cantorial music in Winnipeg. He brought an extensive repertoire of Hebrew and Yiddish music and served at both the Beth Jacob and later Talmud Torah Synagogues. Cantor Jacob also organized one of the first Jewish folk choir groups in Canada. 


The most influential cantor and musician in Winnipeg was undoubtedly Benjamin Brownstone. Born in Bessarabia in 1888, Benjamin came to Winnipeg in 1921. An already accomplished composer of many beautiful liturgical pieces, Cantor Brownstone made his mark as cantor, choirmaster, and and teacher at Talmud Torah. Even though it is more than half a century since he passed away his legacy and influence still remains. Hundreds of Jewish men and women were taught by him and instilled with his love and passion for chazzanut and synagogue liturgy. A number of them became very successful in music in North America, including Herschel Fox, Allan Blye and Norman Goltsman. Gerry Daien, who remained in Winnipeg where he was mentored by Cantor Brownstone recently retired after 53 years as a highly respected cantor.


Other beloved Winnipeg cantors influenced by Cantor Brownstone were Arky Berkel and David Boroditsky. Brownstone was described by Alan Blye as a strange and unpredictable man that the kids loved to make fun of. Nevertheless, underneath that difficult exterior was a composer, poet and genuine intellect. Turning a rag-tag group of 25 gangly teenage boys at Talmud Torah into a polished choir that was a match for the Vienna Boys Choir was no small accomplishment. Cantor Brownstone`s reputation went well beyond Winnipeg as he received many awards including honorary degrees from the School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and The Cantors Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary.


Winnipeg has indeed been blessed with many dedicated and talented cantors, including the late Rabbi Louis Berkal who served as Cantor at Shaarey Zedek for over half a century. Many other cantors passed through Winnipeg including Yaakov Koussevitsky, Dudu Fisher, Tvi Taub, and Yaakov Oryzech to name just a few. A concert of nine Winnipeg cantors held in 1985 at the Rosh Pina Synagogue was released as a CD last year. This was a testament of the wonderful cantorial traditions enjoyed by the Winnipeg Jewish community. The number of full-time cantors in Winnipeg is presently only 3 with Anibal Mass at Shaarey Zedek, Len Udow at Temple Shalom, and Tracy Gasner Greaves at Etz Chayim. Michael Eskin organized a concert of local cantors in 2014 in collaboration with the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, celebrating the release of the CD. It was well received and, in addition to the current full-time cantors, included the participation of Richard Yaffe and Michael Eskin.