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January 23, 2023 11:30 am
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Remembering Cantor Simon Hass

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avatar by David Prager

Opinion

Cantor Simon Hass. Hass was born in 1925 in Jaroslav, Poland into the distinguished chassidic family of Sarah and Reb Moshe Hass.

Cantor Simon Hass, who passed away aged 97 on the eve of Hoshanah Rabbah, Saturday 15, October, 2022, in London, was widely admired and respected as one of the finest cantors in the world, representing his congregants at the Heavenly court with vocal brilliance combined with humility, prayerful majesty and devotional intensity.

He was born in 1925 in Jaroslav, Poland into the distinguished chassidic family of Sarah and Reb Moshe Hass. His father was a prominent member of the Jewish community, a scholarly and musical wine merchant and a highly competent baal tefillah (prayer-leader).  The environment into which Cantor Hass was born was infused with communal leadership, charity, learning and music. Simon’s eldest brother Jacob, a student at the prestigious Chachmei Lublin Yeshivah, became a pre-war child prodigy singer and was invited to intone the memorial prayer aged 13 in front of a crowd of thousands of mourners in 1933 when famed Rabbi Meir Shapiro, Member of the Polish Parliament, Head of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva and founder of the international, synchronized page-a-day of Talmud study (Daf Yomi) system, passed away. Simon studied at the Belz, Tarnow and Lubavitch yeshivot (talmudical colleges), displaying strong academism, independence of mind and great musical talent.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Jaroslav was occupied by the Germans and Jewish life and death became increasingly subject to Nazi terror. Reb Moshe Hass, being a community leader, was arrested as a prominent Jew to be held hostage and faced imminent torture and/or death, Sarah Hass immediately and bravely negotiated with the arresting Nazi officer with the 10 Hass children in tow, to secure his miraculous release. The family managed to reach Soviet-occupied Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine) where they had relatives. The respite was short as they were subsequently deported by the Soviet authorities to Siberia as bourgeois Polish aliens. One sister succumbed to the harsh conditions. Simon found some solace from the permanent hunger through singing in the terribly tough, cold conditions and even managed to find, in a fellow deportee, a chazanut teacher. An older sister was employed by the Soviet military authorities and enabled Simon to receive altered papers showing that he was born in 1927 and thus not yet of military age while the tide of war was turning in favor of the allies.

After the war, the family returned to Poland to find that the wider family had been murdered and the pre-war large communities had been destroyed. For a short time, Simon enrolled in the Lodz conservatoire as the only Jewish student. Realizing that no realistic future lay for them in Poland, the Hass family moved on to Paris where, again, he enrolled in the conservatoire.

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Four Hass siblings were to become cantors: Jacob obtained a cantorial post in New York, identical twins David and Benjamin journeyed to British Mandate Palestine, suffering  internment in Cyprus before subsequently pursuing military careers in Israel and music studies leading to a range of posts. The majority of the family moved on to London where they re-established their lives. Tragically, Sarah Hass died shortly afterwards at the age of 49.

Simon’s UK charity concert career began immediately with his London debut concert in February 1950 in aid of Mifal Hatorah to support refugee Jewish clergy and their families. He was soon appointed Cantor of Hendon United Synagogue as successor to Cantor David Kusevitsky. There, Simon met his beloved life partner, Elaine, and the couple were married later in 1950. He continued his studies in London, obtaining an LLMC for operatic and classical singing and enrolling in the cantorial studies program at Jews’ College under world-renowned Chazan Salomo Pinkasovitch. This enabled him to operate with expertise in a variety of styles from Nussach Anglia to the chassidic melodies learnt from his father. He also joined his colleagues in the unique London Chazonim Choir of 45 voices under the baton of Rev. Leo Bryll.

On hearing him in Hendon, Sir Isaac Wolfson approached him and persuaded him to apply for the post of Cantor at the Central Synagogue, London, a position which he held with distinction for over 40 years. Here, he re-introduced midnight choral selichot services, which were outstandingly well attended by cantorial aficionados from near and far and which were unofficially known as “Midnight Hass.” His long tenure was marked by the enduring love and support of this prestigious congregation where his co-religionists from all walks of life including leading figures in Anglo-Jewry were moved by his dignified and highly professional style. In return, Cantor Hass loved his flock and declined many offers of high profile posts abroad. His appearances at the annual Warsaw Ghetto memorial events in London, where he recited the memorial prayer, remain as some of the supreme moments of prayerful emotion in Anglo-Jewry. Later, in discussing their careers, his brother David readily recognized that Simon’s vocal prowess and musical professionalism were in a superior league.

Elaine and Simon were a devoted couple and raised three children, Stuart, Naomi and Sarah.

Cantor Hass’ voice was unique, having the following combination of characteristics: enormously wide scope with phenomenal and thrilling quality of golden timbre preserved at the high and low extremes, encompassing tenor and baritone ranges, supported by breath control worthy of a top opera star. His diction, especially in sprechstimme, was striking and meticulous. As a chazonishe zogger ( textual interpreter within traditional nussach motifs), his ability to disaggregate and reaggregate a paragraph of prayers, infusing meaning into each syllable, was outstanding. At his command were modes of sweet lyricality, chassidic niggun and dramatic boldness. He could entreat and demand as the prayer required. For a voice of such magnitude, the flexibility of his coloratura was impressive. He made beautiful use of falsetto as a further arrow in his quiver.

He observed the Talmudic dictum of “Say little and do much” (Avot 1:15). Through personal contacts, charm, concerts and LP sales, he raised enormous funds for charities including Lubavitch, whose selfless work in alleviating the situations of the Siberia deportees during the second world war, he never forgot. Whereas he spoke little of his musical opinions and background, he produced an astounding array of recordings. These included choral “chazanut haseder” (ordered cantorial works), e.g. masterpieces of Sulzer, modern American works such as by Rumshinsky, masterpieces of chazanut haregesh (emotional cantorial art) including original cantorial compositions, Yeshiva melodies, Yiddish folk song classics, poignant Ghetto songs and Israeli repertoire. The records include dramatic orchestrations and beautiful piano accompaniments by his gifted friend, John Gunter, and include elegant arrangements of works made famous by Golden Age cantorial luminaries such as Sirota, Rosenblatt, Pinchik and Oysher.

He concertized in the USA, Israel and throughout the UK including at the Royal Festival Hall. Invariably he received rave reviews.

One unique concert was to have been together with his then Liverpool-based brother Rev. Benjamin Hass for Lubavitch in 1964. Sadly this appearance had to be canceled due to the death of their father.

His steely inner strength in having endured terrible adversity early in life provided a munificent reservoir of love to cheer congregants, friends and family in times of difficulty. In addition to all these qualities was his absolute fluency in the texts. A book of Jewish learning was never far from his side.

Now he has been called to the Heavenly choir. He was the last surviving sibling and his passing represents the end of an era. At his funeral, his inspirational life was lauded by Chief Rabbi Mirvis together with Rabbi Barry Marcus, son Stuart, daughter Naomi and  sons-in-law George and Yossi. Rabbi Marcus noted the severe risk of his passing representing the demise of inspirational chazanut. The large attendance at the funeral despite its rapid arrangement before Sh’mini Atzeret included numerous former congregants who, despite not having heard his voice for decades, were still visibly moved on recalling the spiritual intensity they had experienced many years earlier on hearing him lead services. A challenge of modern Jewish leadership remains to act to rebuild expertise in nussach hatefillah (appropriate prayer modes) and to attract vocally and academically gifted individuals into synagogue and pastoral careers.

Rev. Hass is survived by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now he is reunited with his beloved Elaine, who passed away tragically early in 1995.

Yehi zichro Baruch. May his memory be blessed.

Cantor Simon Hass: Born 1925 in Jaroslav, Poland. Died October 15, 2022, London, England

D R Prager
19.10.2022

David Prager was born in Manchester, England, to Viennese parents. He stems from a musical, medical family. A chemist by profession, he pursued a prestigious senior management career in BP Chemicals and its successor companies in speciality chemicals marketing and pension fund chairmanship.

He has studied the biographies, compositions, and recordings of the leading cantors of the world and continues to contribute biographical input to the Jolles Cantorial Encyclopaedia, of which he is a co-editor. This is supported by his interests in history, genealogy, languages, prayer modes, sound technology, and friendships with a wide range of cantorial personalities. David is married to Jill and lives in London.

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