The Cantor Who Found America Lacking
Today is the 133rd anniversary of the famed cantor Pinhas Minkowsky arriving in America at the commission of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. In honor of the anniversary, we’re reposting this blog originally written by Museum intern Luc Moison.
Minkowsky stepped foot on American soil for the first time on September 16th, 1887. By then, he was already a world-famous cantor. It was his world-renowned “sweet singing” that enticed the Eldridge Street congregation to hire him in 1887. They knew their newly opened synagogue, the first of its kind in America, needed the best of the best. And that was Minkowsky. He was just 28 years old at the time! He had made a name for himself as a cantor in Odessa (then part of the Russian Empire). It was a real coup for the Eldridge Street congregation to lure him to the states.
Congregation leaders knew that Minkowsky’s name alone would help attract an audience for their newly built synagogue. These years were the height of the “Cantor Craze” – shuls around town were competing to build the best music programs. To lure Minkowsky from Odessa to New York, they offered him first-class transit to New York City with his family, six weeks of vacation, and a five-year contract of $2,500 a year. Compare this to the average $450 salary for a worker on the Lower East Side! Minkowsky was getting paid well for his preeminence.
Though Minkowsky had the means to make a very comfortable life for himself in New York City, the relationship with Eldridge Street didn’t last long. Just five years after he arrived, he had left America and returned to Odessa.
What spurred the cantor to return to Eastern Europe? His story seems to fly in the face of the popular narrative of immigrants’ arrival and hard-won achievement in America. Rather than find a place for himself in the new land of opportunity, Minkowsky fled back home – to “the old country.” Many stories of the time depict him as deeply nostalgic for his homeland. What was it that so strongly compelled him to give up on the opportunity of New York and go back to Odessa – a place so many others were desperately fleeing?
The congregation’s early minute books give us a few clues. We know there was a disagreement between Minkowsky and the synagogue’s directors. Insulted by the congregation’s failure to provide a promised bonus, Minkowsky eventually refused to renew his contract. Dr. Annie Polland, author of Landmark of Spirit: the Eldridge Street Synagogue, offers some additional perspective. By the mid-19th century, Odessa had become known as a cosmopolitan enclave in Eastern Europe. It was one of the few cities in the Russian Empire where Jewish culture and religious theory openly thrived. Conditions on the Lower East Side were quite a bit different. While New York was certainly a place of religious freedom for many Jews, it wasn’t exactly known for intellectual or cultural sophistication. “Scrappy” might have been an adjective more commonly used to describe New York Jewish society at the time. Minkowksy may have been disaffected by the style of religious practice in the United States and by his lack of intellectual companionship on the Lower East Side. Perhaps in part, it was this sense of alienation that drove him away from New York.
I am also struck by the way Minkowsky’s life, and the fortunes of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, was affected by world events. Upon Minkowsky’s return to Odessa, he found work at the Brody Synagogue where he served as chief cantor for 30 years. He plunged back into the rich cultural community of his homeland. Minkowsky developed a deep friendship with a colleague he considered a true genius, David Nowakowsky, a well-regarded cantorial composer.
But Minkowsky’s homeland wasn’t exactly a utopia. His return to Odessa allowed him to reconnect with Jewish intellectualism and musical creativity, but the city he loved was slipping into turbulence. We have very few details of his life during this period, but the city’s history offers a glimpse of the challenges he must have faced. As the congregation at the Eldridge Street Synagogue grew more prosperous and embraced the American way of life, half a world away in the Russian Empire the seeds of political revolution were sprouting. In the summer of 1905, Odessa erupted in chaos as the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin occurred in its port and led to a massacre in its streets. By contrast, Eldridge Street was so prosperous that they were preparing to outfit their grand building with electricity. In 1918, the Bolsheviks had begun their revolt; civil war tore through the Russian Empire. Across the Atlantic, our historic synagogue was hiring their first full-time rabbi, Aharon Yudelovitch. In 1920, Minkowsky’s city was under full Bolshevik control. The following year, their agricultural policy plunged the region into famine. We don’t know many details of how Minkowsky fared during these times, but surely his life was affected by so much upheaval.
Dr. Annie Polland reports that Minkowsky returned to New York in 1922, leaving the tumultuous Soviet Union. Despite his previous celebrity, he struggled to find permanent work in New York City. He made a living through small concerts and traveling gigs. Two years later, he died at the age of 65.
Much of the life of Pinhas Minkowsky remains a mystery. Stories like his show us how very little we know of the specifics of history and its people. Many records have been lost or destroyed. Other events are never even recorded. But the small bits we do know tantalize. They suggest the outline of a life. When placed into the larger historical picture, they can help reconstruct a fascinating chronicle of Minkowsky’s life after Eldridge Street. Our small space on Eldridge Street, tucked into an unassuming corner of the Lower East Side, has many close connections to the far-off events of world history.
Researched and written by Luc Moisan, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern