From Odessa to the Lower East Side and Back Again – The Story of Cantor Pinhas Minkowsky
I have always been fascinated by the story of Pinhas Minkowsky, the first cantor of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Minkowsky was already a world-famous cantor, known for his “sweet singing” when the Eldridge Street congregation hired him in 1887. Just 28 years old, he served as a cantor in Odessa, then part of the Russian Empire.
The leaders of the Eldridge Street congregation knew that Minkowsky’s name alone would help attract an audience for their newly built synagogue during the height of the Lower East Side’s “Cantor Craze.” 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! Though Minkowsky could have made a very comfortable life for himself in New York City, he returned to Odessa in 1892, just five years after he arrived.
What spurred Cantor Minkowsky to return to Eastern Europe? While most stories about immigrants focus on their arrival and hard-won achievement in America, every story I have heard about Pinhas Minkowsky depicts a man 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 his old home?
From the congregation’s early minute books, 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 refused to renew his contract. Dr. Annie Polland, author of Landmark of Spirit: the Eldridge Street Synagogue, offers a different angle. 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 that of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, was affected by world events.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Odessa had become known as a cosmopolitan enclave in Eastern Europe and was one of the few cities in the Russian Empire where Jewish culture and religious theory could openly thrive. Minkowsky returned there to find work at the Brody Synagogue (pictured above) where he served as chief cantor for thirty years. He developed a deep friendship in a colleague he considered a true genius, David Nowakowsky, a well-regarded cantorial composer.
While Minkowsky’s return to Odessa allowed him to reconnect with this world of Jewish intellectualism and musical creativity, the city he loved was slipping into turbulent times. 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, shortly before Eldridge Street upgraded to electricity, Odessa erupted in chaos as the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin occurred in its port and led to a massacre in its streets. In 1918, at a time when the Eldridge Street Synagogue had hired its first full-time rabbi, Aharon Yudelovitch, the Bolsheviks had begun their revolt. Civil war tore through the Russian Empire. In 1920, Minkowsky’s city was under full Bolshevik control. The following year, their agricultural policy plunged the region into famine.
Dr. Annie Polland reports that Minkowsky returned to New York in 1922, leaving the tumultuous Soviet Union. Despite his renown as a cantor, he struggled to find permanent work in New York City and made a living through small concerts and travelling gigs. He died in 1924 at 65 years.
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