(This article originally appeared in What Where When magazine and has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author. I feel that it may be of interest to many of my readers. The photo in the middle of the story is my own. I just thought it fit well.)
Why I Daven with the Yekkes: A Tribute to Chazan Frankel
by Jonathan Marvin
Tzom Gedalia 2010
Sometimes I take heat for davening with the local Minhag Ashkenaz (Yekkishe) minyan. When I overhear conversations about our minyan, often the somewhat pejorative word “Yekke” is preceded by an uncomplimentary adjective like “old.” I must add that this is never from people who have actually davened in our minyan. I have been called a “born-again Kraut,” and I know that other people in our minyan have been raked over the coals for no reason at all, none whatsoever. Ironically, but not surprisingly, some of the worst offenders are themselves of German ancestry and had once been mocked for being different. As Auden said, “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
I have even taken abuse while at the amud! A number of years back, when we were just getting our Friday night minyan started, we tried to join with another (non-Yekkish) group who needed some support. They were supposed to inform their regulars that we were going to do the davening our way as an experiment, but I guess they didn’t get the word out. Halfway into Kabbolas Shabbos, one man screamed out, “This isn’t a Yekkishe shul!” and stormed out of the room. I just kept davening, shaken but not stirred.
I am not of German descent. Why do I do it? Why take the abuse, good-natured and otherwise? Why not just sit in the back of some “normal” shul with my thoughts and a sefer? Part of the answer has to do with a man named Robert R. Frankel. I lived in the Breuer’s community in Washington Heights for 10 years, where he served as chazan for over 50.
From the first time I set foot in K’hal Adath Jeshurun (also called Breuer’s), it immediately made sense to me. It seemed to me that this was exactly what a shul was supposed to be like. The decorum, the choir, the strong sense that everyone knew what to do, and the beauty of the shul itself all had something to do with it. But looking back, I think a lot had to do with Chazan Frankel. When I went back this year to spend Rosh Hashanah in Washington Heights, so many things reminded me of why I strongly believe that our religious lives would be richer if we had more shuls like this. Chazan Frankel embodied much of that, and my thoughts drifted to him as I opened my machzor on erev Rosh Hashanah.
I had heard Chazan Frankel daven for a number of years before I ever talked to him. He was tall and regal in his bearing. His voice was pleasant, but not the kind of voice that comes to mind when most people hear the word “chazan” – for German chazanus is very plain, not fancy and operatic like Eastern European chazanus. (In fact, Yossele Rosenblatt left his position in Hamburg because his style was too ornate for them!) Chazan Frankel would pass my seat as he proceeded from his seat to the amud, never smiling, never talking to anyone, tallis draped over his arms and hanging down in the German fashion, davening from Adon Olam at the beginning until Anim Zemiros at the end. He certainly never said hello to me, and, I have to admit, I assumed he must be – to put it nicely – cold, aloof, and standoffish. I even think I was a little scared of him, the way a young child might be scared of a mean old man.
One week, Mrs. Frankel invited me for dinner on Friday night. She worked in the finance office at Yeshiva University and loved to invite “the boys” over for Shabbos. (This grandmotherly “little old lady” later confided in me that she frequently carried $10,000 cash in her purse across Amsterdam Avenue!) I was intrigued but more than a little nervous about having to spend several hours in dark, dour silence. When Friday night came, outside of shul after davening, I introduced myself to Chazan Frankel. Two things shocked me about that first meeting. First, I realized I had never heard him speak English before, and he spoke with a heavy German accent, which just didn’t seem to come across in his Hebrew at the amud. But even more shocking was that he had a sense of humor! He told me a joke! (I eventually came to learn that he had quite a good sense of humor, even a little impish at times.) He was warm, and he joked! So Friday night turned out to be quite a fine evening, the first of many memorable Shabbos evenings with a lot of guests at his table. (In fact, I met my wife at that table, but I will usurp Rabbi Oberstein’s job if I go too much into that.)
On my way home that night, I must have tried to reconcile the two Chazan Frankels: the one in shul, and the one in the street. (Was he a follower of Moses Mendelssohn?) I assumed that his demeanor at the amud was a put on, like a stage personality.
But as I got to know Chazan Frankel, I slowly realized that nothing could be further from the truth. I began to understand the essence of what it means to daven before the amud, the kind of things you can never learn from a “learn-how-to-daven-Mussaf” CD. From the moment he left his seat to make the walk to the amud, it was all business. The absolute dignity and seriousness required to stand before one’s Maker demanded no less. He walked with a certain formality, a solemn procession of one. He stood tall, tallis draped over his arms, almost touching the ground, ready to make his offering to Hashem in the only way a human can, with ephemeral vibrations of sound that fill empty space, and then are gone. He pronounced every word correctly, and with care. I never saw him slouch or lean on the amud. He never wandered from the amud or stepped away from it, unless required to do so by the service. In over 50 years, he was never once late for shul when he had to daven.
Later, I became one of the ba’alei tefila in the hashkama (early) minyan. (Only officially appointed chazanim could daven for the main minyan.) I know he disliked making recordings, but he always found time to sit with me. Was it the unique tune for the words “Vehu yashmi’aynu” in Mussaf kedusha on Shabbos Chazon? Or one of the special kaddish tunes done throughout the year? (They say there are 64 different tunes in Nusach Frankfurt, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.) Or was it the precise phrasing of the words in birkas Krias Shema? Or perhaps all of the different modes needed for the selichos? Whatever it was, he helped me. By the way, he always had a full-time job working for Shaarei Zedek Hospital, a cause he passionately believed in. He put in all that effort, and it wasn’t even his “primary” job. But it was his life.
Only much later did I learn about his personal life, which he didn’t speak too much about. His father died when he was very young. He sang in the choir in Hamburg as a small boy, and wanted to be a chazan from his youngest days. He even heard Yossele there once, in the 1920s. His commitment to doing things correctly manifested itself as a very young boy. Some slight change was made in one of the Yom Kippur prayers one year. When the time came, he sang his part very loudly the old way, the correct way, in his seven-year-old mind, refusing to change. As I recall, he was kicked out of the choir for a while because of that!
He was, in many ways, the most European person I knew. He never quite came to terms with American informality, and I know he missed Europe, although the Germany he knew existed no more. The closest he could come to that was to visit England, where he had spent most of the war years working in a raincoat factory after being interned on the Isle of Man because of his German origins. But that formality had its limits, even for him. He once told me that when he was young, he was required to go every Shabbos afternoon to visit his stern grandmother, a former Prussian schoolteacher. Once there, he was expected to sit in absolute silence, motionless, with his hands exactly half on the table and half off, until the ordeal was over. He dreaded those visits. Once, when he was a just a little boy, she had him read out of the siddur. He stumbled over the words: "v’tze-eh-tzo-ei-nu, v’tze-eh-tzo-ei ," and she pronounced her ironic verdict: "This boy will never learn how to read Hebrew!" To put it mildly, he never developed a fondness for her. (And fortunate are we who didn’t go to school in Prussia back then. . . )
When he davened on Friday night, he always did the nusach exactly the same, note for note. I once asked him why. He told me the following story: When he was new as the chazan in Breuer’s, he went to four or five people who had grown up in Frankfurt and asked them how the nusach went. Each of them told him something slightly different. So he wove them all together, and that is how he came to the nusach he used. “But why don’t you vary it? Why not do it one way one week, and then another way the next?” “Because then,” he replied, “people will not be able to learn how to daven!” So teaching others, being a model for correct davening, was one of his guiding principles as chazan.
Another time he told me that when he was first starting out, he was scheduled to daven on the 17th of Tamuz (one of the fast days). There was a specific tune for the pizmon said in the selichos that was very difficult. He learned it, and repeated it over and over that night. But when the moment came, he just blanked out. So he had to use some other tune. After davening, the Rav of the shul at that time, who was a stickler for nusach, expressed his displeasure, mentioning in his halacha class that, “a chazan who is not prepared should not go to the amud!”
“Wow. You must have been humiliated,” I said.
“I understood exactly why he did that. He needed to send a strong message that the davening must be done correctly. He was right,” Chazan Frankel replied. Chazan Frankel knew that the davening wasn’t about him. And of course, he became very close with the Rav over the years. (“But,” he told me, with a twinkle in his eye, “I have never again served as chazan on the 17th of Tamuz!”)
He was moser nefesh (devoted) at the amud. On a particularly hot day, I once asked him what he did before the shul had air conditioning. “I had three black suits,” he said. “When I came home Friday night, every piece of clothing was soaking wet. I changed everything from head to toe (and suits had vests back then!). I did the same thing Shabbos morning, and Shabbos afternoon. And I had to pay to have them cleaned during the week!”
I once asked him if he had kavana to be motzi people for havdalah. He laughed. “I have all the kavanos,” he said. I later learned that he made it his business to know the translation of all the davening, even the complex and difficult piyutim said throughout the year.
Of course, the essence of davening is what is in our heart. But Chazal (the Sages) favored a fixed nusach, so that those private and awesome thoughts, which range from the sublime to the silly, remain private and in our hearts when we daven. That being so, how does one comport oneself as the representative of the congregation before the Borei Olam (Creator)? With seriousness, dignity, respect, and love. And that seriousness was the same whether it was a weekday mincha, or Kol Nidre. That is what I learned from Chazan Frankel.
There was never any affect to his davening: no whining or “crying” or sentimentalism. The latest popular songs were never substituted for nusach. When he introduced a tune into davening, it was done with discretion, taste, and sensitivity to the mood, setting, and, most importantly, a sense that this would befit the One before Whom he stood. I think most people today do not understand this kind of davening. But I came to. And I miss it sorely.
About 14 years before he died, I was moving away from Washington Heights. He invited me to his tidy, Yekkishe apartment. “I want to give you my music,” he told me. “If it stays here, it will just get thrown out. The only condition is that you promise me you will not throw it out.” I didn’t know what to say. I certainly felt unworthy of such a treasure. But I took it, and I still have it all until this day. The papers and volumes he gave me include some original compositions, and notebooks from Germany with various hand-written tunes.
Many years later, when I went back to see him (before we started our Yekkishe minyan in Baltimore), he asked me, “Do you ever daven before the amud?” I told him not too often, which was the truth at the time. He didn’t ask, but I think he intuitively knew why I didn’t. Most people today don’t understand this kind of davening. They want to be entertained or inspired. They want the davening to jump out at them and be meaningful, without putting in any effort to understand the complex interplay between musical nusach and the words printed on the page. Many people I meet today don’t even know that davening has scores of different nuscha’os, passed down from the Maharil and earlier, each expressing a particular mood or theme. As long as their attention span isn’t taxed too much, and they get out of shul on time, who cares?
So I was thinking about all of this on erev Rosh Hashanah. I looked around the shul. Not only was the paroches (ark curtain) white: Every seatback was covered in a white cloth. Even the red carpeting itself had been covered with special white carpeting. Every man and boy had a white tie, and I knew the next day the men would stand dressed in white kittels, all-white talleisim, and special white head coverings. The shul itself was ready for Rosh Hashanah. I looked over at Chazan Frankel’s seat, empty as it has been for the past two years. And while I did, the current chazan put on his tallis and walked purposefully towards the amud. He is an outstanding chazan, much closer in age to me than to Chazan Frankel. And he walked to the amud without a smile on his face, tallis draped over his arms in the German style. But now I understand, all these years later, why he doesn’t smile or talk on his way to the amud. And I was truly thankful to be in that place, at that moment, in a tzibur (congregation) where kedushas beis haknesses (holiness of the synagogue) is as tangible as the sound of the chazan’s voice
That is why I daven with the Yekkes.