Historicist: Torn Between the Synagogue and the Concert Hall
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Historicist: Torn Between the Synagogue and the Concert Hall

The Toronto connections of Joseph Shlisky, one of the world's greatest cantors.

Joseph Shlisky from Nathan Stolnitz, Music in Jewish Life (1957)

Joseph Shlisky from Nathan Stolnitz, Music in Jewish Life (1957).

Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century looked forward to weekly services at the synagogue—and those on holidays like Passover, Yom Kippur, or Hanukkah (which occurs this year between December 17 and 24)—with great anticipation. At the synagogue the Jewish community could forget the travails of the working week listening to the cantor’s songful prayer. Such sacred song, cantor Nathan Stolnitz wrote in 1968, “was an integral part of [the Jew’s] whole spiritual make-up,” serving as a “creative force which gave strength and substance to Jewish survival.”

One of the world’s most famous cantors in the period between the wars, Joseph Shlisky, had deep roots in Toronto, and a romantic backstory. Kidnapped from his family in Poland as a child by an unscrupulous cantor, he was brought to Toronto to sing in the cantor’s choir. A few years later, while singing at his sewing machine in the Eaton’s factory, Shlisky was overheard by Lady Eaton, who offered to pay for his education at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. Upon his graduation, the tenor headed to New York City and rose to fame, torn between the lucrative financial rewards of performing opera standards in the concert hall and the spiritual rewards of cantorial music (hazzanut). Then, at the height of his fame and powers as a cantor, Shlisky’s singing career was cut short by a sudden, debilitating stroke that robbed him of his ability to sing.

The biography of Joseph (alternatively spelled Yossele, Yossel, or Josef) Shlisky is, as one biographer put it, “[t]ruly the stuff of a great novel.” As romantic or theatrical as the tale may be, it’s exceedingly difficult to pin down precise, factual details from the differing accounts of his origins given in Shlisky’s interviews, in publicity materials published in newspapers in advance of his concerts, and in subsequent secondary sources.

His place of birth in Poland, for example, has been listed as Ostrowce (which could be one of at least three villages) or Vochosk (which doesn’t seem to exist at all). And the exact date of his arrival in Toronto, somewhere between 1901 and 1908, remains a mystery as well. While there may be disagreement on fine details in the varying accounts, however, the broad contours of his story are consistent.

Shlisky, born in 1894, was renowned in his Polish village as an alto or soprano singer in the choir of the local synagogue. A cantor from a neighbouring village heard the boy, aged somewhere between seven and 14, and decided he needed the voice for his own choir. In an era when cantors (hazzanim) had risen to important, prestigious status, it wasn’t unheard of in the Old World for unscrupulous cantors “to cajole, bribe, and even kidnap talented [child singers] to augment their choirs.”

The cantor (hazzan) promised Shlisky’s parents to train their boy in liturgical song and take him on tour to London, England. Instead, the cantor spirited Shlisky and six other boys away to Toronto. (In another version of the story, the cantor induced Shlisky to run away on the promise of a rouble-a-day in London, a fortune to a country boy in Eastern Europe, then re-routed him to Toronto.) When Shlisky, unfamiliar with geography beyond the immediate surroundings of his village, disembarked at Union Station after a 14-day sea voyage and an overnight train trip, he was still certain he’d arrived in the British capital.

Storefront in the The Ward, northeast corner of Elizabeth and Albert Streets, October 1916. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 2173.

The earliest cantors in Canada, like Chaim Goldberg, who began to serve as cantor at Holy Blossom Temple shortly after its formation in 1856, performed hazzanut on a part-time basis, assuming multiple duties, as rabbi or shochet, to make ends meet. But as the Jewish community grew and synagogues flourished, by the turn of the 20th century, hazzanut began to prosper as an art. Although cantor salaries of $500 to $800 a year were modest—and not necessarily enough to lure the most famous cantors from Eastern Europe—the wages did offer comparative economic stability.

Like elsewhere in North America, Toronto shuls looked to Eastern Europe to recruit a cantor and his choir, knowing that a well-regarded cantor increased the shul’s prestige in the community, and attracted new congregants—the latter being an important task if there were a new building to fill. “Amid encounters with manifold disparities between the life that immigrants had led in Europe and their new life in America, cantors epitomized the religious experience that these Jews had left behind,” Jeffrey Shandler writes in a contribution to Chosen Capital (Rutgers University Press, 2012). “The emotional power of the cantors’ performances not only conveyed the congregation’s prayers to heaven, according to traditional teaching, but also bore the affective charge of immigrant longings and uncertainties.”

The cantor who brought Shlisky to Toronto may have been Moshe Wolman, as suggested by cantor and historian Nathan Stolnitz. But, in interviews, Shlisky never mentions a name himself, offering only that upon his arrival in Toronto, he was part of the choir at Goel Tzedec Synagogue, suggesting that the cantor had come to assume choirmaster duties there.

Goel Tzedec Synagogue, on University Avenue south of Agnes Street, 1924  From the Archives of Ontario Flickr

Goel Tzedec Synagogue, on University Avenue south of Agnes Street, 1924. From the Archives of Ontario Flickr.

Founded in 1883, Goel Tzedec had occupied a modest building, a former Methodist church, on Elm Street at University Avenue, from 1884 to 1906. During that period, the surrounding neighbourhood, The Ward, grew exponentially as Eastern Europeans sought to escape the persecution and economic difficulties of their homelands, and the congregation diversified to include newcomers of Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Galician descent.

In early 1907, the congregation dedicated a grand new synagogue building, designed in the style of Westminster Cathedral, on University Avenue south of Agnes Street. With a seating capacity of 1,200, a magnificently appointed ark and altar, and all the modern amenities, Goel Tzedec was intended, Stephen A. Speisman writes in The Jews of Toronto: A History to 1937 (McClelland & Stewart, 2005 [1979]), “to be the showplace of the East European community.” The timely recruitment of a cantor and choir from the Old World, would have been an added symbol of Goel Tzedec’s prosperity and prestige.

Shlisky’s early years in Toronto were anything but easy. The cantor, who Shlisky described as “a miser,” took rooms for them in a house not far from the synagogue, in the heart of The Ward, the city’s bustling, growing Jewish district. Living across the street from the poor house, at the corner of Elm and Elizabeth streets, they survived on cheap cuts of meat bought for four-cents-a-pound and cooked by the cantor. As a soloist in the cantor’s choir, Shlisky was paid a pittance—ten cents for a summer according to one source, or four dollars per month according to another.

Streetscape of Elm Street in The Ward, April 1917. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 32, Item 480.

Although The Ward was a virtually self-contained Jewish enclave, full of fellow Eastern Europeans, Shlisky was terribly homesick and suffered some difficulties of adjustment. The first time someone gave him a banana, not knowing how to eat it, he cut a piece, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and ate it peel and all. When a member of the shul bought Shlisky his first stiff, starched shirt, he didn’t know how to wear it, and put it on backwards.

Shlisky hadn’t spoken a word of English upon his arrival, but within five months, after attending the McCaul School, he could speak with reasonable fluency. Decades later, he still had fond memories of the school, which had predominantly Jewish pupils, and his teacher, Miss Barlow, in particular. “She saved me,” he told R.E. Knowles in an interview with the Star (September 20, 1932). “It was just heaven, after what I had gone through.”

Shlisky eventually left the cantor’s employ either of his own accord or because his voice changed as a teenager and he was no longer useful. Working a series of odd jobs, he found himself in dire straits, having to sleep for a time in the warehouse of a rag-picking company where he worked. After an uncle immigrated to Toronto, Shlisky could finally enjoy a degree of stability.

In about 1910, at only 16 or 17 years of age, Shlisky married Minnie Rinzler, a Romanian-born immigrant, and started a family of his own, settling into a job at the sprawling Eaton’s factory complex as a means of support. Two daughters, Pearl and Helen, were soon born to the couple, followed by a son, Norman. Another daughter, Natalie, completed the family about a decade later.

Nevertheless, Shlisky’s head remained “full of beautiful music,” as he once put it in an interview. He’d never heard a note of western music until his immigration, but joined the Toronto Glee Society in 1914. He quit just as quickly because he didn’t think he was learning anything.

It was then that luck intervened. Shlisky was singing at his sewing machine when Lady Flora McCrea Eaton happened to pass by on a factory inspection tour in about 1914. Lady Eaton, herself a musical enthusiast and vocal performer, was distinctly impressed by the young tailor’s voice. When she heard that he’d had to forsake his musical ambitions to make ends meet for his family, she offered to pay for his musical education at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (TCM), run by her friend Dr. Augustus S. Vogt.

Word of Lady Eaton’s munificence towards Shlisky spread throughout the local Jewish community, and was passed down in family tradition before being preserved by a later generation of historians. Lady Eaton’s act of kindness, however, is not recorded in her own autobiography or in any company history, and Shlisky never mentioned being discovered by Lady Eaton in his few interviews with the Toronto press. Nevertheless, Shlisky almost certainly would have required a benefactor, like Lady Eaton, to fund a luxury like a musical education.

The Toronto (Royal) Conservatory of Music, southwest corner of University Avenue and College Street, 1920  From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection

The Toronto (Royal) Conservatory of Music, southwest corner of University Avenue and College Street, 1920. From the Toronto Public Library Digital Collection.

“It was the crisis of my life,” Shlisky explained of his arrival at the TCM in an interview with the Star (November 5, 1919). He and a friend made their way to the music school, on the southwest corner of College Street and University Avenue, to seek a try-out for the Mendelssohn Choir, a renowned choral group led by Dr. Vogt.

Vogt, who had a reputation as a demanding, uncompromising instructor, heard Shlisky’s friend and offered him a spot in the choir. Then Vogt rose to usher the two from the studio. For whatever reason, the TCM music director wasn’t interested in hearing Shlisky try out. The diminutive Pole assumed it was because his height would make him stand out in the large ensemble, though Vogt himself was quite short.

Shlisky’s friend insisted that Vogt give the tenor a listen. “He knit his brows and he fixed me with a swift, intense, devouring glace,” Shlisky remembered of the music teacher’s reaction, “and I felt that I could gladly sink through the floor.” However, perhaps hoping it would get the young men to leave, Vogt relented. “Well, we’ll let the boy sing a scale,” he said. Shlisky recounted his audition:

The doctor sat down to the piano and struck a note. I opened my mouth and when the sound came out, the doctor looked suddenly around as if to enquire where the sound was coming from. Up the scale went, my notes growing better the higher I sang. At G the doctor stopped, signifying that he considered that as far as I should be expected to go. But I went on without him, so he took me up again on the piano. Past A, I followed, and on up to high C without any difficulty.

Vogt would have been struck the distinctive timbre of Shlisky’s voice, as well as the tenor’s impressive range—topping out at high F—which was reputed to be the greatest of the singers of his day. “He had a very high tenor voice, with a most extraordinary flexibility,” one biographer wrote of Shlisky’s singing voice. “He was able to change from the highest, most beautiful falsetto, into full voice, with consummate ease and he used this facility most effectively in many of his pieces.”

Abruptly, Vogt jumped up and hurriedly led Shlisky upstairs to meet Dalton Baker, the school’s leading vocal instructor. Although Baker was out at that moment, when Shlisky returned the next day Baker agreed with Vogt’s high praise. “Mr. Baker was so enthusiastic over my voice that he sat down and gave me my first lesson on the spot,” Shlisky recalled. For the next four years, Shlisky received almost daily instruction from Baker. And he would credit the transplanted Briton—once reputed to be Britain’s greatest baritone prior to his arrival in Canada—with teaching him a great deal.

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Shlisky soon established a local reputation as a featured soloist, performing at recitals and fundraisers for the war effort attended by the city’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant gentry as well as its established Jewish families. He delighted audiences with songs that would remain at the core of his non-liturgical repertoire throughout his career, including “a fervid, strongly marked and robust rendering of” Gounod’s “Lend Me Your Aid.”

(Right: Toronto Star [December 5, 1925].)

“Mr. Shlisky’s tones are of a rarely even color; they have the pure tenor quality, and yet are robust and masculine in thrilling degree,” Saturday Night‘s music critic praised. “His attack is superb and his poise astonishing in so young an artist.”

During his years at the TCM, Shlisky either continued to perform or returned to performing in the synagogue. He’s mentioned alternatively as a protege of Cantor Bernhard Wladowsky, who assumed cantorial duties at Goel Tzedec in 1912, and as a member of Cantor Abraham Manovitz’s choir at the McCaul Street Synagogue.

Not too long after Shlisky appeared on stage at Massey Hall as part of a recital of TCM students in early March 1918, Shlisky went to New York City on holiday. His musical ambitions had long focused on New York, but Baker had repeatedly urged patience. Now, on holiday, Shlisky auditioned for a talent manager and was immediately signed by the agency.

Shlisky’s New York debut came on March 5, 1919, at the Aeolian Hall, a 1,100-seat auditorium on the third floor of an 18-storey building overlooking Bryant Park. Before a packed house, Shlisky launched through airs by Rachmaninoff, Elgar, and Rimsky-Korsakov among others, as well as “Sound An Alarm” from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, which would become his signature non-liturgical number.

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The audience was enraptured by his voice, and the Manhattan press annointed him one of the best young singers of the day. The New York Times critic raved: “He is a little wonder, a young man with a natural voice of limpid purity, a liquid diction for English or Russian consonants, a melting pianissimo like a bird’s wood-notes wild, and, when needed, full-throated crescendo, high, clear as a bell, and altogether manly.”

(Left: Aeolian Hall, New York City, as depicted on the cover of a program from the 1919 season. From the New York Public Library Digital Collection.)

By the time Shlisky returned to Toronto for a November 5, 1919, concert at Massey Hall—in the midst of a headlining tour of concert halls in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago—he was hailed as a local-boy-done-good. Amid rumours that he’d turned down a four-year, $50,000 contract with one New York agency and was touring under an even more profitable arrangement, Shlisky used his new wealth to take some of his old TCM teachers to the Schiffer-Hillman clothing company in the Balfour Building on Spadina Avenue to be fitted for new suits as a gift of thanks for their attention and encouragement. (Later, his wealth allowed him to bring his family to America from Poland.)

His program at Massey Hall was typical of his recital concerts over his career. To showcase his vocal versatility, he performed operatic arias from a variety of schools—Italian, Russian, and German. He also performed his signature rendition of Handel’s “Sound An Alarm”—which provoked tumultuous applause even before he’d reached the song’s climax. He closed the performance with a series of Yiddish or Hebrew numbers, though their titles weren’t recorded by the newspaper. While these may have been folk songs, Shlisky was also known to perform traditional hazzanut songs on the concert stage, including “Al Hatzadikim,” “Omar Raboeliozor,” “Misrutze Brachamin,” and “Tikants Shabbos.” (When performing such sacred songs outside of synagogue services, most cantors substituted alternate words for the prayers’ references to God.)

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Shlisky’s star continued to rise as a mainstream artist, with repeat appearances at Massey Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall over the next few years. Nevertheless, he never really abandoned the cantorial arts.

(Left: Toronto Star [September 20, 1932].)

Hearing that the Slonimer Synagogue (likely the Congregation Sheveth Achim Anshe Slonim) was seeking a hazzan for the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) in 1920, Shlisky rushed to the shul president’s leather factory to audition. He obviously impressed because he remained with Anshe Slonim for a number of years, during which time, in 1921, the congregation moved into the city’s oldest purpose-built synagogue at 172 Norfolk Street—a building with good acoustics.

Over his cantorial career, Shlisky would serve at a number of synagogues in the five boroughs, including the First Roumanian-American Congregation on the Lower East Side at 89-93 Rivington Street, Kol Israel Anshe Poland at 26 West 114th Street in Harlem, the Talmud Torah Toras Moshe at 858 Macy Place in the Bronx, and Brooklyn’s Shaare Tefillah.

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New York’s Lower East Side was the epicentre of the world hazzanut community. Young cantors came to the neighbourhood’s synagogues to apprentice with the giants of the field, like Yossele (Joseph) Rosenblatt, based at First Roumanian-American, a massive orthodox synagogue—with seating for 1,800 and magnificent acoustics—that became known as the “Cantor’s Carnegie Hall.”

(Left: Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt from Bain News Service Collection at the Library of Congress [LC-B2- 4745-3].)

Considered to be among the upper echelon of hazzanim, Shlisky made a significant salary. He earned, it was once rumoured, $15,000 for guest officiating six High Holiday services—not far off the figures commanded by Rosenblatt, the standard against which all cantors before or since are measured.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a golden age of cantors, hazzanim achieved status as international celebrities or pop idols inside the synagogue and beyond through stage and radio performances, widely distributed recordings, copious press coverage, and even films. Like so many leading cantors of his age—and as depicted in the stage and film versions of The Jazz Singer (1927)—Shlisky was caught between worlds, with one foot in the synagogue and one foot on the concert hall stage. Some performers with roots in cantorial music had no qualms with secular, commercialized celebrity, appearing in vaudeville and low-brow Yiddish films, or dissembling their Jewish identity to become full-time opera singers.

Shlisky was not among them. Though he was tempted, at one point, by a lucrative contract offer from the New York-based San Carlo Opera Company, which toured North America and Europe performing the likes of La Boheme and La Juive, he ultimately turned the offer down, worried that performances would conflict with Shabbat and Yom Tov. Luckily, remaining a cantor alone still provided him with a more than comfortable income.

There was a massive market for liturgical recordings, with 78s snatched up by both the observant, who wanted recorded prayers to fill the hours between evening and morning services, and the lapsed, who still longed for the comforting sounds of the synagogue. Shlisky recorded extensively in the 1920s, though apparently only liturgical numbers like Hineni Heoni Mimaas (I Came Before Thee aka The Hazzan’s Prayer), Av Horakhamim (Father of Mercy), Mizmor L’Dovid (A Psalm of David – Psalm 29), Ashrei (Happy Are They – Psalm 145), and Haben yakir li (My Darling Son).

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Distributed across the Jewish world, the records increased Shlisky’s fame. He also appeared regularly on the radio, and in at least one major film—along with Rosenblatt, David Roitman, Joseph Shapiro, and other hazzanut superstars, Shlisky sang in The Voice of Israel (1931), which dramatized key events in Biblical and Jewish history followed by cantorial performances.

(Right: Toronto Globe [November 5, 1932].)

As an indication of his popularity, when he led Passover services at Toronto’s Ostrovtzer Shul in 1931, more local Jews flocked to see him than could be accommodated in the synagogue, a former church converted to the Ostrovtzer congregation’s purposes in 1922. Police had to close Cecil Street to traffic at Spadina Avenue to allow the overflow to linger and listen to the international star from the street.

Known for his generosity, Shlisky often performed at fundraisers and benefit concerts for charitable organizations and, remembering his own difficult journey to Canada, proved willing to directly assist hazzanim newly arrived from the Old World. He was likewise willing, at the height of the Great Depression, to waive his standard appearance fee for High Holidays services at the Ostrovtzer Synagogue in September 1932.

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Two months later, on November 8, 1932, Shlisky made his last publicized stage appearance in Toronto at the outset of an international tour to England, France, Germany, and Palestine. A bit unusually for a cantorial performance, Shlisky enjoyed the full orchestral accompaniment of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Ernest MacMillan. Among the large audience in attendance at Massey Hall were the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and his party. Shlisky sang his signatures—Handel’s “Sound An Alarm” and Gounod’s “Lend Me Your Aid”—as well as selections by Mendelssohn, Haydn, and Strauss. “His voice is of true tenor timbre, admirably cultivated in quality, and resonant enough to hold its own with the orchestra. He is evidently a concert artist of skill and experience,” critic Lawrence Mason said in a positive, though not effusive, review in the Globe (November 9, 1932).

(Left: Toronto Globe [November 5, 1932].)

At the peak of his fame, Shlisky’s singing career was cut short when he suffered a paralytic stroke. The liner notes of a 1960 reissue of Shlisky’s recordings date the stroke to 1934, just after the cantor had performed for Passover services. According to his obituary in the New York Times, however, he suffered the stroke in 1940. Regardless of when it occurred, after the stroke, Shlisky never sang again. He lived out his days as an invalid until his death, of a cerebral hemorrhage, on February 14, 1955.

“Josef Shlisky is not well known today,” B.H. Stambler summarizes the cantor’s legacy in the Journal of Synagogue Music (Fall 2011) [PDF], “yet his God-given vocal ability and cantorial skill brought him such well-deserved acclaim during a brief span of time, that his tragic story cries for inclusion in any survey of 20th-century hazzanut.”

Sources consulted include: Roger Bennett and Josh Kun, And You Shall Know Us By The Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost (Crown Publishers, 2008); Judah M. Cohen, “Remembering and Rebuilding: Folkways Cantorials 1947-1965,” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine (Fall/Winter 2014) [PDF]; David Dunlap, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (Columbia University Press, 2004); Flora McCrea Eaton, Memory’s Wall: The Autobiography of Flora McCrea Eaton (Clarke, Irwin, 1956); Benjamin Kayfetz and Stephen A. Speisman, Only Yesterday: Collected Pieces on the Jews of Toronto (Now and Then Books, 2013); Velvel Pasternak, The Jewish Music Companion: Historical Overview, Personalities, Annotated Folksongs (Tara Publications, 2002); Ezra Schabas, There’s Music in These Walls: A History of the Royal Conservatory of Music (Dundurn, 2005); Jeffrey Shandler, “Sanctification of the Brand Name: The Marketing of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt,” in Rebecca Kobrin, ed., Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism (Rutgers University Press, 2012); Nathan Stolnitz, Music in Jewish Life (1957); Nathan Stolnitz, On the Wings of Song (1968); Gerald R. Wolfe, The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side (Fordham University Press, 2013); and articles from the Canadian Jewish News (March 4, 1977; and March 28, 1991); the New York Times (March 6, 1919; May 9, 1920; February 9, and December 18 & 26, 1927); May 12, 1929; and February 15, 1955); the Pittsburgh Press (March 1, 1921); the Toronto Globe (May 5 and June 1, 1917; March 1 & 2, 1918; October 18 & 30, and November 1 & 6, 1919; January 10, 15, 17, 27 & 28, 1920; and October 29 and November 5 & 9, 1932); the Toronto Star (September 4 & 19, 1917; January 4, and February 28, 1918; November 1, 4 & 5, 1919; January 17, 22, 24, 26 & 27, 1920; December 5, 1925; September 20, and November 3 & 5, 1932; and March 17, 1934).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.