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Menachem Dolinski The Molodetchno Cantor
From Falik Zolf's autobiography Translation by Martin Green http://www.onforeignsoil.com
Menakhem Dolinski, the Cantor-Slaughterer of Molodetchno, was the complete opposite of his wife, my aunt, Khaya-Rivkeh. He never hurried, never rushed, didn't let anything upset him. He always walked at a leisurely pace. No matter what happened...misfortunes, troubles, family problems...he would never depart from his routine. This calmness of his must have been associated with his many years of cantorial service: one always had to protect one's throat, God forbid you should catch a chill. It simply wouldn't do for him to catch a gust of cold air, and thereby damage the "property" that belonged to the community....hence, the apparent calmness, the cautiousness, and the cold-bloodedness, which were to him second nature.
He was a short man...so that when he had to stand before the podium, he needed to set under his feet a kind of specially-built stand. On top of that, one shoulder was a bith higher than the other...in other words, a bit of a hunchback. But in the world of music....cantorial melodies....he was indeed a giant! His own compositions had a reputation throughout the region. More than one world-famous cantor had sung them with the synagogue choirs of the great cities. Those who heard them would virtually snap their fingers. More than one great, passing-though cantor had made a special stop-over in the village, to pick up a new melody from him. But afterwards, as was customary with these things, no one ever knew who the true author was....
And so the surrounding villages had fought over his services...in the end, the townsfolk of Molodetchno, the real music-lovers, had to practically steal him away at night from the neighboring village of Shirvint. They used to show him off before the other towns as though he were a new toy. His greatness consisted largely of his ability to put together the finest choir; and from it, to draw out the very most. In this, he truly was one of the greatest artists of his generation. And aside from his ability as a choir-master, he had his own very distinctive style of praying, which is nowadays seldom to be heard.
All by himself, he learned to play on various instruments. Quite often, he would be called on by one of the neighboring lords to come to his estate, to tune a piano, or even an organ. And on many such occasions, he had brought back to life an old fiddle, a mandolin, and so forth. He had an fine ear, and was constantly drawn to the wider world of music....because for his great musical soul, the small village was too confined, too stifling. Whenever he happened to find out, that an opera or a famous orchestra was playing in Vilna...he would drop everything in the middle of the day and leave town. Never mind the slaughtering, never mind the Rabbi and the butchers, the wife or the children....he would grab the first train out, and head for Vilna. The butchers would be pounding on the doors, grinding their teeth, clenching their fists), cursing him to high heaven. His wife would cry to herself...it didn’t make the slightest difference. You might as well go scream bloody murder! Such a man was my uncle, Menakhem Dolinski.
In his younger days, he used to shut himself in a room almost every evening and play his fiddle. And as soon as the shtetl heard, that their little cantor was playing his fiddle, each one would drop whatever he was doing, and come running to hear the bitter-sweet melodies which flowed from his fiddle. They were standing shoulder to shoulder outside the window....whoever could, pushed his way right into the house, the better to take in those sweet melodies, which reached in to touch your very heart.
The mumeh was aghast at all this: "Look, who ever heard of such a thing? What has cantoring, or slaughtering (which is a sacred calling) got to do with fiddling, with merry-making? she used to argue. Not the least of her fears was that the Rabbi and the religious townsfolk, who had long harbored doubts about the cantor’s religiosity, should seize upon his unseemly conduct as an excuse to discharge him from the post of slaughterer. It didn't help, that a kind of demon (God preserve us!) had taken hold of him in the form of that fiddle, and wouldn't let him go. He was no longer the master of his will...he thought nothing of family and livelihood...
"Who knows what this fiddle-playing might lead to?" complained my auntie. And every evening, the crowd around her house was growing larger. She couldn't stand it any more...because she could see, that the danger was very great....this was a game with the Devil! She suddenly jumped at him one day, like a frightened cat, tore the fiddle from his hands, and hurled it into the burning oven. And that was the end of the fiddle! The cantor never forgave her for it...
When I came to Molodetchno, my uncle, Menakhem Dolinski, was already a faded star. His voice had long since left him. But the village, which still remembered his sweet prayers of yore, couldn't bring itself to think about replacing him with a new cantor. Indeed, much as he himself might have felt that he was an played out, he showed outwardly not a sign of decline. At every opportunity, he went out of his way to show that he was still - he. He became more and more particular about his honor and importance. At the dinner table, he conducted himself like a regular potentate. The salt shaker always had to be in its proper place. The knife and the spoon had to be laid out just so. When he spoke, everyone had to fall silent, to hear what he had to say. There might have been the greatest commotion in the house...but as soon as someone heard: "he’s coming"...all at once, everything would become dead quiet. When one of the butchers would come to call, it didn't matter how rich he was or how big he was....even if he looked like Goliath the Philistihe next to my uncle, he still had to stand and wait meekly at the door, like a beggar, and with a trembling voice, stammer: "Mr. Cantor Sir, would it be too much to ask if you might be so good as to go to the slaughterhouse an slaughter an animal?"
But the cantor-slaughterer could not be hurried. Everyone had to wait for him. And in that "waiting", he found a kind of quiet satisfaction; a bit of a feeling of vindication, as though he were saying: "You see! You still need me...you all have to come to me!"
And this same uncle, Menachem Dolinski, became attached to me with heart and sould...as though I were a long-lost friend! I myself sometimes felt a closer relationship to him than with my auntie, my mother’s sister. He used to love to sit up late with me, till all hours, just talking. More than once he asked me to accompany him to the slaughterhouse, which lay a couple of miles from town. On the way there, he used to unburden his heart before me. He was, in fact a very well-spoken man, eleoquent and interesting...so that it was a pleasure to listen to him. He was an enlightened man, well-read in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian literature. He wrote a fine Hebrew script, and his Russian was not to shabby. He used to refer to certain towsfolk, his employers, whom he didn't like, by the names of characters from the stories of Mendeleh Mukher-Seforim and Sholom Aleykhem*.
Most of all, he liked to talk about his younger days, when he was a choir-singer under the Cantor of Kamenets; how he got married in the village of Luskela with myt aunt, Khaya-Rivkeh; how he lived at first with his father-in-law, Grandfather Jeremiah; later, when he went out on his own, he started dealing in produce; how he lost all his money; then, leaving his wife with his mother-in- law, he set off on his own for Vilna, where he started to study music, and actually became a cantor.un takkeh gevoren a khazen. With particular relish, he used to tell how the surrounding villages fought over him; how, when he appeared with a choir, the whole town would be standing on its head. Even the Russian officials used to come to synagogue, to hear his prayers on the High Holidays, his own compositions. More than one of them said of him: "A shame, that such a great artist should be stuck in such a backwater...he could have been Director of the greatest choir...."
While he was telling me these stories, he felt as though he was re-living the glory days of his youth. In his voice, you could sense the joy, that finally he had found someone who understood him, and for whom he could speak from the heart. His blue eyes used to light with such a happy fire, that sparks seemed to fly from them. It was apparent, that from these sweet memories of his youthful glory-days, he was still drawing a deep spiritual sustenance.
Seeing that I showed great interest in his descriptions, in his memories, he drew closer to me, and called me a great "master of sensitivity"...and when there would sometimes occur between my and my aunt a dispute, whether it was over my failure to pray enough, or perhaps the fact that I was wasting too much time with the young ladies of the village....regardless of the reason, he would always take my side....
From those long talks with my uncle, I learned a great deal. I learned about the lives of two generations of our family....about my grandparents, and my own parents, when they were still living in the village of Luskela. Until then, I had known almost nothing about their early years. Because from eleven years of age onwards, I was already a wanderer, and seldom had the opportunity to speak about grown-up things with my own parents. Now, as a grown-up boy, I could better understand my parents, better look into their souls. For this, I have my uncle to thank. And inded, for that reason, this chapter of my life was especially dear to me.
In the years leading up to and during the war, my uncle was very busy transcribing the notes to his own choral compositions, which he had written to words from the prayer-book. He had hoped, with God's help, to publish a whole prayer-book with notes, which was certain to become "the cantor's right hand", as he never tired of explaining to me, with considerable exictement. Indeed, such a prayer-book would have had a huge impact, would have made a virtual revolution in the Cantor’s world.
So he hoped. That hope gave him spiritual sustenance. He commited to this undertaking all his strength. In the midst of the tumult, the constant commotion, which prevailed in the house, he would confine himself to a closed room, and sit for hours over his transcriptions. And while he was working, he would be humming softly to himself, tapping his foot or his finger on the table, smoking incessantly and writing speedily...
But for this little cantor, the great artist, whom Fate had cast off in this little village, it was sadly not ordained that he should succeed in bringing before the word the fruits of his artistic creations. In the very last days of the war, the peace negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the Germans, in Brest-Litovsk, were suddenly broken off: the battle-hungry German Army made a sudden, bloody thrust deep into Ukraine, Lithuania, and White Russian, and the town of Molodetchno, which lay close to the north-west front, became one of the first, to be trampled under the iron heel of the German Army. And it was during those days of turmoil, that my uncle lost his precious manuscripts, over which he had labored for years. This great loss of his, he was never able to forget.
Yes, the Cantor of Molodetchno, Menakhem Dolinski, truly posessed a great artistic soul. But unfortunately, very little luck.