Memory Lane: Chazzan Yossele Mandelbaum, z”l
In the Czestochowa Ghetto—in which the Nazis, ym”sh, herded together the Jews of the surrounding Polish towns, in 1942 and ’43, until their eventual transfer to the Death Camps—a lone voice rang out amid the terror and the suffering one Friday night.
Among the Yidden confined Jews in the ghetto were “Lulek” Lau, and his elder brother Naftali. Surprised at the haunting voice filled with longing and beauty—emanating from the barracks, Naftali went to investigate. He found a Yid from Krakow, singing the words of Lecha Dodi… kumi tze’i mitoch hahafeichah, Rav lach sheves be’emek habacha…get up and emerge from the turmoil…it is enough sitting in the valley of tears.
That sight would never leave him or his brother Lulek. Years later, the Chief Rabbi Lau made his way to the Bobover beis Medrash in Boro Park, and approached the Rebbe and related that he had regards for him from a Bobover chossid whom he had seen in the Czestochowa Ghetto, pouring out his heart in the most otherworldly way. The Rav promptly reunited the two men.
That Chazzan was the famed Yossele Mandelbaum from Krakow.
Here, we present a brief portrait of this consummate ba’al tefillah, whose legendary voice reverberated within the walls of the Sefardishe Shul. Like his tenure in at the amud in Krakow—on the other side of an annihilated world—his deep emotion, his deep chassidishe neshamah, coupled with his phenomenal musical and vocal abilities, moved the congregants (most of whom were she’eiris hapleitah) to tears.
Reb Yossele was born in Krakow, in 1903, to his father Reb Moshe Duvid Mendelbaum, from a distinguished family of Bobover chassidim. He became the chazzan in one of Krakow’s largest shuls, and many of the town’s chassidishe Yidden would make their way from their shtieblach to hear the chazzan. Then came Hitler, ym”sh, and among the millions lost were his wife and daughter, Hy”d.
Having lost his wife and daughter, he emerged from the ashes—with a fierce determination to live his life as the same Bobover chassid that he had been in Krakow. For a while he was in the Bergen Belsen DP camp, eventually making his way to America, where he became a legend in the rebuilt world of Bobov. In addition to his tenure at the Sfardishe Shul, he was the Bobover ba’al menagen; serving as the ba’al tefillah for Ma’ariv every year on Rosh Hashnah, and often for selichos.
He was always at the side of the Rebbe, and for anything related to neginah, the Bobover Ruv would turn to him.
There exists a video recording of a hachnasas sefer Torah to the Bobover Shul. Seen is an elderly chazzan with a long white beard. His voice is strong and unwavering, despite his advanced age—and he is animated as he leads the young Bobover children’s choir in a chassidishe niggun. In the center, observing, sits the Bobover Rebbe. Two remnants from a lost world, eliciting the timeless song from these young souls who are the rebirth of that world.
His compositions all stand out for their richness, and an unmistakable chassidishe warmth runs through all of them, and thus, the power and the emotion of Reb Yossele’s songs lives on to inspire future generations—music that emanated from the heart of Chazzan Yossele Mandelbaum in Krakow and in Boro Park of yesteryear.