Memory Lane: The Tenor that Trilled in Boro Park Cantor Mordechai Hershman, z”l
It sounds incredible, but the great, legendary chazzan Mordechai
Hershman whose golden voice is only rivaled by his timeless pieces such as Eilu
Devarim, Akavia ben Mahalael, and "Modim Anachnu, Tal, and so many others,
including many Yiddish soul music.
Like many of the chazzanim of that era, Cantor Mordechai Hershman was Russian. Born in Chernigrov in 1888, he displayed musical talent from a young age. He was offered positions in Zhitomir and later in Vilna, which he accepted. During World War I, Hershman was drafted into the Russian army. Legend has it that his commanding officer was so impressed by his tenor voice that he released him from duty. After the war, Hershman returned to his post in Vilna.
Cantor Hershman came to the United States in the year 1920—along with other chazzanim and artists—and was immediately hired at Temple Beth El (which was then located at its original location at 12th Avenue and 41st street. That edifice still stands today, and in that year of 1920, ground was broken on the magnificent structure where it is housed today). Cantor Hershman served here during the years that the new shul was being erected, through the year 1930, in the immediate aftermath of the Depression when it became too expensive for the shul to pay his salary—like so many others individuals and institutions which were hurting at the time.
During his time at Beth El, having been recognized as one of the most prominent chazzanim of the time, Hershman toured extensively in the U.S., in Canada, Europe, and in what was then Palestine (including a legendary performance at the inauguration of the Hebrew University campus).
Chazzan Ben Zion Miller is the current chazzan at Congregation Beth El, who has served this shul since the year 1981 spoke of his legendary predecessor. “Hershman was one of the greats, who had a great voice, and an even better delivery, and these qualities endeared him to a worldwide audience—a love that continues to this day. While I myself am too young to remember Hershman’s years at Beth El,” the chazzan smiles, “Mr. Jack Verschleiser, z”l, a veteran mispalel would always relate having heard the legend here.”
The repertoire of Hershman’s pieces that he made famous—which are at the top of any chassanus lover’s list—are as beautiful as they are deeply heartrending. We are blessed that he has left behind quite a bit of audio recordings that continue to uplift and inspire.
The legendary chazzan was niftar at the untimely age of 52 in the year 1940, and Boro Park experienced ups and downs in its love of chazzanus. But for those ten years, the voice of this famed chazzan delighted the hearts of Boro Park residents of yore.
Memory Lane is a stroll through Boro Park of yore, a special project of Boropark24.com. Comments or suggestions may be emailed to [email protected]