Lost His Voice
: ABRAHAM RAISIN
It was in the large synagogue in Klemenke. The week-day service had come
to an end. The town cantor who sings all the prayers, even when he prays
alone, and who is longer over them than other people, had already folded
his prayer-scarf, and was humming the day's Psalm to himself, to a tune.
He sang the last words "cantorishly" high:
"And He will be our guide until death." In the last word "death" he
as usual, to rise artistically to the higher octave, then to fall
very low, and to rise again almost at once into the height; but this
time he failed, the note stuck in his throat and came out false.
He got a fright, and in his fright he looked round to make sure no one
was standing beside him. Seeing only old Henoch, his alarm grew less, he
knew that old Henoch was deaf.
As he went out with his prayer-scarf and phylacteries under his arm, the
unsuccessful "death" rang in his ears and troubled him.
"Plague take it," he muttered, "it never once happened to me before."
Soon, however, he remembered that two weeks ago, on the Sabbath before
the New Moon, as he stood praying with the choristers before the altar,
nearly the same thing had happened to him when he sang "He is our God"
as a solo in the Kedushah.
Happily no one remarked it--anyway the "bass" had said nothing to him.
And the memory of the unsuccessful "Hear, O Israel" of two weeks ago and
of to-day's "unto death" were mingled together, and lay heavily on his
He would have liked to try the note once more as he walked, but the
street was just then full of people, and he tried to refrain till he
should reach home. Contrary to his usual custom, he began taking rapid
steps, and it looked as if he were running away from someone. On
reaching home, he put away his prayer-scarf without saying so much as
good morning, recovered his breath after the quick walk, and began to
sing, "He shall be our guide until death."
"That's right, you have so little time to sing in! The day is too short
for you!" exclaimed the cantoress, angrily. "It grates on the ears
"How, it grates?" and the cantor's eyes opened wide with fright, "I sing
a note, and you say 'it grates'? How can it grate?"
He looked at her imploringly, his eyes said: "Have pity on me! Don't
say, 'it grates'! because if it does grate, I am miserable, I am done
But the cantoress was much too busy and preoccupied with the dinner to
sympathize and to understand how things stood with her husband, and went
"Of course it grates! Why shouldn't it? It deafens me. When you sing in
the choir, I have to bear it, but when you begin by yourself--what?"
The cantor had grown as white as chalk, and only just managed to say:
"Grune, are you mad? What are you talking about?"
"What ails the man to-day!" exclaimed Grune, impatiently. "You've made a
fool of yourself long enough! Go and wash your hands and come to
The cantor felt no appetite, but he reflected that one must eat, if only
as a remedy; not to eat would make matters worse, and he washed his
He chanted the grace loud and cantor-like, glancing occasionally at his
wife, to see if she noticed anything wrong; but this time she said
nothing at all, and he was reassured. "It was my fancy--just my fancy!"
he said to himself. "All nonsense! One doesn't lose one's voice so soon
as all that!"
Then he remembered that he was already forty years old, and it had
happened to the cantor Meyer Lieder, when he was just that age--
That was enough to put him into a fright again. He bent his head, and
thought deeply. Then he raised it, and called out loud:
"Hush! What is it? What makes you call out in that strange voice?" asked
Grune, crossly, running in.
"Well, well, let me live!" said the cantor. "Why do you say 'in that
strange voice'? Whose voice was it? eh? What is the matter now?"
There was a sound as of tears as he spoke.
"You're cracked to-day! As nonsensical--Well, what do you want?"
"Beat up one or two eggs for me!" begged the cantor, softly.
"Here's a new holiday!" screamed Grune. "On a Wednesday! Have you got to
chant the Sabbath prayers? Eggs are so dear now--five kopeks apiece!"
"Grune," commanded the cantor, "they may be one ruble apiece, two
rubles, five rubles, one hundred rubles. Do you hear? Beat up two eggs
for me, and don't talk!"
"To be sure, you earn so much money!" muttered Grune.
"Then you think it's all over with me?" said the cantor, boldly. "No,
He wanted to tell her that he wasn't sure about it yet, there was still
hope, it might be all a fancy, perhaps it was imagination, but he was
afraid to say all that, and Grune did not understand what he stammered
out. She shrugged her shoulders, and only said, "Upon my word!" and went
to beat up the eggs.
The cantor sat and sang to himself. He listened to every note as though
he were examining some one. Finding himself unable to take the high
octave, he called out despairingly:
"Grune, make haste with the eggs!" His one hope lay in the eggs.
The cantoress brought them with a cross face, and grumbled:
"He wants eggs, and we're pinching and starving--"
The cantor would have liked to open his heart to her, so that she should
not think the eggs were what he cared about; he would have liked to say,
"Grune, I think I'm done for!" but he summoned all his courage and
"After all, it may be only an idea," he thought.
And without saying anything further, he began to drink up the eggs as a
When they were finished, he tried to make a few cantor-like trills. In
this he succeeded, and he grew more cheerful.
"It will be all right," he thought, "I shall not lose my voice so soon
as all that! Never mind Meyer Lieder, he drank! I don't drink, only a
little wine now and again, at a circumcision."
His appetite returned, and he swallowed mouthful after mouthful.
But his cheerfulness did not last: the erstwhile unsuccessful "death"
rang in his ears, and the worry returned and took possession of him.
The fear of losing his voice had tormented the cantor for the greater
part of his life. His one care, his one anxiety had been, what should he
do if he were to lose his voice? It had happened to him once already,
when he was fourteen years old. He had a tenor voice, which broke all of
a sudden. But that time he didn't care. On the contrary, he was
delighted, he knew that his voice was merely changing, and that in six
months he would get the baritone for which he was impatiently waiting.
But when he had got the baritone, he knew that when he lost that, it
would be lost indeed--he would get no other voice. So he took great care
of it--how much more so when he had his own household, and had taken the
office of cantor in Klemenke! Not a breath of wind was allowed to blow
upon his throat, and he wore a comforter in the hottest weather.
It was not so much on account of the Klemenke householders--he felt sure
they would not dismiss him from his office. Even if he were to lose his
voice altogether, he would still receive his salary. It was not brought
to him to his house, as it was--he had to go for it every Friday from
door to door, and the Klemenke Jews were good-hearted, and never refused
anything to the outstretched hand. He took care of his voice, and
trembled to lose it, only out of love for the singing. He thought a
great deal of the Klemenke Jews--their like was not to be found--but in
the interpretation of music they were uninitiated, they had no feeling
whatever. And when, standing before the altar, he used to make artistic
trills and variations, and take the highest notes, that was for
himself--he had great joy in it--and also for his eight singers, who
were all the world to him. His very life was bound up with them, and
when one of them exclaimed, "Oi, cantor! Oi, how you sing!" his
happiness was complete.
The singers had come together from various towns and villages, and all
their conversations and their stories turned and wrapped themselves
round cantors and music. These stories and legends were the cantor's
delight, he would lose himself in every one of them, and give a sweet,
"As if music were a trifle! As if a feeling were a toy!" And now that he
had begun to fear he was losing his voice, it seemed to him the singers
were different people--bad people! They must be laughing at him among
themselves! And he began to be on his guard against them, avoided taking
a high note in their presence, lest they should find out--and suffered
all the more.
And what would the neighboring cantors say? The thought tormented him
further. He knew that he had a reputation among them, that he was a
great deal thought of, that his voice was much talked of. He saw in his
mind's eye a couple of cantors whispering together, and shaking their
heads sorrowfully: they are pitying him! "How sad! You have heard? The
poor Klemenke cantor----"
The vision quite upset him.
"Perhaps it's only fancy!" he would say to himself in those dreadful
moments, and would begin to sing, to try his highest notes. But the
terror he was in took away his hearing, and he could not tell if his
voice were what it should be or not.
In two weeks time his face grew pale and thin, his eyes were sunk, and
he felt his strength going.
"What is the matter with you, cantor?" said a singer to him one day.
"Ha, what is the matter?" asked the cantor, with a start, thinking they
had already found out. "You ask what is the matter with me? Then you
know something about it, ha!"
"No, I know nothing. That is why I ask you why you look so upset."
"Upset, you say? Nothing more than upset, ha? That's all?"
"The cantor must be thinking out some new piece for the Solemn Days,"
decided the choir.
Another month went by, and the cantor had not got the better of his
fear. Life had become distasteful to him. If he had known for certain
that his voice was gone, he would perhaps have been calmer. Verfallen!
No one can live forever (losing his voice and dying was one and the same
to him), but the uncertainty, the tossing oneself between yes and no,
the Olom ha-Tohu of it all, embittered the cantor's existence.
At last, one fine day, the cantor resolved to get at the truth: he could
bear it no longer.
It was evening, the wife had gone to the market for meat, and the choir
had gone home, only the eldest singer, Yoessel "bass," remained with the
The cantor looked at him, opened his mouth and shut it again; it was
difficult for him to say what he wanted to say.
At last he broke out with:
"What is it, cantor?"
"Tell me, are you an honest man?"
Yoessel "bass" stared at the cantor, and asked:
"What are you asking me to-day, cantor?"
"Brother Yoessel," the cantor said, all but weeping, "Brother Yoessel!"
That was all he could say.
"Cantor, what is wrong with you?"
"Brother Yoessel, be an honest man, and tell me the truth, the truth!"
"I don't understand! What is the matter with you, cantor?"
"Tell me the truth: Do you notice any change in me?"
"Yes, I do," answered the singer, looking at the cantor, and seeing how
pale and thin he was. "A very great change----"
"Now I see you are an honest man, you tell me the truth to my face. Do
you know when it began?"
"It will soon be a month," answered the singer.
"Yes, brother, a month, a month, but I felt--"
The cantor wiped off the perspiration that covered his forehead, and
"And you think, Yoessel, that it's lost now, for good and all?"
"That what is lost?" asked Yoessel, beginning to be aware that the
conversation turned on something quite different from what was in his
"What? How can you ask? Ah? What should I lose? Money? I have no
money--I mean--of course--my voice."
Then Yoessel understood everything--he was too much of a musician not
to understand. Looking compassionately at the cantor, he asked:
"For certain?" exclaimed the cantor, trying to be cheerful. "Why must it
be for certain? Very likely it's all a mistake--let us hope it is!"
Yoessel looked at the cantor, and as a doctor behaves to his patient, so
"Take do!" he said, and the cantor, like an obedient pupil, drew out
"Draw it out, draw it out! Four quavers--draw it out!" commanded Yoessel,
The cantor drew it out.
"Now, if you please, re!"
The cantor sang out re-re-re.
The singer moved aside, appeared to be lost in thought, and then said,
"Well, are you a little boy? Are you likely to get another voice? At
your time of life, gone is gone!"
The cantor wrung his hands, threw himself down beside the table, and,
laying his head on his arms, he burst out crying like a child.
Next morning the whole town had heard of the misfortune--that the cantor
had lost his voice.
"It's an ill wind----" quoted the innkeeper, a well-to-do man. "He won't
keep us so long with his trills on Sabbath. I'd take a bitter onion for
that voice of his, any day!"