Lost His Voice


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

enough already!"

"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,

deep sigh:

"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

own mind.

"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?"

"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

did he:

"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,

listening attentively.

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!"