In memoriam: Cantor Simon Hass

Cantor Simon Hass was widely admired and respected as one of the finest cantors in the world.

 Cantor Simon Hass (1925-2022) (photo credit: COURTESY MOSHE HASS)
Cantor Simon Hass (1925-2022)
(photo credit: COURTESY MOSHE HASS)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Cantor Simon Hass, who passed away aged 97 on the eve of Hoshana Raba, Saturday, October 15, 2022, in London, was widely admired and respected as one of the finest cantors in the world, representing his congregants at the heavenly court with vocal brilliance combined with humility, prayerful majesty and devotional intensity.

He was born in 1925 in Jaroslav, Poland, into the distinguished hassidic family of Sarah and Reb Moshe Hass. His father was a prominent member of the Jewish community, a scholarly and musical wine merchant and highly competent ba’al tefillah (prayer leader). The environment into which cantor Hass was born was infused with communal leadership, charity, learning and music. Simon’s eldest brother, Jacob, a student at the prestigious Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, became a pre-war child prodigy singer. In 1933, at age 13, he was invited to intone the memorial prayer in front of thousands of mourners when famed Rabbi Meir Shapiro, member of the Polish Parliament, head of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva and founder of the international, synchronized page-a-day of Talmud study (Daf Yomi) system, passed away. 

Simon studied at the Belz, Tarnow and Lubavitch yeshivot, displaying strong academism, independence of mind and great musical talent.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Jaroslav was occupied by the Germans, and Jewish life and death became increasingly subject to Nazi terror. Reb Moshe Hass, being a community leader, was arrested as a prominent Jew to be held hostage and faced imminent torture and/or death. Sarah Hass immediately and bravely negotiated with the arresting Nazi officer with the 10 Hass children in tow, to secure his miraculous release. The family managed to reach Soviet-occupied Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine), where they had relatives. The respite was brief, as they were subsequently deported by the Soviet authorities to Siberia as bourgeois Polish aliens. One sister succumbed to the harsh conditions. Simon found some solace from the constant hunger through singing in the tough, cold conditions and even managed to find, in a fellow deportee, a chazanut teacher. An older sister was employed by the Soviet military authorities and enabled Simon to receive altered papers showing that he was born in 1927 and thus not yet of military age while the tide of war was turning in favor of the Allies.

After the war, the family returned to Poland to find that the wider family had been murdered and the pre-war large communities had been destroyed. For a short time, Simon enrolled in the Lodz conservatory as the only Jewish student. Realizing that no realistic future lay ahead for them in Poland, the Hass family moved on to Paris where, again Simon enrolled in the conservatory. 

Cantor David Hass (credit: COURTESY DAVID PRAGER)Cantor David Hass (credit: COURTESY DAVID PRAGER)

Becoming a cantor

Four Hass siblings were to become cantors. Jacob obtained a cantorial post in New York; and identical twins David and Benjamin traveled to British Mandate Palestine, suffering internment in Cyprus before pursuing military careers in Israel and music studies leading to a range of posts. The majority of the family moved on London, where they re-established their lives. Tragically, Sarah Hass died shortly afterward at the age of 49.

Simon’s UK charity concert career began immediately with his London debut concert in February 1950 in aid of Mifal Hatorah to support refugee Jewish clergy and their families. He was soon appointed cantor of the Hendon United Synagogue as successor to cantor David Kusevitsky. There, Simon met his beloved life partner, Elaine, and the couple were married in 1950. He continued his studies in London, obtaining an LLMC for operatic and classical singing and enrolling in the cantorial studies program at Jews’ College under world-renowned chazan Salomo Pinkasovitch. This enabled him to operate with expertise in a variety of styles from Nussach Anglia to the hassidic melodies learned from his father. He also joined his colleagues in the unique London Chazonim Choir of 45 voices under the baton of Rev. Leo Bryll.

On hearing him sing in Hendon, Sir Isaac Wolfson approached Simon and persuaded him to apply for the post of cantor at the Central Synagogue, London, a position which he held with distinction for over 40 years. There, he re-introduced midnight choral slihot services, which were outstandingly well attended by cantorial aficionados from near and far and were unofficially known as “Midnight Hass.” 

His long tenure was marked by the enduring love and support of this prestigious congregation, where his co-religionists from all walks of life, including leading figures in Anglo-Jewry, were moved by his dignified and highly professional style. In return, cantor Hass loved his flock and declined many offers of high-profile posts abroad. His appearances at the annual Warsaw Ghetto memorial events in London, where he recited the memorial prayer, remain as some of the supreme moments of prayerful emotion in Anglo-Jewry. Later, in discussing their careers, his brother David readily recognized that Simon’s vocal prowess and musical professionalism were in a superior league.

Elaine and Simon were a devoted couple and raised three children – Stuart, Naomi and Sarah. Cantor Hass’s voice was unique, having the following combination of characteristics: enormously wide scope with phenomenal and thrilling quality of golden timbre preserved at the high and low extremes, encompassing tenor and baritone ranges, supported by breath control worthy of a top opera star. His diction, especially in sprechstimme (a vocal style combining elements of song and speech), was striking and meticulous. 

As a chazonishe zogger (textual interpreter within traditional nussach motifs), his ability to disaggregate and reaggregate a paragraph of prayers, infusing meaning into each syllable, was outstanding. At his command were modes of sweet lyricality, hassidic niggun and dramatic boldness. He could entreat and demand as the prayer required. For a voice of such magnitude, the flexibility of his coloratura was impressive. He made beautiful use of falsetto as a further arrow in his quiver.

He observed the Talmudic dictum of “Say little and do much” (Avot 1,15). Through personal contacts, charm, concerts and LP sales, he raised enormous funds for charities, particularly Lubavitch, whose selfless work in alleviating the situations of the Siberia deportees during the World War II he never forgot. 

Whereas he spoke little of his musical opinions and background, he produced an astounding array of recordings. These included choral chazanut haseder (ordered cantorial works) that included masterpieces of Sulzer; modern American works such as those by Rumshinsky; masterpieces of chazanut haregesh (emotional cantorial art) including original cantorial compositions; yeshiva melodies; Yiddish folksong classics; poignant Ghetto songs; and Israeli repertoire. The records include dramatic orchestrations beautiful piano accompaniments by his gifted friend John Gunter; and elegant arrangements of works made famous by Golden Age cantorial luminaries such as Gershon Sirota, Yossele Rosenblatt, Pierre Pinchik and Moshe Oysher.

He concertized in the US, Israel and throughout the UK, including at the Royal Festival Hall. Invariably, he received rave reviews. One unique concert was to have been together with his then Liverpool-based brother Rev. Benjamin Hass for Lubavitch in 1964. Sadly, that appearance had to be canceled due to the death of their father.

Hass’s steely inner strength in having endured terrible adversity early in life provided a munificent reservoir of love to cheer congregants, friends and family in times of difficulty. In addition to all these qualities was his fluency in the texts. A book of Jewish learning was never far from his side. Now he has been called to the heavenly choir. He was the last surviving sibling, and his passing represents the end of an era. At his funeral, his inspirational life was lauded by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, together with Rabbi Barry Marcus, Hass’s son Stuart, daughter Naomi and sons-in-law George and Yossi. 

Rabbi Marcus noted the severe risk of his passing representing also the demise of inspirational chazanut. The large attendance at the funeral despite its rapid arrangement before Shmini Atzeret included numerous former congregants who were visibly moved on recalling the spiritual intensity they had experienced many years earlier on hearing him lead services. A challenge of modern Jewish leadership remains to act to rebuild expertise in nussach hatefillah (appropriate prayer modes) and to attract vocally and academically gifted individuals into synagogue and pastoral careers. 

Rev. Hass is survived by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now he is reunited with his beloved Elaine, who passed away early in 1995. 

Yehi zichro baruch! May his memory be blessed.  ■