He is an impressive sight sitting in front of the solid upright piano, broad shouldered, with a full brown beard and long hair curled at the shoulders. His baritone singing resonates and fills the room whilst his fingers dance along the keys.
It could be a winter’s Motzei Shabbos, the smell of the Havdallah fragrance still lingering in the air. Congregants and friends are gathered around, joining in with the traditional Jewish songs interspersed with the occasional Russian operatic tune.
His wife Bertha (Tzipporah Brocha) is joined by other women and girls of the congregation in animated and jovial discussion.
The piano man is Rev Jacob Lenzer, East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation’s fourth rabbi and arguably the most popular and celebrated in its storied history.
The scene, admittedly influenced by Billy Joel’s famous song, is a play of my imagination (based largely on factual descriptions), as I rest my hands on the yellowed, worn keys of the newly arrived piano some 120 years later.
Close inspection of the small oxidized metal plaque on the piano’s front panel reveals the following words:
Presented to the
Rev J Lenzer
by a few of his admiring friends.
Melbourne, November 1892.
It was a random email from a total stranger, a bloke named Ting, which alerted me to the existence of this piano. It was for sale on Gumtree for $100, and it seems that people who search for second-hand pianos are also the type who will research miniature plaques on such pianos. Ting discovered that Rev J. Lenzer was indeed the rabbi of the same synagogue of which I am now the rabbi, and so he very generously contacted me via email, offering me first dibs on this piano.
When I spoke to the owner of the piano and offered $80 (I don’t care how sentimentally significant this thing is, a little hundling is always in order.), she was quick to accept. That sum was dwarfed by the moving costs but, encouraged by Dr Howard Freeman, Dr Alan Davis and various other mavinim, I arranged for the transportation. And here it is sitting in the old East Melbourne school room, now the Kiddush room named in honour of Victor Smorgan. All we are awaiting is a good tuning and a rabbi with a bit of musical talent.
Rev Jacob Lenzer had that musical talent and more. He has been described as the most popular and accomplished rabbi in the long history of Melbourne’s oldest shul.
His versatile skill-set ranged from brilliant vocalist and musician to accomplished anatomist and mohel — a compelling combination. Born in Mohilev, Russia, in 1859, Rev Lenzer studied in the great Yeshivah of Volozhyn, becoming a Talmudic scholar by the age of 16.
In the subsequent years, Lenzer studied music from chazans Spivack (Kishinoff), Davidoff and Rubenstein (St Petersburg). It is recorded that he acted as an assistant minister in Count Poliakoff’s synagogue in Moscow in his early years.
So how did he come to travel from a pulpit in the shadow of the Kremlin to a pulpit in the shadow of the Victorian Parliament House? By reading the classifieds in the Russian newspaper! In Rev Lenzer’s own words: “Queer how I came to apply for this. One morning during breakfast looking down at the Hebrew missing-persons column of a Russian paper, I noticed that the East Melbourne Synagogue wanted a reader and singer, so I applied.”
After his arrival in 1888, it didn’t take long for Rev Lenzer to become the primary clergyman at the synagogue in 1890. Indeed, shortly thereafter Rev Jacob Lenzer was signed on as minister for life with a minimum stipend of 350 pounds per annum.
A rather colourful description of Simchas Torah by a visitor to the synagogue in the early 1900s includes lavish praise for the service and the minister: “Would any one of the 500 or more persons who attended the service at the Albert St Synagogue at Simchas Torah that evening say that he or she, as the case may be, did not enjoy the service? We hardly think so … At length Rev J Lenzer’s sonorous voice was heard intoning Borchu and immediately all was attention and the response was hearty … The Rev Lenzer’s rendering of the prayers is beautiful.”
In celebration of his 25th anniversary at the synagogue, the Jewish Herald wrote:
“There are many yet left among us who will recall how, on the first Friday evening of Mr. Lenzer’s installation, the Albert-street Synagogue was packed to its utmost capacity, and how his magnificent voice and beautiful rendering of the service fairly conquered the whole body of worshippers. Although a quarter of a century of uninterrupted work has since elapsed, no diminution has taken place in the charm of his “Chazonuth,’ which still delights his congregation as much as ever.”
He remained the Chief Minister until his passing on 14 April 1922.
No doubt Rev Jacob Lenzer was an impressive man. But I’m still left scratching my head a little. How good was he to elicit admiration that culminated in the gifting of a piano? Perhaps I am a little jealous. How come I have never been gifted a piano by my admiring friends? To be sure this question would carry more weight if I could play the thing.
Despite the pangs of rabbinic envy, for the present I am content to bask in the warmth of kinship with my formidable predecessor, content in the knowledge that through an unlikely Divine Agent, Rev Lenzer’s piano has come home. I am also confident that somewhere up in heaven Yaakov ben Meir’s soul is having some spiritual satisfaction now that, after almost a century in exile, his piano is once again resting in his synagogue and that the congregation into which he invested so much energy still gathers for prayers and Jewish activities on almost a daily basis. Long may it be so.
Table talk, Melbourne, 21 Feb 1896
Jewish Herald Fri 15 August 1913
East Melbourne Historical Society Archives
Davis, Morris C. History of the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation 1857-1977
This piece was written by Rabbi Dovid Gutnick who is the 16th Chief Minister of the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, after an unlikely reunification with a piano gifted to Rev. Jacob Lenzer. Rev Lenzer was the 4th Chief Minister of the Congregation. The piano now rests in the Victor Smorgon Community Hall at the rear of the synagogue for all to see and, subsequent to funds being raised, will be restored and tuned to be played at future synagogue events.