Hazzan Mordecai Gustav Heiser

An Artist, His Art, and the Cantor Tradition in America

  • Author(s): Schmidt, Gilya Gerda
  • Series: Charles K. Wolfe Music Series
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2024-06-11
  • Status: Not Yet Published - Will Back Order
  • Available in Hardcover - Printed Case: Price $45.00 | Buy Now
  • Available in Kindle: Price $31.50 | Buy Now
  • Available in PDF: Price $31.50 | Buy Now

When Gilya Gerda Schmidt met him in 1986, Cantor Heiser had spent forty-six of his eighty-one years as a US citizen and was well-acquainted with mourning. Heiser had assumed the cantorate at Congregation B’nai Israel in the East End of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1942. A master of the cantor’s art, he was renowned for his style, elegant choir and service arrangements, and rich, dolesome voice, which seemed to pass effortlessly into hearers’ hearts.

But this book is more than a memorial to Heiser. Schmidt melds decades of archival research, conservation efforts, family interviews, and trips to Jerusalem and Berlin into a critical reconstruction of the life and vision of Hazzan Mordecai Gustav Heiser in the multiple contexts that shaped him. Coming of age in Berlin in the afterglow of the Second German Empire meant that young Gustav had tasted European Jewish culture in a rare state of refinement and modernity. But by January 30, 1940, when he reached New York with his wife, Elly, and two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Judith, Cantor Heiser had lost nearly all of his living family relations to the extermination programs of the German Reich, after narrowly surviving a brief incarceration at Sachsenhausen.

While Cantor Heiser’s art was steeped in nineteenth-century tradition, Schmidt contends that Heiser’s music was a powerful affirmation of Jewish life in the twentieth century. In a final chapter, Schmidt describes his influence on the American cantorate and American culture and society.

GILYA GERDA SCHMIDT is professor emerita of Religious Studies and director emerita of the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her most recent book is Süssen Is Now Free of Jews: World War II, the Holocaust, and Rural Judaism.