This story was written by my late father, Milton Rabinowitz, who taught me how to tell a story. It's the first piece in a 'text and picture' album he created about the life of his father, Hyman Rabinowitz, an entertainer and liturgical music arranger on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the first quarter of the 20th century. Because of his rich and impressive basso voice, my grandfather was known professionally as Chayim Bass.
by Milton Rabinowitz
The house lights were on. I could see that the show was a sellout. I was ten years old, sitting with my mother in the Clinton Theater (a half block north of Delancey Street) waiting for my father to come out on the stage and sing. I was holding an aisle seat for him.
The attraction that day was a special showing of the much talked about German silent fantasy movie "The Golem." Big deal. Over on East Third Street, the American Theater had a Douglas Fairbanks thriller, and, glumly, that's where I wanted to be.
Everybody in the movie house was talking and laughing and waving to one another. It was a big party. The manager walked out on the stage and motioned to the pit. There was a piano fanfare. Finally the noise flattened to a few coughs, whisperings, and shushes. In Yiddish, the manager announced that this motion picture was a special event on the East Side. "The Golem" was a folk legend. An ancient clay monster, dug up in Prague, is brought to life by a rabbi. He charges it with the mission of saving persecuted Jews.
Befitting this solemn occasion, the manager said, there was an extra treat. The well-known bass vocalist Chayim Rabinowitz was engaged to render an appropriate prelude in song: "Eili, Eili" (God of mine, why hast thou forsaken me?) Big deal. I had been hearing his songs every day of my whole life.
There was a brief spatter of applause as my father appeared from the wings and went center stage to stand in front of the big white screen. As usual, he wore a dark suit, a white shirt with a stiff, removable collar into which one of his pre-formed ties was inserted, and a black yarmulke. My father bowed, nodded to the piano in the pit and began the mournful song. His bass voice was soft and controlled as he sang of his love of Torah and the laws of God.
Then something spellbinding happened. It seemed, somehow, that he was no longer singing to this audience. Everyone sensed it. He was alone with God. His face was turned heavenward, his palms up and the quiver in his voice entreating. It was theatrical magic. Or was it? His deep voice and those tragic words were perfectly wedded. I saw that my mother was weeping, but there were handkerchiefs out all around us. Was this the same man who could make people laugh and shout with ribald songs at Opatowsky's Restaurant and at Warschauer Society parties? The anguish of each word was in my father's hands and body.
When the notes reached the upper register of the song's climax, he was the ultimate supplicant. It was "Sh'ma Yisroel, Adonoy Eloheynu, Adonoy Echad!" -- (Hear, O' Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!) and it was over. There was a beat of absolute silence and then a roar rocked the theater. The spell was broken and my father's stagecraft took over. He bowed a few times to the right and left, backing gracefully off into the wings. The house lights were turned off abruptly and "The Golem" began.
After awhile my father came down the aisle, found us in the dark, and took his seat. He placed a small carrying bag in my lap as if it were meant to be mine. It had the nice, solid feel of lots of money in coins. For me? I was surprised, delighted, and naive. My father had been paid directly from the box office receipts. My hands groped around trying to locate the opening of the bag. My mother promptly took it away from me. She was quite content to keep its weight in her lap for the rest of the evening.
I believe I understand now the reason for the unusual intensity of my father's performance that day. I think he was harboring a dire secret that had touched his own mortality. And in the way he knew best, he implored God to witness that the tears flowing in the theater were for him. God was moved and granted my father one year more.