Gluckie occupied this bimah; and indeed was its master, for twenty-five years. He prayed with us, led us in song, carried us through the changing melodies of the year and linked us with the centuries. Gluckie was our chazan, and through him our prayers found expression and took wings.
What is a chazan? The Torah portion for this Shabbat points us in the direction of a definition. It tells of the laws that governed the robes of the high priest in ancient Israel. On the hem of the priestly robe there were bells – according to one view, 72 of them; according to another, 36. As the priest moved through the Temple, the bells made sure he could be heard.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe interpreted the bells as a symbol of the ways to worship. As the Psalmist says, L’cha dumyah t’hillah – “To You is silence praise” (Psalm 65:2). Silence is a means of worship. But, says the Rebbe, the bells tell us that sound is also a way of worship. Not only on occasions like Rosh HaShanah when we blow the shofar, but at all times, through song.
You had only to listen to Chazan Gluck to know how powerful is the ability of song to express what the heart feels and to rise through it to the very presence of God. No wonder it has been said that there are halls in heaven that open only to the sound of song.
A chazan must be a person of piety, of knowledge – of God, of people, of Judaism, of the liturgy, of himself – of emotion, musical ability, and fine voice; but a chazan has to be more than a singer, for there is a texture about chazanut, a style, and that Gluckie had and passed on to his children.
He was a chazan from his cradle. He developed his art in different countries, different communities, different congregations, all with their own patterns, traditions and requirements, and though he respected them all he brought his own influence to bear. Here in the Great Synagogue he almost always carried his choirmaster and congregation with him as he remoulded the repertoire and in many ways made it warmer and more emotional.
When he stood on this bimah it belonged to him. At his peak he was magnificent there. His voice carried us with him and together we ascended to heaven’s halls. But he was not only a chazan on Shabbat and festivals. He conducted the weekday services too, and weddings, and funerals, and consecrations, and whatever other service the occasion demanded. And he was not only a chazan. He was a minister. His energy was irrepressible. He was always running everywhere. He said, “I have to be busy; what would I do sitting at home?”
As a hospital chaplain he visited patients all over the metropolitan area and beyond. Several times a year he went on circuit to mental hospitals throughout the state. He was our chaplain to the prisons, and his visits to prisoners all over New South Wales were taken very seriously. It all helped that he spoke seven languages and could communicate with people whom others could not get through to; it did not matter what their religion was.
Everywhere, people were his interest. He felt for them and with them, laughed with them and cried with them, was angry with them and happy for them, and often forgave them – perhaps too readily. People’s problems were his problems, and though he gave them advice he would not have called himself a counsellor. He was suspicious of professional training courses for counselling. His training college was life itself.
He knew his people, and he knew his God. He was probably not always too sure inside him that God had given him a fair deal, but he knew that if life is sometimes hard with God, it is harder still without Him.
He would tell about his childhood and youth in pre-Holocaust Europe. There were times – in recent years, it seemed, rather more frequently than before – when he would describe some of his Holocaust experiences. His hardships, and Rochel’s, were, tragically, not unique, but they were reflected in the fact that for years afterwards he put an axe under his bed at night; at night his feet were cold; and he would take an extra bite of food at mealtimes because of the food he did not have for all those years.
Yet nothing affected his love of life. He quoted memories of the great rabbis of his youth, the chazanim and choirs he knew, the sayings he brought from home – some wise, some funny, some very rude. Life made him into a homespun philosopher. We all recall things he said, even though he would quote them in their original Hungarian or other languages and then say, “Do you know what that means?” He would start a joke in English but give the punchline in Yiddish and wonder why some people hadn’t got the point.
That was the man – warm, human, sometimes earthy, always emotional, able to get annoyed with you but always coming to ask m’chilah.
He was blessed in his wife. He and Rochel did not quite reach their golden wedding but she somehow had that inner strength to attain and celebrate her seventieth birthday. With all her health problems they both had to keep going somehow, though you could see on his face that he was broken inside. Despite everything they always had open house. Hundreds of people sat at their Shabbat and festival table every year. They exuded love and friendship. Their friends were not only their Sydney congregation and community, not only their previous communities in Paris, London, Dublin and elsewhere, but people they met on their travels – including their sons’ k’hillot in England and South Africa.
What those sons made of their lives gave him immense pride and pleasure. Johnny, of blessed memory, was a chazan of world class who reached a peak of achievement in Johannesburg before his untimely death.
Harry, Joseph and Nathan, may God give them life and health, are all professionally qualified in their other spheres as well as now or previously occupying chazanic posts – Harry in Melbourne, Joe in Sydney, and Nathan in London. All four sons married exceptional wives and made their parents into proud grandparents and greatgrandparents.
The Glucks also had vast numbers of what one might call borrowed children – pupils taught for their Bar-Mitzvahs, boys trained to conduct services, youngsters who felt Rev Gluck belonged to them. This last Shabbat, though no-one knew it, was a swan-song in this respect, with a magnificent Bar-Mitzvah whom Rev Gluck had trained. When that boy paused before the final crescendo, you knew the master had not lost his skill.
Gluckie’s colleagues were unbounded in their appreciation of his talents, his experience, his loyalty. Lord Jakobovits, who was Chief Rabbi of Ireland when the Glucks were in Dublin, always uses superlatives about the type of chaver he found in his chazan. Rabbi Porush, zecher tzaddik liv’rachah, told me how much Rev and Mrs Gluck meant to him and Mrs Porush.
As far as I am concerned, let me simply say that when I left London nearly twenty-five years ago Lord Jakobovits said, tzu sein mit glick, and it was a glick, a mark of good fortune, to work with Gluck. Indeed, we lived in the same building as the Glucks for over twelve years and we were family. All the ministers with whom Rev Gluck worked at the Great Synagogue knew him as a dear friend, not least Rev Belfer, whose voice and harmony resound in this building in the Gluck tradition of love of God and human beings.
Less than a year ago Rochel died. She had struggled, and prevailed, so often, but now the Almighty had decided it was time. Rev Gluck was lost, and said so. He would think, and weep, and we wept with him. Yet last Shabbat he was in a wonderful mood, expansive, talkative, positive. It seemed he had decided he had to get on with life. But der mensch tracht…
I began by quoting the law about the high priest having bells on the hem of his robe. As well as the interpretation I quoted, there is a well known view that this was to ensure that the priest was heard as he came and did not burst into the Holy of Holies without warning. I wonder. Perhaps in a sense this applies to Chazan Gluck. A priest does not come into the sanctuary unannounced; a chazan does not arrive unheralded at the door to the hall of heaven.
Shabbat and Sunday morning were Gluckie at his best. Maybe he did not know it, but the Almighty did. This was the announcement to the congregation on high that a voice long heard below was on its way to add to the sound of song in the other world.
He is gone. The shock and suddenness of it has shaken us all. Baruch HaShem, his bimah will not be silent, but we will look at it and often see him standing here, hear his voice, remember his melody and be grateful. Anywhere, everywhere, we will think of him in our mind’s eye, forgive him his foibles, relive the moments when he meant everything to us, smile at the jokes, quote the sayings, and say, yes, this was a mensch…
Y’hi zichro baruch.