Weekly Chasidic Story #1033 (s5778-02/ 5 Tishrei 5778)

The Forest Cantor

"Comrade Officer! Excuse me, but I have to tell you that in the original version, that song is sung differently."

Connection: YOM KIPPUR

The Forest Cantor


Tense weeks and months crawled by, with Zalman Bronstein forced to spend most of them lying motionless in muddy foxholes on the Russian battlefields of World War II. Whenever he trained his rifle on the German enemy only a few dozen meters away, he knew well that his counterpart was simultaneously aiming at him, waiting patiently for an opportunity. His thoughts were constantly on his wife and three children; this supplied him the strength to struggle on against the ominous threat of the warfront.

The blood-saturated battles between the Russians and invading German forces had already stretched on for over a year. Tens of thousands of young men had already paid with their lives. The two sides were of equal strength and no end to the war was in sight.

During a brief lull in the shooting, a squad of Russian soldiers arrived to relieve their comrades. Zalman crawled slowly and carefully to his bunker, sank onto a plank, and tried to doze off for the short time before he would be ordered back to his battle post.

Suddenly, a Russian officer entered the bunker, humming an upbeat marching tune, and began to shave. Zalman opened his eyes, annoyed. He couldn't figure out why an officer would have decided to shave in the tent of the common foot-soldier draftees. Plus, the officer's off-tune singing aggravated him even more. "Comrade Officer! Excuse me, but I have to tell you that in the original version, that song is sung differently."

The officer turned towards him with a look of surprise on his face. "You know this song? If so, you must sing it for me. I can't get along without it."

Zalman tried to refuse, insisting that in his present downtrodden state of mind, he couldn't possibly sing a cheerful song, but the officer wouldn't relent. With a shrug, Zalman began to sing. After a few bars, the officer's face lit up with pleasure.

When he finished singing, the officer's expression became fierce. He began to rail against the Russian Army leadership. "How can it be that they sent such a gifted singer like you to the front? This is an unforgivable outrage. I shall raise this issue with headquarters as soon as possible, even today."

Zalman dismissed the officer's words as polite exaggeration, and promptly forgot about them. After a brief rest, it was back to his regular battlefield duties and terrors.

The next few days were filled with pitched explosive battles. Several times, Zalman felt death was near, but he survived through veritable miracles. In those desperate situations, he pictured in front of his eyes the face of his holy rebbe, Rabbi Yosef-Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch. He felt secure in the knowledge that the Rebbe was praying for his well-being.

Suddenly an announcement blared over the bunker's loudspeaker system. "Paging the singer Bronstein. Report to headquarters immediately." Zalman hurried to present himself before the commanding officer of the bunker. The latter told him, "I just received an order to transfer you to officers' headquarters. Get your things right now and crawl out there. But be careful! One wrong move on the way could mean your doom."

Zalman began his crawl along the muddy earth, his belongings on his back and his heart full of suspicion. What could possibly be the reason behind this incomprehensible transfer? Only when he reached his destination and was told to report to a high officer in the Culture Division who was in charge of the Army choir, did he realize the connection between what was happening and the words of that officer in the bunker before whom he had sung the battle song.

The choir leader told him that he must now sing before a group of very high-ranking officers. Zalman well realized that his future depended on the success of his performance. He started by singing the same military marching tune, but this time with a lot more feeling.

The officers to a man reacted boisterously with excitement and appreciation. Each one wanted Zalman to be assigned to his own unit so that he could give a concert to the brigade under his command. They began to quarrel with each other about who had the top priority. Finally, they came up with an arrangement that made it possible to schedule their new star to perform in front of many different platoons.

So, Zalman became the lead soloist in the Army choir and they traveled from base to base giving performances. Everywhere they went, the Russian officers in charge were very friendly to Zalman.

His performances and popularity became a particular source of pride for all the Jewish soldiers. At one of the concerts, a Jewish officer passed him a note requesting that he sing something in Yiddish. He complied, choosing a song that he felt would be sure to arouse in the Jewish soldiers' memories of their religious roots.

The date for the next concert, the most important one on the itinerary, was already set. They were to perform before an audience of hundreds of commissioned military doctors. However, the date coincided with Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy occasions. Zalman was firm in his mind that no matter what the consequences, he could not and would not perform on the holy day.

On Yom Kippur morning, he informed the musical director that he had terrible pains in his head and throat and that it would be impossible for him to sing on stage. The director pressured him to change his mind, but Zalman was adamant; he could not possibly sing this day. The director had no choice but to accept that the choir would have to perform without its star soloist.

Zalman retired to his room, where he devoted himself to the Yom Kippur morning prayers, those which he was able to remember by heart. Afterwards he began reciting Psalms, while in the background he could hear strains of singing and musical instruments from the military concert that was proceeding without him.

Several sharp knocks on his door broke his concentration. Three officers, whose epaulets indicated very high rank, quickly entered the room. "Are you Zalman Bronstein?", one of them queried. He nodded, whereupon of the other officers demanded, "Do you know what day is today"?

Zalman was taken aback by the unexpected question, and upon reflection, a bit afraid. He took a moment to compose himself, then answered calmly with the truth. "Yes. It is Yom Kippur."

His guests' faces softened visibly. "We too are Jews," they said. "Please, could you sing for us a few sections of the holy day's prayers?"

Zalman felt great relief upon hearing of their Jewish identity, and at the same time felt compassion for them. Nevertheless, he demurred, "How can I sing for you? In order to escape having to go on stage, I arranged to be officially registered on the sick list as 'unable to sing because of head and throat pains'."

The three officers did not give up. They presented a possible solution. "In back of the camp is a thick forest. Let's go deep inside it; then we can hear you pray and sing without anyone around to bother us."

Their excitement was contagious. Zalman could feel how strongly they desired to be reminded of their parents' homes, and of the Jewish life they tasted as children.

They entered the forest. Under a tree with a thick trunk and large, draping branches, Zalman stood facing the three Jewish officers. He closed his eyes and began to intone softly "Kol Nidre", the opening prayer of Yom Kippur evening with its traditional, haunting melody. He repeated it a second and third time, following custom, each time successively louder.

After Kol Nidre he switched to "Unetana Tokef", the thrilling lyrical invocation that is the highlight of the Cantor's repetition of "Musaf," the "Additional" prayer recited on Yom Kippur [and Rosh Hashana] morning. He became absorbed in the intense phrases, singing each one with deep feeling.

"On Rosh Hashana they are inscribed,
and on the fast day Yom Kippur they are sealed:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born;
…who shall live out his allotted time and
who shall depart before his time;
…who shall be at rest and who shall wander;
who shall be tranquil and who shall be harassed;
who shall enjoy well-being and who shall suffer tribulation;
who shall be poor and who shall be rich;
who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted."*

Zalman concluded his mini-performance with the popular lively Lubavitcher tune for "Hu Elokeinu, Hu Aveinu" - "He is our G-d, He is our Father" usually sung in unison by the congregation during the Cantor's recitation of Musaf shortly after "Unetana Tokef." He exhaled deeply and slowly opened his eyes. The sight that met them remained imprinted in his memory for the rest of his life.

The three officers were bent over, eyes bulging, and sobbing like little children. In the midst of lethal war, their futures concealed in the smoke of daily battle, three Jewish souls became revealed in a forest, flaming brightly with Yom Kippur holiness.

"Who knows?" he couldn't help thinking to himself. "This could be the reason that Heaven directed the steps of that non-Jewish officer to me that morning in the bunker."

Source: Translated-adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the Hebrew weekly Sichat Shavua, #1081, with a few supplementary words of biography from the son of R. Zalman, gathered when Divine Providence directed us to sit next to each other at the 5776 Simchat Torah celebration in the Tzemech Tzedek shul in Old City Jerusalem. This story appears in the Yom Kippur section of my book, Festivals of the Full Moon (Koren).

Biographical note:
Zalman Bronstein was drafted into the Red army in 1942. Soon after the termination of WWII, he emigrated to the Holy Land, where in 1949 he was one of the founders of Kfar Chabad, the Chassidic settlement just west of Lod, one train stop after 'Tel-Aviv South.' For decades he served as the cantor on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the main synagogue there. In 1984, he passed away, leaving many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Translator's note:
* The English translation takes 86 words. In the original Hebrew it is a rhythmic, poetic 36.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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