Gershon Sirota

Not without good reason was Gershon Sirota spoken of as the 'Jewish Caruso'. Despite the poor quality of recordings that have survived, it is clear that Sirota had an extraordinary voice; since he was a contemporary of Caruso (1873 - 1938), the comparison was bound to be made. An apocryphal story has it that Caruso would come to hear Sirota sing or conduct a service whenever they found themselves in the same place at the same time.

The details of Sirota’s early life are not well documented: his date of birth is either 1874 or 1877. It would appear that he began his career as a cantor in Odessa, after which he was cantor for eight years at the Shtotshul in Vilna. The choirmaster there was the renowned Leo Lowe, with whom Sirota built up a fine working relationship. In 1902 he performed in a concert accompanied by an enlarged choir under Lowe's direction, and the following year he sang at an historic reception in honour of a visit by Dr Theodor Herzl.

Five years later, Sirota was invited to take up the most prestigious position in the cantorial world: the position of chief cantor at the Tlomazke Street Synagogue in Warsaw. It was not long after that Leo Lowe joined him there. In 1912, Sirota and Lowe visited the United States to perform several concerts, and it is said that at his first appearance at Carnegie Hall on 14 February, every seat was taken. Sirota performed throughout America and Europe, and was a great hit, whether giving a concert or conducting a service. It is said that when Sirota prayed in the synagogue, he would get so carried away in his 'conversations' with the Almighty, that for him, it was as if the congregation was not present.

Sirota was reputed to have had a generous disposition, and it was not uncommon for him to officiate at the wedding of a poor family for no remuneration. Even so, he did not allow people to take advantage of him, and after a dispute with his congregation over his appearances outside the synagogue, he parted company with them.

It was unfortunate for Sirota that he happened to be in Warsaw at the outbreak of the war. Although he could easily have left, he remained there to be with his family. Living in the Warsaw ghetto at 6 Volinski Street, they all died together in the uprising in 1943.


By Rabbi Geoffrey L. Shisler