The world of Jewish music, and especially chazanus (cantorial music), recently lost a giant figure. Dr. Mordechai Sobol — chazan (cantor), composer, arranger, conductor, and broadcaster — died suddenly in September while in the United States for the High Holidays. He was 67 years old.
Born in 1951 in Hadera, Israel, Mordechai Sobol was the son of Polish-born Holocaust survivors. His father had been a cantor in Poland before the war, and young Mordechai became involved with cantorial music from his earliest years. He was trained as a teenager by the legendary Israeli cantor Shlomo Ravitz (1885-1978) and issued his first recording during that time. He also studied music intently and earned a doctorate in Jewish music. His talents were recognized early on by other leading talents such as the legendary singer and opera star Jan Peerce, with whom he worked as a young man.
Sobel’s unique blend of many musical talents gave him the ability to spearhead a rebirth of cantorial music. He felt that concerts of cantorial music featuring huge symphony orchestras and multi-voice choirs would bring a modern flavor to the music and spread its popularity. Then, he reasoned, people would welcome it into the synagogue services as well. He helped to stage such concerts around the world, and he created a choral group, the Yuval Ensemble, to accompany the cantors in concert and in shul.
Additionally, Sobol was a student of the great chazzanim and composers of the past, especially those of the “Golden Age of Cantors,” that existed in the first half of the 20th century. He reworked and rearranged many great works with fresh, modern arrangements that were still true to the originals.
He was a teacher, benefactor, and friend to just about every major chazzan who davens (prays) today, not only here in America, but especially in Israel, where cantorial music has enjoyed a major rebirth. Much of it is a direct result of the work of Sobol. For many years in Israel, he hosted a cantorial program on the radio. (Broadcasts are available at the website chazzanut.org.)
In 2006, he won the President’s Award for Educational Excellence in Israel. He conducted the Israeli Philharmonic in many concerts. He also composed hundreds of pieces and traveled all over the world. And though he was offered positions in leading congregations around the world, he would never permanently leave Israel.
Through the efforts of many, but especially under the leadership of Sobol, there has been a rebirth of cantorial singing. In nearly every major Jewish population center around the world, there are great cantors and choirs officiating and perpetuating this beautiful, magnificent Jewish art.
In September 2018, Sobol went to Great Neck, New York, to conduct Rosh Hashanah services, as he had done for the past 25 years. After the holiday, he traveled to Atlanta to visit family, where he collapsed and was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Despite all efforts, his condition worsened; and he passed away on Sept. 15, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
After his passing, Sobol’s body was taken to Newark, New Jersey, and before he was flown to Israel for burial there was a memorial service right on the runway. World-renowned cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgott, a student of Sobel, chanted the Keil Moleh Rachamim (a prayer for the soul of the departed) for his revered teacher and friend.
Sobel was laid to rest at the Yarkon cemetery in Petach Tikva, Israel. Former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau gave the eulogy, and many leading Israeli cantors participated in the service. He is survived by his wife, daughter, and two sons.
As a lover of and a practitioner of this art, which I consider a true kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name), I have for many years been in awe of the marvelous talents of Mordechai Sobol, and I am deeply saddened at the loss of such a unique figure. I only hope that others will step in and try to fill his shoes, though it will be quite a task.
T’hei nishmoto tzurur bitzrur hachaim. May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life, and his memory be for a blessing.
NEXT TIME: A Tribute to Benjy Katz On His First Yahrzeit
By Larry Shor