Cantor Helman Lieber Biography
The legacy of Cantor Helman Lieber (1904-1987) is a series of magnificently hand-written cantorial books for the complete Shabbos, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. These books are believed to reflect cantorial melodies that were heard in the synagogues of Latvia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Cantor Helman Lieber, circa 1950’s
Cantor Helman Lieber was born into a musical family with roots in the synagogues of Riga and (now Daugavpils) Latvia. Helman’s handwritten memoir states “We were five brothers, and on wintry nights, my mother would amuse us by telling stories of the old country, , Russia. I have learned so much from these sessions that I can describe things as if I were living there all my life. I have a sharp memory of my childhood.”
Helman’s memoir continues “My mother (Lena) was a school teacher…and was well learned…my mother’s father was a very religious scholar…my father Ruben (1878-1955) was the son of a very learned rabbi…a musical cantorial scholar and choirmaster, and had a beautiful tenor voice. He sang in grand choirs.”
Ruben’s older brother Boruch (1874-1941, killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest Massacre, and Ruben’s younger brother David (1891-1977), were both educated as cantors and (religious scribes). Their father, Rabbi Aryeh Labe Mayer Lieber (1834-1913), was a secretary to the world renowned Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926), who served as chief rabbi of (non-Hassidic Jews) in from 1883-1913. This was told to David’s grandson Mitchell in a conversation with his grandmother Rose Lieber (wife of David).
Helman was born in , Latvia on November 4, 1904. Five days later, his father Ruben arrived in New York City. Young Helman and his mother Lena followed a year later, arriving in New York City on October 2, 1905. Helman’s memoir states “After a stormy voyage on the good ship ‘Fatherland,” we arrived at Ellis Island where we were met by my father…he always spent a lot of time with me as I grew up, and taught me how to sing.”
According to Helman’s memoir of what he learned from his father Ruben, “My father’s house (Ruben’s childhood home in ) was of a very strict Orthodox manner. His father (Rabbi Aryeh Labe Mayer) and mother were always praying and conducting services in the shul. His mother (Chana Baila) would pray as good as a cantor for the women, and was highly respected. She would teach the women just like a rabbi. And the rabbi, my grandfather, would hold sermons and explain the Torah.”
From this information, we can assume that all three brothers, Boruch, Ruben, and David, were exposed to cantorial tradition at an early age by accompanying their father, Rabbi Aryeh Labe Mayer, to services in .
Boruch’s daughter Sonia told her son Michael, that Boruch “Moved to Riga in his mid-20’s to pursue his adult career. He studied Torah scribing under the prolific Vitebsk Sofer, Berka , and married his daughter Hanna.”
Helman’s uncle Boruch Lieber
Boruch later became the assistant cantor in the Gogol “Great Choral” Synagogue, the largest one in Riga, with a capacity of 1,000 people. According to Wikipedia, “This synagogue was famous throughout the city for its cantors and its choir.”
Gogol “Great Choral” Synagogue
Boruch’s daughter Sonia told her son Michael that Boruch was also a cantor at the Stabu Street Synagogue in Riga, which was closer to his home.
Street Synagogue in Riga
According to David’s daughter Mirah, “Boruch, father’s (17 year older) brother, wrote Sefer Torah; he took father at age 9 (in 1900) to sing together, and taught father to be a scribe.” Boruch’s daughter Sonia confirmed to her son Michael that Boruch would take David to sing with him, and that this was both in the Gogol “Great Choral” and synagogues of Riga.
David Lieber came to the U.S. in 1912. Upon arrival, he lived with his brother Ruben in New York City for some time. David organized Helman and his brothers into a synagogue choir, featuring Helman as soloist and Ruben as choirmaster. They sang at High Holiday services at synagogues in the Connecticut/New York area. David later moved to Chicago, where he gave concerts with a choir (see flyer below), owned a Jewish bookstore, and tutored students from the Hebrew Theological College, to which his bookstore also sold books. By 1926 he was a Hebrew teacher in Springfield, Illinois and around 1927 he moved to Kansas City where he was cantor and first spiritual leader of Israel synagogue, a Hebrew teacher, choir director, and religious scribe ().
Advertisement for a performance of Cantor David Lieber in Chicago. Translation:
Chazan David Lieber
of New York
Will deliver the High Holidays service, with a
choir of 18 people, in the Wicker Park Hall,
North Avenue and Robey Street (Chicago).
The Chazan's address is 906 North Robey Street (now Damen Avenue)
Tickets can be purchased in the hall.
In a letter to David’s daughter Mirah, Helman wrote in Yiddish, “My beloved uncle (David) – I will remember him forever – he was more than an uncle to me – I sang with him and he taught me to be a Chazan. He used to place me on a bench (stool) so that they could see me – and I used to be his only soloist – my uncle used to take me along everywhere, he would never sing without me, and I was his "soloist.” It is unreal ("impossible" in the original) to have such an endearing uncle – what can I write you – my dear cousin?? You, kids, were not in existence yet, and your Dad was my uncle and Dad as well. He was with me all the time, and I remember him and love him …"
It is clear that Helman shared a very special relationship with his uncle David, which went beyond student and teacher. They saw each other frequently, giving David the opportunity to pass on both the cantorial tradition and skills, learned from his older brother Boruch, to his young nephew Helman.