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Aug 28, 2013

Benzion Miller and American Chazanut

Researchers and students of the American Jewish experience often examine the community's music as a way of expressing the historical development of the community. The first Jews in North America arrived in the 1600's, refugees whose families had fled the Spanish Inquisition to Holland and then South America and then moved north to escape as the Spanish and Portuguese brought the Inquisition to the South America continent.

The early American Jewish community was identified as Sephardic and until the 1800's almost all of the synagogues and Jewish communal traditions followed Sephardic traditions. By the mid-1800's, German Jews began to immigrate to America and brought their own customs. The wave of Jewish immigration continued in the late 1800's and early 1900's with a influx of Eastern European Jewry that was estimated to include almost a million Jews.

Among the wave of European Jewish immigration were some of the greatest hazzans -- cantors -- of the day. Singing during worship can be traced back to Temple times and continued well into the Middle Ages but hazzanut began to come into its own in 19th century Europe. During this time it became customary for hazzans to chant the services, oftentimes in Hassidic courts or before the great rabbis of the era.

The "Golden Age" of hazzanut in American is generally agreed to have peaked in the early 20th century when cantors such as Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota, Zaval Kwartin, David Roitman and Yankev Shmuel Maragowski performed in synagogues and Jewish community centers as well as in American cultural venues before the general American public.  The Holocaust took a tremendous toll on the world of Ashkanazi hazzanut as the traditional centers where Ashkanazi hazzanim were trained had been destroyed. However, a new generation of American hazzanim has contributed to the resurgence of the craft.

One of today's most prolific and talented hazzanim is Benzion Miller who is favored by many Hassidic rebbes in America and in Israel. Benzion Miller was born in December 1947 in a DP Camp in Fernwald, Germany.  His family immigrated to America and he began singing when he was five years old, often accompanying his well-known father, Cantor Reb Aaron Daniel Miller, at public gatherings, such as Bar Mitzvahs, "Melave Malka" gatherings, and other Jewish functions. Miller studied music theory and voice production in Montreal with some of North America's foremost cantors and he served as the head soloist in the Yeshiva Choir. He was also invited to sing in many solo performances.

When Miller was 18 years old he accepted the position as Cantor at the Hillside Jewish Center in Hillside, NJ. Since that time he has filled positions in the Bronx, Montreal and in Toronto. He presently serves as full-time "shaliach tzibur" at the prestigious Beth-El Congregation of Borough Park/Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park where he also functions as a mohel and as a shochet.

Miller considers himself a follower of the Bobover Rebbe. He attended the Bobover Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY and the Bobover Yeshiva Kedushat Zion in Bat Yam, Israel and often performs for the Bobover Rebbe. He is recognized as one of the modern era's foremost interpreters of Liturgical Music and is equally at home in Operatic Repertoire and Jewish and Chassidic Folk Music. He has appeared with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rishon L'Tzion Symphony, the Haifa Symphony, the Jerusalem Symphony  and with members of the London Symphony. Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe Miller began to appear before Eastern European audiences including in Romania, Russia, Poland and Hungry, where he sang liturgical, Chassidic and Yiddish music with the Budapest State Opera Orchestra.

In November 1998 Miller recorded some of his best-known pieces for the Lowell Milken Archive, an archive of American Jewish music, with the Barcelona National Symphony Orchestra.

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