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Reverberations

David Damen, Belgium

Auschwitz was memorializing the millions of Jews who had been asphyxiated in its gas chambers and incinerated in its smoke stacks. A powerful voice rent the silence, chanting Kel Malei Rachamim in the familiar modulation. “The skies were covered with thick clouds; the atmosphere was oppressive,” recalled Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, shlita. “But when Chazan Binyamin Muller stood up to recite Kel Malei Rachamim, the clouds began to disperse and rays of sun penetrated to warm the aching hear

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

muller
 
Chazan Muller, who remembers those moments as a high point in his rich career, hadn’t even
planned to attend this event. In fact, as a young man, he hadn’t even
considered chazzanus as a profession.

“I was expected to become a watch salesman,” he says simply,
as we begin to converse on a chilly European evening in his modest home in the
heart of Antwerp’s
Jewish neighborhood. This is the first time he has granted an interview to reveal
how he climbed to his tenure as one of the foremost chazzanim of our
time.

In truth, his pathways should not have come as a surprise.
As a child, Binyamin was nurtured on the musical renditions of Yossele
Rosenblatt. “My mother a”h used to put me to sleep with his cantorials.
When I was fourteen, I asked relatives from the United States to send me another of
his records and they sent Vehu Rachum. I remember standing mesmerized in
front of the phonograph, my eyes tearing with emotion as I watched the record
revolving round and round. I never dreamed that I would ever become a chazzan
myself and sell my own records.”

Reb Binyamin’s musical talent is inherited from his maternal
grandfather, Rav Shmuel Sternberg z”l, from Switzerland, who merited to sing before
the Belzer Rebbe ztz”l.

“My grandfather was an ardent Belzer chassid who used to
travel to Belz by car, a rare thing in those times. The custom in Belz was to
spend Yom Kippur eve singing soul-stirring niggunim deep into the night.
My grandfather was once asked to sing a solo, and he chose [Zanvele] Kvartin’s
emotive “Tiher R’ Yishmael.

“The Rebbe listened from his room. When my grandfather
finished, the Rebbe instructed his gabbai to ask for an encore, and when
my grandfather completed the piece for the second time, the Rebbe asked if the
composer was a yarei Shamayim. ‘It would be impossible for him to listen
to this tune without being gripped with reflections of teshuvah,’ ” the
Rebbe declared.

Despite his roots, after Reb Binyamin married into the Treitel
family of Milano, he wanted to follow his father, Reb Avraham HaKohen z”l, into the family watch business, but
Heaven had other designs for him. Financial difficulties beset the company when
the price on Japanese watches undercut the Swiss models. And when his
father-in-law closed his restaurant in Milano, the young man found himself in a
financial bind. Then, along came the Canadian agent.

 

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