Hershel Walfish, a leading Orthodox cantor and survivor of several Nazi concentration camps, died Jan. 24 at 89, following a lengthy illness.
For more than 55 years, Walfish inspired, sang and taught at Congregation Beth Israel, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. His melodic tenor voice, compared by admirers to that of Luciano Pavarotti, drew worshippers from across the city.
“Cantor Walfish represents an entire era of Jewish history in L.A.,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, “how we grew from the dark depths of the Holocaust to a thriving, vibrant and joyous celebration of Judaism.”
Walfish was born in a Polish shtetl near Krakow to a family that included Belzer and Bobov Chasidim. As a teenager, he was arrested by the Nazis and spent five years in various concentration camps. He credited his survival, in part, to singing for the camp commanders.
After a postwar period in a displaced persons camp, and a stint as a bartender for the U.S. occupation army, Walfish arrived in the United States in 1946.
Los Angeles real-estate developer Severyn Ashkenazy, when asked to describe his old friend in one sentence, fell back on the terminology of the old country.
“Cantor Walfish was a shtetl Yid,” Ashkenazy said. “He had all of the Yiddishkayt and menschlikayt we had in the old Polish shtetl.” (Menschlikayt is untranslatable, but denotes the collective traits that make up a mensch — integrity, character, humanity and much more.)
“He always visited the sick and poor, he brought them challah, and he made them feel that they were the only ones he was visiting that evening,” Ashkenazy reminisced.
The services for Walfish, two days after his death, were naturally held at his shul. Some 500 mourners crowded into the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Israel on Beverly Boulevard.
Although Walfish had lived in Los Angeles for some 65 years, he retained the cantorial rhythm and inflection of the old-time European chazan. “He had a marvelous voice, and the kind of nasal, guttural, crying cantorial style you just don’t find anymore,” Ashkenazy recalled.
As a mensch, Walfish “had a good word for everyone — something not so notable in our community,” Ashkenazy observed.
During his long career in Los Angeles, Walfish became a friend of numerous Hollywood celebrities and notable public leaders. After a visit to his home several years ago, journalist Peter L. Rothholz wrote, “There are photos of him at Jewish National Fund and other functions with President Gerald Ford, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Secretaries Henry Kissinger, Al Haig and public officials galore.
“There is also a veritable gallery of Hollywood greats, including Eleanor Powell, Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Don Rickles, Sharon Stone and many others. Best of all, Cantor Walfish has a story, told in his inimitable inflection and with humor honed in the shtetl, that goes with every one of them!”
Ashkenazy, a child Holocaust survivor who went on to a remarkable career as a real estate developer and art collector, and his father Izydor, met Walfish almost half a century ago.
“Our office was directly across the street from the shul, so one day in the early 1960s we walked over there,” he said.
Although Beth Israel was and is a Modern Orthodox synagogue, “Cantor Walfish convinced my father and me that this was really a Conservative shul,” Ashkenazy recalled.
The same talent for bridging diverse rituals helped Walfish to overcome the tribal differences of Europe’s old Jewish communities.
“At Beth Israel, everybody found a home — Galitzianers, Lodzers, Russians, Litvaks, ultra-Orthodox and those not so Orthodox,” Ashkenazy noted.
Only once did Walfish talk briefly with Ashkenazy about the concentration camps.
“He didn’t really want to think too much about that period,” Ashkenazy said. “He insisted that he had more important things to talk about.”
The most important topic was his wife, Betty, and their four children, Shelley (Barry) Rub, Fran, Steve and Carolyn, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “He was so proud of their accomplishments,” Ashkenazy noted.
Even as the congregation mourned the passing of Cantor Hershel Walfish, it was welcoming another Cantor Walfish. He is Hershel’s son Steve, who, after serving as cantor at Stephen Wise Temple, has now taken his father’s place on the bimah.
Contributions honoring Cantor Hershel Walfish’s life and memory may be sent to Congregation Beth Israel, 8056 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048.