Future of legendary Hasidic cantor at storied synagogue uncertain after injury

Over a six-decade career, Cantor Benzion Miller has been one of the last vestiges of cantorial music’s golden age, his synagogue services one of the best-kept secrets in the city’s Jewish musical life

Cantor Benzion Miller during a concert performance. Credit: Youtube

Apr 15, 2024 3:55 PM


Since a broken leg in May 2022 took him out of commission, Cantor Benzion Miller has made only intermittent appearances at Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park. One of the greatest living cantors in the city, Miller was in and out of the hospital and rehab but returned to his home in Borough Park in late January. It’s unclear when — or if — he’ll return to the pulpit of the storied synagogue, which has been the epicenter of cantorial culture in New York and has been home to some of the greatest cantors of the 20th century.

Cantor Benzion Miller. Photo courtesy of Benzion Miller

“I wouldn’t mind going back,” the 76 year-old chazan told Shtetl. “Vocally, I’m OK. The only problem is with my legs.”

His son Shimmy Miller, a cantor who lives in Lakewood, said it’s difficult for the great cantor to walk or stand for lengthy periods.

“I think it would be great for him if he can [return],” the son said “But I don’t think it’s going to be easy for him to get to shul and stand on his feet for three hours or so.”

In recent years Cantor Miller has led the davening at Beth El once a month for the “Shabbos Mevarchim” service — on the last Shabbos of each month. Miller improvised much of his davening accompanied by a choir led by his sons Shimmy or Eli. Eli Miller has been serving as cantor at Beth El in his father’s absence.

Jeremiah Lockwood, a Brooklyn musician and scholar of Jewish liturgical music, sang in the choir over a period spanning two years beginning at the High Holy Days in 2021.

“It’s many, many hours long, but it goes by in the flash of an eye,” said Lockwood. “Everything’s improvised. There’s no sheet music and nobody knows the music exactly because a lot of it is being created on the spot. So, it’s very musically challenging.... After one of those services, I’m always ready to collapse.”

“To follow along [as a member of the choir], could be a little tiring and at the same time, it’s a lot of fun,” said Shimmy Miller. “Backing up my father means the world to me. And just listening to my father’s davening in and of itself is, for me, heavenly.”

The “Shabbos Mevarchim” services in recent years at Beth El have been called one of the best-kept secrets in the city’s Jewish musical life. One of the last vestiges of the golden age of cantorial music, they were unusual because virtually no other professional cantor in New York is still improvising while davening and also because the monthly “Shabbos Mevarchim” services attracted large numbers of women. Bootleg recordings of one service at which Miller and the choir sang were made in 2015. 

Lockwood includes Miller in the group of cantors who he believes can create a religious experience with their inspiring musical performances. He called the cantor a “once-in-a-generation vocal talent.”

Beth El’s building at 15th Avenue at 48th Street in Borough Park was designed to have great acoustics, and since it opened in 1923, its podium has been graced by some of the giants of the golden age of cantorial music, including Mordechai Hershman, Berele Chagy, Moshe Koussevitsky and Moshe Stern. Because of its virtuosic cantors, the synagogue came to be known as the “Carnegie Hall of Brooklyn.”

“Benzion was the keeper of the flame after the flame was almost out. He was there to be a model for a younger generation when there wasn’t really anyone else doing that,” said Hankus Netsky, chair of Contemporary Improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music who also teaches cantorial music at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. “Benzion knows so much about chazones and the recordings of the great cantors and the Hasidic musical tradition... Benzion could sing you a Yiddish theater song better than anybody,” said Netsky.

In a two-hour video interview Netsky conducted with Miller in 2012 for the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project, the cantor said he learned to improvise from his father Aaron, who was a cantor in Oświęcim, the Polish town that came to be known as Auschwitz.

“My father’s davening was always different,” Miller told Netsky. “No two pieces were the same. There was always improvisation. I think that improvisation comes from being at home and very familiar with the prayers. You know where you’re going. You know where you want to go. And the sky’s the limit.”

The Millers are Bobover Hasidim. Shimmy Miller said his father told him that there were cantors and baalei tefilos in the family going back eight generations. 

Benzion Miller was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. The family came to the U.S. in 1949 and lived in Brownsville and Crown Heights before settling in Borough Park.

There was no record player in the family home while Miller was growing up but the radio was tuned to WEVD and he woke up to a show hosted by the great Yiddish theater composer Abe Elstein.

“I was glued to that radio,” he told Netsky. “I used to pick up songs after hearing them once… whether it was an Israeli tune, a Yiddish song or cantorial music. I just picked it up.”

Miller said he always wanted to be a cantor and a singer and a performer. His first professional position came in 1966 when he was hired to daven for the High Holy Days and on Shabbos at the Hillside Jewish Center in New Jersey, where Eli Chaim Carlebach, the twin brother of Shlomo Carlebach, was rabbi. Miller’s first concert was at a shul in Newark.

From Hillside he went to a congregation in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium that no longer exists, and then moved to Canada, serving as chazen at synagogues in Montreal and Toronto from 1971 to 1981. During the decade he spent in Canada, Miller studied with Shmuel Taube, a veteran of the pre-war cantorial scene in Europe who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to the U.S. before settling in Montreal. 

In 1981, Miller returned to the U.S. after getting the blessing of the Bobover rebbe to serve as cantor at Congregation Beth El of Borough Park, which merged with Young Israel of Borough Park in 1988 to become Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park.

In his first seven years at the shul, Miller was accompanied by a professional choir, as were his illustrious predecessors. But after the shuls merged, the choir was disbanded and Miller started leading services alone. He’s been cantor at the shul for more than 40 years.

In 1994, a minyan, or prayer quorum, was assembled for Miller’s father Aaron, who was permanently homebound due to his health. That minyan was composed of Aaron Miller’s grandsons and their friends. It came to the family patriarch’s home in Brooklyn on Shabbos and holidays. After Aaron Miller’s passing in 2000, the group started gathering at Beth El and was known as the Aaron Miller Memorial Choir. It included Berel Tondowski, a salesman at the Mostly Music store in Borough Park, and a number of young Hasidim who are today well-known cantors, including Yanky Lemmer, Ushi Blumenberg and Berel Zucker.

Lemmer has joined Shimmy Miller, Lockwood and the former Satmar chazan Yoel Kohn to perform in Europe. They sang at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival in 2022, at times accompanied by Lockwood’s electric guitar and a string ensemble. Benzion Miller has also performed at the Krakow festival 20 times since the late 1990’s. When he goes to Krakow, Miller makes a point of traveling west to the town of Oświęcim, the family’s town of origin.

The elder Miller relished the appreciation audiences at the Jewish Culture Festival expressed during his performances, which was a stark contrast to the attitudes of American audiences. “In this community, [chazanus is] very appreciated as long as you give it to them for free,” Miller told Netsky in the 2012 oral history. “As long as it’s free, you’re going to fill the place.”

When Shtetl asked him what he sees as the future of chazanus in America earlier this month, he said, “I don’t think that it’s ever going to come back to what it’s been.”

Miller’s pessimism is shared by Noah Schall, one of the greatest living scholars of cantorial music, although the latter was perhaps more colorfully blunt about it. Reached at his home in Cedarhurst on Long Island, Schall, 94, told Shtetl: “Forget about it. It’s gone. There’ll be a concert here and there. That doesn’t mean they’re bringing it back. How can they bring it back? They haven’t got the talent. They can only try to copy from a record. But that’s not a real talent. They’re only xeroxes.”

Asked what the likelihood of his return to the shul was, Miller replied, “At the moment, only God knows. Eventually, I think [my ability to stand and walk] will come back. I’m very hopeful.” And indeed, at Beth El, Miller’s many admirers certainly hope he’ll be back.

Listen to Shtetl’s audio feature on cantorial music: Hasidic artists in Brooklyn bring the golden age of cantorial music into the digital age