Often, a life-changing event begins as a chance of circumstance. In hindsight however, we understand that it could not have been chance at all. It was hashgacha pratis, defined as Divine Providence, and it is the way God runs His world. Sometimes we see the Providence right away. I know a happily married couple who met because one of them missed a bus. It was love at first sight. Sometimes the Hand of God is seen later. It is only with hindsight that we are privy to see how He guides us through every moment in this mission called a lifetime. In my case, it was my bat mitzvah teacher, a man with whom I had little in common, who made a life changing impact on me and my family. But it was not until decades after my bat mitzvah.
Growing up Jewish in 1960’s Birmingham, Alabama was typical of Jewish life elsewhere at the time. We followed a course of afternoon Hebrew school, youth group involvement, bar and bat mitzvah parties. As my own bat mitzvah approached I was required to attend Saturday services and meet with Cantor Ostrovsky for haftarah instruction.
Every Saturday, several classmates and I sat around a table in the unadorned and rarely used synagogue library for our bar and bat mitzvah lessons. I was excited about the attention, a party and presents. However, from my eleven-year-old point of view, the classes were a boring waste of a good weekend afternoon. Those lessons would have been excruciating, except for the kindness and humor of Mr. O.
In retrospect, Mr. O. must have understood how tedious these captive Saturdays were for us socially preoccupied preteens. He teased us affectionately, slipped us candy and was generous with patience and encouragement. His sincere praise was all the reward I needed when I finally memorized my haftarah portion to his satisfaction.
Cantor Ostrovsky, affectionately dubbed “Mr. O”, by those of us too tongue-tied to pronounce his un-Anglicized name, was a beloved figure in our synagogue. I don’t know when he came to these shores or how he ended up in, of all places, Birmingham, Alabama, but he was certainly an anomaly among us southerners.
Mr. O took his chazzanus seriously. His rich melodic voice filled our shul on Shabbat and the High Holidays. On those pre-bat mitzvah Saturdays when synagogue attendance was required of me, I actually began to enjoy hearing his repetition of the Mussaf Amidah. It was clear that the words meant volumes more to him than I could imagine words could hold. I always felt uplifted as my heart soared on the wings of his melodies under the sanctuary’s great dome.
Both young people and adults in our community respected his adherence to Jewish law, which most of us observed minimally. As the only mohel in Birmingham for decades, he ensured that every detail of Jewish law for the circumcision was properly observed. His warmth and gentleness calmed new parents. Mr. O was our only constant religious leader for decades as rabbis came and went. I cannot imagine that he ever got involved in synagogue politics; he wielded his influence with wisdom. He never imposed halacha, Jewish law, upon us and he never wanted to offend, as if he even could. His gracious demeanor made us feel at ease, especially when punctuated with his ever-present sense of humor.
Mr. O always had something to say to bring a smile. He was not a jokester, rather a man who took humor to an art form. His intelligent witticisms and wry observations spoken thorough his thick accent revealed the depth and gracious personality of our beloved Cantor and his genuine love for every Jew.
After my bat mitzvah I was not required to attend services and without a reason to go, found plenty of reasons to stay away. Years went by and we saw Mr. O only when we went to shul on holidays and for the bar and bat mitzvahs of our friends and family. He always had a smile and if we were lucky, we got a dose of his trademark humor.
Twenty years passed and the draw of Judaism lay dormant in me. That is, until my husband and I began learning with the Atlanta Scholars Kollel. In time, we were taking tentative steps towards observing Shabbat.
It was daunting, but one sunny Saturday morning, we decided to take the plunge and attend an Orthodox synagogue. We felt uncomfortable that we would not be able to sit together. Moreover, we were afraid we would not be able to follow the service, that no one would talk to us, and that we’d certainly do something “wrong” without realizing.
But there was a voice inside of us that said we needed to give it a try.
Once inside the shul, my partner in life and I separated and bravely entered this new world. I took a prayer book and a seat near the front. The page was easy to find because there was a sign near the pulpit that a cute little boy changed the numbers on. No one talked to me, but not because they were unfriendly. It was because they were praying, really praying. I had never seen hundreds of people stand in silent prayer so completely absorbed and reverent.
Then the repetition of the Amida began. The chazzan’s voice made me feel nostalgically uplifted. It was the voice of someone to whom the words meant volumes more than I imagined words could hold. It was Mr. O! Standing at the bima, his head covered with a tallit (prayer shawl), was the kind, consistent, Mr. O filling the beautiful sanctuary that Shabbat morning with his rich melodic voice that was imprinted somewhere in my soul.
As tears streamed down my face and my heart soared with Mr. O’s familiar rich voice under the great dome of the sanctuary that Shabbos morning, I knew we had come home.
In the months following that first visit, we returned often. We became reacquainted with Mr. O who had moved to Atlanta in semi-retirement and naturally became a beloved member of the congregation. People spoke to us at Kiddush, but never during services. They were kind and made every effort to make not just us, but every newcomer and longtime member, feel valued. In this accepting and supportive environment, we eventually integrated too.
Over twenty years earlier, around the table of my bat mitzvah lessons, Hashem was laying the groundwork for our future, and he chose Cantor Akiva Ostrovsky as his emissary. He chose well. Mr. O embodied kindness, integrity, humor and a rich voice which expressed what G-d wants from each of us: an abiding love for Hashem and for every single Jew.
Dedicated to Cantor Akiva Ostrovsky, may his memory be for a blessing, and in honor of Congregation Beth Jacob of Atlanta “The Orthodox synagogue for all Jews.”
While writing this article, I learned that Chazzan Akiva Ostrovsky was born in 1914 in Jerusalem, the son of Rav Mordechai (Rabbi of Kiryat Moshe) and Rachel Ostrovsky. His early influences were his mother, who encouraged him to sing and develop his voice, and the famous Cantorial teacher Chazzan Zalman Rivlin. Other teachers were Vitorio Weinberg and Leo Low. As a young man he was so enthralled by the voice and style of the illustrious Chazzan Zawel Kwartin that he went to as many of Kwartin’s performances as possible. He was once dubbed “Kwartin’s meragel (spy/shadow)” He soon became Rivlin’s star student and the leader of his choir. In 1933 when the great Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt visited Israel, Rivlin sent young Akiva to lead the choir for him in Tel Aviv and at the Churvah before a distinguished audience. He was one of the last to hear Rosenblatt sing when leading the choir for him at a “command performance” for the Gerrer Rebbi, shortly before Rosenblatt passed away. He was the first cantor for Young Israel in Jerusalem. He was personally endorsed for the position by the Chief Rabbi, Avraham Isaac Kook, who, whenever he visited Kiryat Moshe, requested that Akiva lead davening. In America he served congregations in Lima and Toledo, Ohio. In Birmingham, Alabama, he served for over 36 years. He was an all around religious leader, the community’s shochet, and head of the men’s Chevrah Kadisha. The Ostrovsky home was the Birmingham center of Hachnosses Orchim (welcoming guests) and Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick). He became known as the “Traveling Mohel of the South.” He taught so many students for Bar Mitzvah, performed so many weddings, etc. that he was heralded as a “mainstay of Alabama Jewry” and was affectionately known as “Mr. O.” After retiring he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at the request of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, and continued to serve the community as a mohel and a teacher, working well into his 80’s. Retiring a second time, he moved to Silver Spring in 1999 to be closer to his family. He passed away in 2006.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.