Max (Moshe) Wohlberg, hazzan (cantor), composer, theorist, collector of Jewish music and a central figure in the organization and education of the American cantorate was born on February 9, 1907 in Homonna, Hungary. Largely a self-taught musician and scholar, Wohlberg received a thorough religious education as a boy — attending the prestigious Szatmar and Nagy Karoly yeshivot in Hungary. He sang as a boy alto in the Kacinczy Street Synagogue in Budapest but received no formal musical training until after he emigrated to New York City in 1923. After teaching himself elementary piano in his parents’ Lower East Side home, Wohlberg began to study music theory with Arnold Powell (Zemachson) and singing with Boris Starling (Skvartzoff) and, later, Walter Mattern. From 1928-29 he sang tenor for two seasons with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus.
Wohlberg sang as a chorister and served as temporary hazzan at various synagogues on the lower East Side and in Brooklyn before landing his first full-time position as a rabbi-hazzan at CongregationAhavas Achim in College Point, Queens in 1928. At the time he was a member of the Chazzonim Farband, a cantor’s organization that boasted among its members Josef Rosenblatt (1880-1933), Zavel Kwartin (1874-1952) and Mordechai Hershman (1888-1940). Wohlberg would later serve as Yiddish recording secretary for this organization.
Wohlberg officiated in College Point until 1935, the same year he married Theresa Koerner. She was a pianist and daughter of Hazzan Maier Koerner and was born in Lvov, near the Polish-Ukranian border, on February 20, 1886. He studied in Poland and Hungary and learned hazzanut from his father-in-law Abraham Eisen. Koerner held a position in Ung-Brod (Hungarian Brod), Moravia before emigrating to the U.S. in March, 1921. He served as cantor in Scranton, Pennsylvania and died in 1951.
Wohlberg continued his self-education through the 1930s: reading Jewish music articles in English, German, Hebrew and Yiddish; transcribing recordings; and copying and memorizing the cantorial manuscript collections he found at the New York Public Library and The Jewish Theological Seminary. He became so familiar with cantorial repertoire that he was able to identify stylistic variations in chants from different regions of eastern Europe.
Wohlberg was hazzan at New York City’s Inwood Hebrew Congregation from 1935-1939. After their son Jeffrey was born in 1941, the Wohlbergs relocated to Congregation Beth El in Minneapolis, Minnesota from 1941-1945. There was a fine amateur chorus at Temple Beth El and Wohlberg began to compose choral music around this time.
Although much of his music was published during his lifetime, Max Wohlberg never considered himself a composer. He usually wrote music to fulfill a particular congregational or pedagogical need. Most of his music was written for solo voice and utilizes nusah ha-tefillah — the modes and motives specified for a particular religious function or occasion.
Max Wohlberg’s keen intellect, foresight and organizational skills (and, many say, sense of humour) were among his greatest attributes. According to Rabbi Morton Leifman, retired dean of the Cantors Institute, both Wohlberg and Cantor David Putterman (1903-1976) were instrumental in establishing the Cantors Assembly and founding the Cantors Institute and Seminary College of Jewish Music at the J.T.S. in 1952. The Cantors Assembly is the professional organization for cantors of Conservative Judaism that celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1997. The two schools were the first degree-granting institutions of Jewish music in America.
In 1947 Wohlberg served at Hartford’s Temple Emanu El. He was hazzan at Beth El Congregation in Philadelphia from 1946-1957. He and his wife Theresa divorced in 1956 and he married Miriam Wachsler in 1957. From 1950 until 1988 Wohlberg was head of the Nusah department at The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantors Institute. He wrote a regular column entitled “Pirkei hazzanut” for The Cantor’s Voice newsletter from 1951-1963. Through both these activities he profoundly influenced the education and standards of a generation of American cantors.
Wohlberg officiated at the Malverne Jewish Center on Long Island from 1958 until 1972, when he retired from full-time service. In 1978 he and his wife Miriam moved back to Philadelphia because of her ill health. She died in 1980 and he married Rochelle Myers in 1983. He taught nusah at Gratz College in Philadelphia from 1984-86. This institution awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1987. He also received an honorary doctorate from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1967.
Max Wohlberg continued to write scholarly articles and reviews and taught nusah at the Cantor’s Institute until 1992. He died on April 18, 1996 in Washington, D.C., where his son Jeffrey Wohlberg is still a rabbi.