London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

Remembering characters of the Jewish East End: Reverend Baruch Smus, z’l, Chazan of Fieldgate Street Great synagogue + some wonderful 1970s black and white photos of the interior of Fieldgate Street synagogue.  The Reverend Baruch Smus's obituary is at the bottom of this page

Fieldgate Street synagogue, London E1Whenever I walk the Jewish East End of London my thoughts stray to people and places of times gone by.   Following a recent walk down Fieldgate Street it was with a sense of ‘bershirt’ (fate) that I received a letter from the grandson of Reverend Baruch Smus.  Reverend Smus was Chazan (service leader and singer) at Fieldgate Street synagogue, London E1 and his story encapsulates much of the flavour of the old Jewish East End.  He was born in Proskurov, Ukraine in 1899 and in his youth was assistant Chazan at the Great Synagogue in Odessa.  In its day Odessa was the Paris of the Black Sea with a pavement café culture and vibrant Jewish cultural life.  Odessa was to become a centre of anti-Semitism and Jewish emigration. 

Having survived several pogroms, in 1919 Baruch Smus left Russia for Vienna and later went to Palestine as a pioneer settler.  He joined the Palestine Police band and became an accomplished musician.  Later he studied at the Conservatoire of Music in Jerusalem.  While in Palestine he honed his davening (prayer leading) and singing (cantorial) skills.  He was persuaded to come to England in 1932 and engaged to lead High Holyday services at the 4000 seat Pavilion theatre on the Whitechapel road.  He was paid the enormous sum of £300.  Translating from the Yiddish, the Pavilion theatre poster of the time (see photos below) had this to say about his abilities:

“This is a great Yom Tov in the Pavilion, this year more so than other years – why?

Baruch Smus – who is he?  Born in Proskurov, at the age of 16 years he davened at the amud (reading desk in front of the ark in a synagogue) and was very well received and got better and better.

He was a pupil of Chazan Kwartin, and of the Berditchever Chazan, Meir Pisak.  He left Proskurov after he was saved from a progrom where he lost his father.  He came to Vienna where he excelled in davening.  He was in Jerusalem for eight years.  Then a tour of Europe – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Scheveningen, where they wanted him to stay as their permanent chazan, but Mr Bodner was there on Shabbos and heard his davening, and talked him into coming to London for the London public.

You should know that Mr Bodner has never fooled the public.  The young chazan Baruch Smus davened on Shabbos in Sidney Street Shul.  Ask anyone that heard him - what a davener, what a voice, what music, what meaning of the prayers, and all in this young chazan!”

The Pavilion Theatre closed in 1936 and was demolished in 1961.  Today (2009) the site remains a derelict plot near the corner of Whitechapel and Vallance Roads.

Rev Baruch Smus holding the scroll, Fieldgate Street synagogueReverend Baruch Smus made his home in the East End and met and mixed with the great East End chazanim of his day.  He spoke especially warmly of his teacher and friend the late Reverend Edelman, Chazan of Philpot Street Great Synagogue.  He described him as a ‘golden man’ and recalled how he would practice chanting the weekly Sidra (Torah portion read at a Shabbat morning service) by rocking the cradle of his youngest child in time with the rhythm of his chanting. 

Reverend Smus in Fieldgate Street synagogue, 4th day Channukah 1971Reve Baruch Smus looking from the Bimah over the wardens's box, Fieldgate Street synagogueMany East End synagogues enjoyed Reverend Smus’s powerful and melodic baritone voice, including Vine Court, Philpot Street Sephardish and finally Fieldgate Street.  He also composed and had published his own musical arrangements of several traditional Jewish prayers. 

Although Reverend Smus died in 1976, he is recalled with great affection in Fieldgate Street and his name can be seen in pride of place on a plaque celebrating the special efforts of those who contributed to the 1960 refurbishment of this historic synagogue.  Fieldgate Street recently reopened for monthly Shabbat morning services and thus the spirit of Reverend Baruch Smus lives on.


Reverend Baruch Smus, Chazan of Fieldgate Street Great synagogue

The Pavilion theatre, Whitechapel Rd, London E1

1932 Pavilion theatre poster in Yiddish advertising to the Jewish East End that Reverend Baruch Smus would lead High Holyday services there that year

' Sim Shalom' arranged to music by Reverend Baruch Smus

Fieldgate Street plaque celebrating the successful efforts of Reverend Smus and others to refurbish the building in 1960

Reverend Baruch Smus holding the servant candle on the 7th day of Channukah, Fieldgate Street synagogue

Rev Baruch Smus & friends in Fieldgate Street synagogue. Rabbi Cyberman - who consecrated the refurbished building - is in the photo.

Rabbi Cyberman is probably the gentleman with the long white beard

Plaque commemorating refurbished Fieldgate Street's 1960 consecration by Rabbi Cyberman

February 1922, Palestinian police band. Chazan Smus is in the middle row second from the right between two men holding either flutes or clarinets.

Reverend Baruch Smus in 1971

Jewish Chronicle obituary, 5th November 1976, for the Reverend Baruch Smus

Chazan Baruch Smus, who died recently at the age of 77, was a sweet singer in Israel with a warm and colourful personality who served the community for 40 years.

He was born in Proskurov, Ukraine, and as a youth was an assistant chazan in the Great Synagogue, Odessa.  In 1919 after surviving several progroms, he left Russia for Palestine as a pioneer chalutz, building houses and roads.  He also joined the Palestine Police Band as an accomplished musician playing several instruments.

He studied at the Conservatoire of Music in Jerusalem and was befriended and encouraged by the celebrated chazan Kwartin in whose style he often davened and sang.  He conducted services in Tiberias and sang with the renowned Chazan Sirota in Tel Aviv.

In 1932 chazan Smus arrived in England and as engaged to recite Selichot and officials for the High Holy-days at the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel Road, at the then unheard of sum of 300 pounds sterling.

Many synagogues in London enjoyed his powerful yet mellifluous baritone voice, including Vine Court, Philpot Street Sephardish and Fieldgate Street Great.  During the war years he collected food and clothing for refugees and spent two years in Manchester.

The Rev M. Binstock, chairman, Association of Ministers Chazanim of Great Britain writes:

The members of the association deeply mourn the death of a beloved and respected colleague.  He inspired his congregants with his beautiful rendering of the services and was loved by all for his jovial personality and friendlyapproach to all who knew him.

A week before the above, the family inserted the following in the Jewish Chronicle:

SMUS – Baruch formerly Chazan of Fieldgate Street Synagogue, London, passed away on Tishri 27 (October 20), aged 77, after a short illness.  Deeply mourned and sadly missed by his brother, sons, daughters, stepson and their families, mechutanim and countless friends.  May his dear soul rest in peace.

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