Rev Lenzer’s historic piano gets a rebirth

March 6, 2019 by David Marlow
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The East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation (EMHC) and the Australia Jewish Historical Society Vic (AJHS) have teamed up to celebrate the reinauguration of Reverend Jacob Lenzer’s historic piano at  EMHC.

The piano

The piano was initially presented by congregants of EMHC to Rev Lenzer in 1892.  Rev Lenzer was EMHC’s fourth rabbi and arguably the most popular and celebrated in its history.  Over a century later, the piano was discovered and returned to the congregation, tuned and repaired.

It was a random email from a total stranger which alerted current EMHC Rabbi Dovid Gutnick to the existence of the piano. It was for sale on Gumtree for $100, and the stranger researched a miniature plaque on the piano. The man, known as Ting discovered that the ‘Rev J. Lenzer’ on the plaque had been the rabbi of EMHC, so he very kindly contacted Rabbi Dovid via email, offering him ‘first dibs on this piano’ as Rabbi Dovid calls it.

Rabbi Dovid stated, “When I spoke to the owner of the piano and offered $80 (I don’t care how sentimentally significant this thing is, a little handling is always in order.), she was quick to accept. That sum was dwarfed by the moving costs but, encouraged by Dr Howard Freeman (President of the AJHS), Dr Alan Davis and various other mavinim, I arranged for the transportation. And here it is sitting in the old East Melbourne school room, now the Kiddush room named in honour of  Victor Smorgon. All we are awaiting is a good tuning and a rabbi with a bit of musical talent.”

Rev Jacob Lenzer had that musical talent and more. He has been described as the most popular and accomplished rabbi in the long history of Melbourne’s oldest shul.  His versatile skill-set ranged from brilliant vocalist and musician to accomplished anatomist and mohel — a compelling combination. Born in Mohilev, Russia, in 1859, Rev Lenzer studied in the great Yeshivah of Volozhyn, becoming a Talmudic scholar by the age of 16.

In the subsequent years, Lenzer studied music from chazans Spivack (Kishinoff), Davidoff and Rubenstein (St Petersburg). It is recorded that he acted as an assistant minister in Count Poliakoff’s synagogue in Moscow in his early years.

So how did he come to travel from a pulpit in the shadow of the Kremlin to a pulpit in the shadow of the Victorian Parliament House? By reading the classifieds in the Russian newspaper! In Rev Lenzer’s own words: “Queer how I came to apply for this. One morning during breakfast looking down at the Hebrew missing-persons column of a Russian paper, I noticed that the East Melbourne Synagogue wanted a reader and singer, so I applied.”

After his arrival in 1888, it didn’t take long for Rev Lenzer to become the primary clergyman at the synagogue in 1890. Indeed, shortly afterwards Rev Lenzer was signed on as minister for life with a minimum stipend of 350 pounds per annum.

In celebration of his 25th anniversary at the synagogue, the Jewish Herald wrote, “There are many yet left among us who will recall how, on the first Friday evening of Mr. Lenzer’s installation, the Albert-street Synagogue was packed to its utmost capacity, and how his magnificent voice and beautiful rendering of the service fairly conquered the whole body of worshippers.”

He remained the Chief Minister until his passing on 14 April 1922.

Rabbi Dovid stated, “No doubt Rev Jacob Lenzer was an impressive man. But I’m still left scratching my head a little. How good was he to elicit admiration that culminated in the gifting of a piano? Perhaps I am a little jealous. How come I have never been gifted a piano by my admiring friends? To be sure this question would carry more weight if I could play the thing.”

“I am also confident that somewhere up in heaven Yaakov ben Meir’s soul is having some spiritual satisfaction now that, after almost a century in exile, his piano is once again resting in his synagogue and that the congregation into which he invested so much energy still gathers for prayers and Jewish activities on almost a daily basis. Long may it be so.”

Numerous pieces will be played on the restored piano at its reinauguration at EMHC on Purim, at 6:30pm on Thursday 21 March.

Some of Reverend Lenzer’s grandchildren will be participating in the event, which will also include supper and drinks.

Bookings ($15 adults and $5 children):

or 03 9662 1372 or email



One Response to “Rev Lenzer’s historic piano gets a rebirth”
  1. Josh Darabaner says:

    A fascinating story indeed. I live in the U.S.A., in Brooklyn, New York. For longer
    than I can remember I have been e-mailing, back and forth, at least once a day, my
    second cousin once removed, Helena Grunfeld, who lives in Melbourne. My finding her
    is to me just like the finding of the piano is to you, a real treasure.

    We agree and disagree and laugh. She is very much involved in all aspects of life in
    Melbournne, religious and social, and even on an international level to an extent.
    You very likely have heard of her. May she continue to make the beautiful “music”,
    so to speak, for all who know her, just like your treasured piano !

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