Nowakowsky was born in Malyn in Ukraine in 1848, part of the Machnovska. Little of his early life is known, although there are several stories that survive. At 8 he left home, apparently due to the hounding of his stepmother, to sing in a trio with a cantor in the nearby town of Smelnik (Chmelnic?). He was later orphaned and joined the choir of cantor Spitzberg (Spizbergen?) in Berditchev. The Berdichev choral synagogue was part of the enlightenment movement expounded by Rabbi Moses Mendelsohn in 1800. Mendelsohn thought that if Jews abandoned orthodox clothing, learned to speak proper German, rather than Yiddish, and modeled their services after Christian modes of worship, Jews would no longer be persecuted. Conservatory-educated Jewish composers, like Salomon Seltzer, and Louis Lewandowsky, wrote choral versions of Jewish prayers and anthems using western harmonies. They also simplified cantorial recitative and provided organ accompaniament, whereas traditional synagogues do not allow musical instruments to be played on the sabbath, in mourning for the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The young Nowakowsky was exposed to this reform in Jewish music, but he also studied traditional Jewish liturgical modes with cantor Yerucham (HaKaton) Blindman, and organ, theory and counterpoint at the Conservatory in Berdychiv. Years later, after Nowakowsky was recognized as a master composer, the roles were reversed. Blindman became Nowakowsky’s student of harmony and counterpoint. As his name suggests Yerucham (Jeremiah) Ha Katon (The little one) Blindman (Blind man). was a blind person of extremely short stature. He had an amazing voice, and performed with great musicality.
Thus Nowakowsky bridges two worlds. The world of traditional tunes sung to Jewish modes and the world of western classical music, and somehow manages to combine them both seamlessly.