Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

He was often called “the Jewish Caruso,” but it may be more accurate to refer to Enrico Caruso as “the gentile Yossele Rosenblatt.” In fact, Caruso claimed that the cantor’s voice was among the best he had ever heard.

Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt, as “the King of Chazzanim” and as the leader of the “Golden Age of Cantorial Music,” was renowned for his almost unbelievable two-and-a-half octave range, his amazing cantillation technique, his rich and elaborate coloratura, his flair for improvisation, and his extraordinary ability to move seamlessly between a warm baritone, a sweet tenor, and the purest high-range falsetto. He famously initiated the use of several techniques that have become cantorial standards, including his trademark krekhz (sobbing crack in his voice), which evoked a conversation with G-d, the essence of true tefillah, and exhibited the depth of the emotion of his prayers. He was also a tremendous talmid chacham celebrated for his lifetime commitment to halacha in the face of enormous temptation.

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Portrait of Yossele Rosenblatt. In a June 22, 1918, article in Musical America, he was described as “[while] only 36 years old, resembling a patriarch of the Biblical type. His square full-blown beard, calm blue eyes, high forehead, black skull cap, the traditional gabardine, give him a picturesque appearance.”
Drawing on the Chasidic musical tradition of his family and community, Rosenblatt was also a prolific composer; by his early twenties, he had published Shirei Yosef (“the Songs of Yossele”), which featured some 150 choral pieces. He made his first record at age 23, and almost 200 of his recordings have been preserved. (As an interesting side note, Shir Hama’alot, as sung by Yossele, was a serious candidate to serve as the Zionist National Anthem.)

By the time he commenced an extensive tour across the United States in 1927, he had become a musical and cantorial superstar renowned by both Jewish and gentile opera aficionados. He was, of course, particularly beloved by Jews, most of whom had come to the United States as refugees in the early 20th century, who experienced culture in the context of the synagogue and considered listening to a cantor perform akin to their fellow Americans going to an opera house.

Even while becoming a shining star in the entertainment firmament, the diminutive 5-foot-tall cantor always remained true to his Orthodox Jewish faith and always performed in his long black beard and wearing his traditional large black yarmulke and frock coat. He famously turned down many lucrative engagements because his faith prohibited his playing fictional characters and singing onstage with women. Manifesting his passionate Jewish pride, he always made a point to be characterized as a “Jewish tenor,” rather than as a Russian tenor or any other title relating to the land of his ancestors.

Born in Bila Tserkva, a Ukrainian shtetl 50 miles from Kiev with a long history of pogroms, the son of a Ruzhiner Chasid and the descendant of a long line of cantors, Rosenblatt (1882-1933) began as a singer in the local synagogue choir because his strict Orthodox observance prevented him attending any musical academy. Quickly recognized as a musical child prodigy, he traveled through the Pale of Settlement at age eight as an itinerant boy cantor, and he gained even greater fame through a tour across the Austro-Hungarian empire at age 17. He accepted a full-time position as a cantor for the Chasidic community of Munkacs, Hungary, which was followed in quick succession with shtellas (full-time positions) in Pressburg (1901) and cosmopolitan Hamburg (1906), where he first heard Caruso – a seminal event in his life and career that broadened his concept of the vocal possibilities of chazzanut.

The era of the “celebrity cantor” in America began at the end of the 19th century and continued into the first decades of the 20th century, when some 2.5 million Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States and competition for the greatest cantors became fierce. Yossele was lured to the United States in 1911 with his wife and children to accept a position with Congregation Ohev Tzedek on 116th Street in Harlem (it later relocated to the West Side), one of New York’s leading synagogues, which paid him an astronomical and then-inconceivable salary of $2,400 (almost $700,000 in today’s dollars).

In New York, he became the “go to” chazzan for the Jewish community’s philanthropic events, but his most legendary performance may have been his May 1917 appearance at the Hippodrome Theater to raise funds for Jews suffering in Europe during World War I. The event, which drew a record 6,000 attendees – then the largest ever gathering of Jews in the United States – raised an astonishing $250,000 (over $50 million in today’s dollars).

The concert at the Hippodrome launched Yossele on a 30-city tour across the United States. Attending the final stop of the tour in Chicago was Cleofonte Campanini, the general director of the Chicago Opera, who offered him $1,000 a night – and later $2,000 (about $36,000 in today’s dollars) – to sing the leading role of Eleazar in Fromenthal Halevy’s grand opera, La Juive (“The Jewess”), which tells the tale of the impossible love between a Christian man and a Jewish woman in Constance in 1414.

Cartoon depicting Rosenblatt’s loyalty to his religious tradition and refusal to accept money to perform with an opera company.

Aware of Yossele’s religious observance and limitations, but nonetheless determined to have him perform for the opera, Campanini offered a contract which would not require him to rehearse or perform on Shabbat or on the Jewish holidays; would provide kosher food in accordance with his high standards; and would permit him to keep his beard throughout the engagement. Moreover, believing that Yossele’s objection to singing with females was limited to performing with gentile women, Yossele was assured that his co-star would be the Jewish Rosa Raisa.

Pulling out all stops, the great Arturo Toscanini personally entreated Yossele to accept the engagement, but he ultimately declined it on the grounds that he would only use his G-d-given talent to sing in prayer or otherwise to promote Hashem’s glory: “I have no desire to obtain glory for myself at the hands of aristocratic non-Jews who might come to the opera to see for themselves how a Jew forsakes his G-d and forswears his religion and his people on account of money.” However, he deeply appreciated the offer and, not wishing to offend Campanini, he used the president of his synagogue to provide cover for him by writing to Campanini that “the Rev. Rosenblatt’s sacred position in the synagogue does not permit him to enter the operatic stage.”

Two striking ironies resulted in the wake of Yossele’s declining to play Eleazar. First, Caruso accepted the role, his final role at the Metropolitan Opera (his last performance was on December 24, 1920), where La Juive continued as a repertory staple of the Opera for well over a decade.

Second, Yossele’s stance only increased his appeal because people wanted to experience for themselves the performing sensation who was so firm in his beliefs that he could turn down such a lucrative offer. Having become even more popular – if that were even possible – he continued his work on behalf of the War Savings Campaign to even larger audiences, including a notable al fresco performance on the steps of The New York Public Library to raise money for war bonds. At that concert, he sang the Star-Spangled Banner, Zelner fun Tzion (“Soldiers of Zion”), and one of his most beloved standards, Keili, Keili, after which the great Caruso ascended the library stairs and kissed him.

Flyer for “Od Yosef Chai,” a collection of Yiddish songs by Rosenblatt.

After mastering a selection of operatic arias and a repertoire of other ethnic songs to supplement his cantorial selections, Yossele gave his first of many recitals at Carnegie Hall on May 19, 1918, which met with broad acclaim, drew the attention of the major media, and launched him into super-stardom. He also performed a recital at the Metropolitan Opera after World War I, which was attended by 10,000 Jewish refugees, and benefit concerts at many other venues, including a concert at Sing Sing for the inmates. Reviewers were particularly impressed by the expansion of his repertoire to include extraordinary renditions of non-cantorial works, but his “bread and butter” pieces remained chazzanut and Yiddish songs.

To fight off offers from other congregations, Ohev Tzedek was now paying Yossele a record salary of $10,000 a year and he was also earning huge concert fees and royalties from his records. However, even with a substantial income, Yossele had huge expenses, including not only supporting his own wife and eight children, but also assuming financial responsibility for his entire extended family. Moreover, he was a tremendous baal tzedakah, and the many Jewish organizations that asked for his help were not only treated to a benefit concert, but often also received a donation out of his own pocket. In addition, he never turned charity-seekers away from his door empty-handed; Yossele’s son characterized the Rosenblatt home as “a paradise of schnorrers” (beggars).

Photo of Yossele with Charlie Chaplin.

In the early 1920s, Yossele invested in Dos Yiddishe Licht (“The Jewish Light”), a novel Jewish periodical published in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, for two reasons: first, because he deeply believed in the importance of presenting an authentic Torah alternative to American secular Jews, who were being informed by non-religious “cultural” papers such as The Forward, and second, because he believed that the success of the publication would assure his financial freedom. However, the paper, which was ahead of its time, went under, and the financially unsophisticated cantor had been tricked into signing on as the paper’s guarantor; as such, when the venture failed, he was liable for $200,000 and was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

The Depression came soon after, and he was dismissed by his shul (for financial reasons), and concert bookings became almost nonexistent, the result of which was that Yossele was left penniless.

Though his debts had been dismissed in bankruptcy and he was under no legal obligation to do so, Yossele was determined to make each of his creditors whole. The former superstar was thus reduced to performing on the traveling vaudeville circuit as “The Man with the $50,000 Beard,” an undignified, but necessary, experience. Nonetheless, he became the biggest star of vaudeville, appearing on stage with the likes of Will Rogers, Sophie Tucker, and Douglas Fairbanks, and he was invited to meet with President Calvin Coolidge and Charlie Chaplin.

Photo of Al Jolson singing Kol Nidre from The Jazz Singer (1927). Remarkably, two Jews – Rosenblatt and Jolson – played leading roles in the very first “talkie.”

A few years later, Rosenblatt was offered $100,000 (over $1.5 million in today’s dollars) to sing Kol Nidre as the protagonist’s father in the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), a play based upon the life of Asa Yoelson – stage name, Al Jolson. The protagonist, Jackie Rabinovich, who was played by Jolson himself, is the son of a cantor who came to New York as a refugee from Eastern Europe and who pleads with his son to follow in his footsteps, but Jackie leaves home and becomes a jazz singer. On the evening of his big show, which is the evening of Yom Kippur, he receives a call from his mother that his estranged father is dying and, after an emotional internal struggle, he ditches his showcase and appears at the synagogue in time to sing Kol Nidre in place of his ill father.

Yossele turned down the offer for his usual religious reasons and, in particular, because he considered it a sacrilege to sing Kol Nidre in a secular setting. Desperate to find some way to have him perform in the film, however, Warner Bros. wrote in a cameo scene where Rabinovich/Jolson attends a concert in Chicago, where he hears Yossele (playing himself) singing a non-religious Yiddish song. After hearing Yossele, Jolson is moved to his deepest soul and considers whether he might be making a serious error in forsaking his father’s traditions for modernity and stardom.

One of the last photos ever taken of Yossele (Eretz Yisrael, 1933).

In 1933, Kol Ohr, an American film company, offered Yossele an opportunity to come to Eretz Yisrael to make a Zionist film for the purpose of increasing American Jewish support for a Jewish state, where he would perform songs at various biblical sites related to that site. Although his fee was to be contingent upon the financial success of the film, he agreed to perform for two reasons: first, to gain temporary reprieve from his creditors and, second, to be able to see and experience the beloved Holy Land for the first time. He became a close friend of Rav Kook and was so enamored by the holy spirit of the land that he decided to make aliyah.

Yossele was standing in a rowboat in the Jordan River singing Betzeit Yisrael Mi’Mitzrayim (“when the Jews left the Egyptian enslavement”) when he became very ill and, sadly, died of a heart attack at the all-too young age of 51. There were 5,000 attendees at his funeral in Jerusalem, and 2,500 people attended a special ceremony held in his memory at Carnegie Hall.

Ticket to Rosenblatt concert that never was.

Exhibited here is a remarkable rarity: a ticket for a benefit concert by Yossele at the Edison Theatre in Jerusalem for the Committee for the Aid of Russian Jews scheduled for June 21, 1933 – two days after his untimely death. The Edison Theatre, opened only a year earlier, was a movie theatre and concert venue that served as home for the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra.

In Yossele’s obituary, the New York Times noted, “He was so well known in this country that letters from Europe addressed to `Yossele Rosenblatt, America,’ reached him promptly.” Almost eight decades after his death, his impact on the cantorial arts endures; his liturgical compositions are still standards of the Ashkenazic musical repertoire; his recordings remain very popular among chazzanut aficionados; and he remains the standard against which all cantors are measured.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.