Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Great Jewish Tenor

There was a time, in the first half of the 20th century, when chazanut (cantorial/synagogue music) was the rage in the American Jewish community. In fact, there were celebrity chazanim (cantors), some of whom were even famous outside of the Jewish world. Of these “superstars,” the most prominent was Yossele Rosenblatt.

Born in a small Ukranian town in 1882, Rosenblatt was already performing by the time he was eight, and once he was Bar Mitzvah, he was often asked to lead services by serving as chazan. At 17, Rosenblatt began a journey that took him and his new wife to Vienna, then to Munkacz, where he served as a chazan for the chassidish community, and then to Pressburg, where he remained for five years until he moved to Hamburg. In 1905, Rosenblatt made his first of more than 200 recordings, the distribution of which helped spread his name throughout the worldwide Jewish community.

At the invitation of Congregation Ohab Zedek, Rosenblatt came to New York City in 1912. His duties as the congregation’s chazan left him time to travel and perform, and Rosenblatt quickly gained renown. In 1917, while traveling on a Liberty Bond Tour, he was offered a position with the Chicago Opera, who even offered to assure conditions that would meet all of his religious needs. But Rosenblatt felt uncomfortable with the secular setting and declined.

Rosenblatt held featured recitals at both Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. He was paid handsomely and received regular royalties from his recordings. But, in addition to his eight children and extended family, Rosenblatt was both extremely generous and overly trusting. In 1925, he was forced to declare bankruptcy after a bad investment. In order to repay his creditors, Rosenblatt began performing in Vaudville. He insisted on performing without scenery or costume and was hugely popular. When Warner Brothers began filming The Jazz Singer, they offered Rosenblatt an incredible sum to play the father. When he refused, the producers convinced him to allow one scene of him performing a popular Yiddish song.

Yossele Rosenblatt passed away at age 51, in Israel, on 25 Sivan, 1933. He had just finished a performance tour of the Holy Land while also recording a documentary when he suffered a fatal heart attack.

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