This Day in Jewish History

1882: A Cantor So Extraordinary That Warner Bros. Created a Role for Him Is Born

Yossele Rosenblatt ecstatically wrote his own music and was influenced by Caruso. Not all appreciated his refined style, though.

Yossele Rosenblatt, shown wearing hat with full bushy black beard. Photo made during his stint as cantor of the Ohab Zedek congregation, 1918.
Harrisburg Telegraph, Wikimedia Commons

May 9, 1882, is the birthdate of Yossele Rosenblatt, who in the early decades of the 20th century, was the most in-demand cantor in the world. When he turned down an offer of $100,000 to appear in “The Jazz Singer,” in the role of Al Jolson’s father, because he would be expected to sing the holy “Kol Nidre” prayer in the movie, Warner Brothers then created a new role for him, appearing as himself in a concert setting, singing a non-sacred piece of Yiddish music.

Joseph Rosenblatt was born in the Ukrainian town of Belaya Tserkov, then part of the Russian empire. He was the first son born to Raphael Shalom, a lay cantor, and the former Chaya Sarah Pilatsky, after a run of nine daughters. 

Yossele (a Yiddish diminutive for Yosef) demonstrated his musical skills from quite early on. When he was still a child, his father began taking him around to towns in Ukraine, Galicia and Carpathian Ruthenia to show off his talents in synagogues and private homes, to raise some money for the family.

By age 13, Yossele was already serving as a cantor by his own right. Within four years, he was in Vienna, performing at several of the city’s largest synagogues.

Influenced by Caruso

In 1900, the same year he married Taube Kaufman, Rosenblatt took his first regular position as hazan of the Hasidic community of Munkacz, Hungary. It was not an ideal match for the 18-year-old, who was then composing his own sacred music, and exploring the limits of his voice. The Munkacz Hasidim, on the other hand, were opposed to any innovation.

Within a year, Rosenblatt accepted an offer to serve as cantor for a congregation in the far larger city of Pressburg, today Bratislava, Slovakia.

Pressburg was good for Rosenblatt. He wrote prolifically, and in 1905, he made his first voice recording. When he got the call from a synagogue in Hamburg, an even larger city, however, he moved. It was during this period that Rosenblatt first heard the legendary opera singer Enrico Caruso, which inspired him to develop his own falsetto and his coloratura trills.

Yossele Rosenblatt as himself in the movie - The Jazz Singer 1927 YouTube

According to the biography written by his son Samuel Rosenblatt, in 1954, his Hamburg congregants didn’t thrill to his trills. One of them commented to him, “Mr. Rosenblatt, you sing so divinely Why, then, should it be necessary for you to sigh and wail?” When Yossele came home that evening, he complained to his wife, “How do you like that?... I serve the most delectable dish, the Jewish sob, which is the sauce of hazzanut, and along comes my good friend and tells me that I wail.”

Appreciated in America

In 1912, after a guest appearance at Ohab Zedek, a Hungarian synagogue in Harlem, New York, Rosenblatt took a fulltime job there, and brought the family over. Rosenblatt became the most highly paid cantor of his day, and was in demand to record and to perform.

As an extremely pious man, however, he was very careful about accepting jobs that might compromise his religious values. Unfortunately, he was less discerning with his money. When, in 1922, he invested in a new Yiddish newspaper in 1922, he apparently was unaware that he had signed on as its guarantor. When the paper failed, he was expected to cover its substantial debts, and himself went into bankruptcy.

He began appearing in movie theaters, singing a few songs before the main feature, in an attempt to raise quick money. But  as the Depression began and demand for his talents declined, he couldn’t even find a synagogue to pay him.

In 1933, the Palestine-America Film Company asked Rosenblatt to star in a travelogue, in which he would be filmed singing songs about the Land of Israel at the spots referred to in the songs. Once in Israel, he wanted to stay, and decided first to undertake a concert tour in Europe to raise the money to resettle in Palestine.

He never made it to Europe. While being filmed at the Dead Sea, Rosenblatt had a heart attack. He died on June 19, 1933, at age 51. Yossele Rosenblatt was buried on the Mt of Olives, in a funeral led by Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, attended by 5,000 admirers.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt sings Hineni. YouTube