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Tuesday, June 20, 2006



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Our Beloved "Yossele": A Tribute to Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt

The following piece is a guest posting from my good friend, Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen, who has an excellent website, Hazon - Our Universal Vision. I did some light editing on it, and made some small additions, mostly from the article upon which it is based.

Introductory Comments:
A “cantor” is the one who leads the congregation in prayer. (The Hebrew term is chazzan.) According to tradition, the cantor should be a G-d-revering person of good character who is familiar with the liturgy and understands the basic meaning of the prayers. In addition, he should also have a pleasant voice. The goal of a good cantor is to chant the prayers in a way which stirs the souls of the members of the congregation so that they can pray with greater intensity and devotion.
An outstanding example of a cantor who fulfilled this goal was Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. His yahrzeit - the anniversary of his passing – begins this evening, the 25th of Sivan. Below I will share with you some stories from his life which appeared in an article by David Olivestone. (It was published in Jewish Action, Fall, 2003.)

In my grandparents’ generation, there was a famous and beloved cantor - Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt - who, like my grandparents, immigrated to New York City [in 1912 – yitz]. He was internationally known and respected, and many Gentiles would attend his public concerts. His concerts were also reviewed in The New York Times and other leading American newspapers. Although this was an age when many Jewish immigrants were abandoning their traditional Torah way of life in order to assimilate into the American culture, this was not the case with Yossele Rosenblatt. Despite his success and fame, he continued to fulfill the Torah's path of mitzvos, and even when he gave concerts to the general public, which included some songs from other cultures, he would wear his large black yarmulke and frock coat.

Yossele was born in 1882 in the Ukranian Jewish town “Belaya Tserkov.” His father, a Rizhiner Chassid who frequented the court of the Sadigora Rebbe, was himself a cantor, and the Chassidic spirit and music was a major influence on Yossele's life. As David Olivestone writes in Jewish Action: “He possessed a magnificent tenor voice of great beauty and extraordinary range, with a remarkably agile falsetto. In addition, he had perfect pitch and could read the most difficult musical score at sight.” Both his congregants and his concert audiences loved the sweet timbre of his voice, and his singing included the traditional Jewish “sob” which evoked the emotions of his listeners. According to an old Jewish saying, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart,” and this was also true with the songs of Yosselle Rosenblatt. And much of what he sang, and later recorded, was his own composition, significantly influenced in its tunefulness by his Chassidic background.

In 1917, he went on a concert tour of thirty cities in order to help raise funds for the many Jews who had suffered greatly during World War I. (Due to the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Jews living in these countries had experienced violent attacks known as “pogroms.” They were uprooted from their homes, and often left homeless.) His appearance in Chicago was a turning point in his career, and it also presented him with a great challenge. An invited guest at the Chicago concert was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, who was so struck by Rosenblatt's artistic ability that he visited him immediately after the concert and offered him $1,000 per performance - a very high fee in those days - if he would sing the role of Eleazar in Halevy's opera, La Juive. Campanini carefully outlined a contract with terms that he believed would ensure that Rosenblatt would not have to compromise on his traditional Jewish way of life. For example, he could retain his beard; he would not have to appear on Shabbos and the Jewish Festivals; and kosher food would be obtained for him.

Although Cantor Rosenblatt was greatly tempted by the offer, in the end he decided not to accept it. He was then the cantor at Congregation Ohab Tzedek, and not wishing to personally offend Campanini, he asked the president of the synagogue, Moritz Newman, to provide the final answer. The synagogue president wrote to Campanini that “the Rev. Rosenblatt's sacred position in the synagogue does not permit him to enter the operatic stage.”

The offer and its refusal caused a storm, with reporters from both the general and Jewish media vying to understand how Yossele Rosenblatt could turn down such an offer. After all, this was “America” - the land where even new immigrants could achieve fame and fortune. In the “old country,” a Jew could be poor and unknown and still be greatly respected for his Torah knowledge and/or good deeds, but in the new country of America, people were primarily judged according to their financial status and fame. It was therefore difficult for many people to understand why Rosenblatt gave up an opportunity which could lead him to become a wealthy and famous opera star! In an interview with the trade journal Musical America (June 22, 1918), Rosenblatt admitted: “The cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me.” He added that “suddenly a voice whispered in my ear, ‘Yossele, don't do it!’ ” The “cantor” within his soul overcame the desire to become a famous opera singer.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt was especially dedicated to the mitzva of tzedaka – the sharing of our resources with those in need; thus, he gave away much of his earnings to needy individuals and various tzedaka causes. In addition, he invested in a new Yiddish newspaper which was designed to bring American Jews back to Torah. After a few years, the newspaper went bankrupt and could no longer be published. His great generosity caused Rosenblatt to go into debt, and he did concert tours in order to pay his creditors.

In 1933, he was offered a movie role that he could accept in good conscience. The proposed movie, Dream of my People, would show the Jews of America the Holy Land with its sacred sites and newly built cities and towns. In this movie, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt would sing his own compositions at the biblical sites relevant to the words of those prayers. For Yossele, this was an opportunity to visit the Land of Israel - the realization of a lifelong dream of his own. While he was in the Land, he gave concerts, and he participated in the services of various synagogues. He hoped to later go on a European concert tour, in order to raise funds which would enable him and his family to settle in the Land of Israel. On Shabbos, June 17, 1933, he led a “farewell” service held at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem. The next day, after filming a scene at the Dead Sea, Yossele suffered a sudden heart attack. Within a short while, his soul left this world. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, and over 5,000 Jews came to the levaya - the honoring and escorting of the soul as it begins its journey to the World to Come. (Scenes from this moving event were later included in the movie.) The eulogy was given by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, one of the great sages of that era. While he was in the Land, Yossele spent Shabbos afternoons with Rav Kook.

Over seven decades later, Yossele Rosenblatt’s impact continues to be felt. Many of his compositions have become staples in the repetoires of Ashkenazic cantors and are regularly sung in synagogue services and concerts. His recordings have been repeatedly reissued, most recently on CD, and one may find some samples on Jewish music sites on the web [see below – yitz]. There is also a recording of the songs that he sang in the Land of Israel.

In summary, among the chazzanim who followed him, there has been no one who has captured the hearts of the public quite the way he did. In shul, he gave voice to the deepest feelings and yearnings of those who entrusted him as their shaliach tzibbur. On the concert stage and in the theater, he would bring down the house night after night, impressing his audiences as much with his Yiddishkeit as with his artistry. In both settings, Yossele Rosenblatt created a Kiddush Hashem every time he sang.

We, the Jewish people, still remember our beloved Yossele, for his soul expressed the song of our people – a song which is destined to be heard by the entire world.


UPDATE: Links to some of Yossele's cantorial pieces:

1. Yehi Ratzon

2. Keil Maleh Rachamim, in memory of those killed in WW I

3. Shir HaMa'alos - or here.

4. A video film about Yossele [at present, it appears that this video is "down". Try this page instead - the video should be in the upper left of the page].

5. Notations of 26 pieces, two of them with Midi files.

6. Tikantas Shabbos

7. Elokai Neshama

8. AMAZING VIDEO DOWNLOAD! At this link, someone has uploaded a video called "yossla". It's 8 minutes long, black & white of course, with amazing footage of him singing "Yevarech es Beis Yisrael," with some very rare footage of the Kosel HaMa'aravi [the Western Wall] in Yerushalayim. But hurry, it could expire!

Readers are invited to post more links in the Comments section, I'll try to post them all!

My mother once told me that she used to walk with her father on Shabbat to hear the great chazanim in Brooklyn.
Great posting. I also forgot that he also was a Ukrainian as well!
With great sadness, I share that Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen, zt'l, died 27 Elul 5772.

Created in Reb Yosef's zechut:

Joy Krauthammer
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