The King of Cantors

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Features

This summer marks the 85th yahrzeit (anniversary of one’s passing) of the man who was known as the “King Of The Cantors.” Even now, 85 years later, his music is still a part of the Jewish liturgical experience at all types of shuls and services. He was Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt, best known by his Yiddish nickname, Yossele.

Born in Byehlia Tzerkov, Ukraine, in 1882, Cantor Rosenblatt displayed great vocal and musical talent from an early age. His upbringing was steeped in the rich Orthodox culture of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. At the age of four, he was taken to one of the famous rebbes for an audience. The rebbe blessed him and said, “He has a pure mouth, and G-d will certainly hear his prayer.” He spent his teen years as an itinerant chazzan (cantor), traveling from town to town and spending his Shabbats davening (praying) in many places.

At the age of 18, he achieved his first permanent position in Munkacs, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and a major Jewish center. His fame grew, and in 1906 he was invited to Hamburg, Germany, to become the cantor of the largest Orthodox congregation in the city. It was there that he made the first of many recordings, and word of this great chazzan reached the United States. In 1912, he came to America to become cantor of Congregation Ohab Zedek (then located in Harlem in New York City, the synagogue is still in existence today on 95th Street on the Upper West Side).

What made Cantor Rosenblatt such a singular sensation? It was a combination of factors. First was his voice, which stretched across two and a half glorious octaves. His technique was flawless, whether in full voice or an astounding falsetto, which he used with great effect. Second was the fact that in addition to being a great singer, he was a fabulous composer as well. He wrote hundreds of compositions for cantor alone and for cantor and choir. Many of his works are still sung to this day, and his composition for “Shir Hamalos” was given serious consideration to be the national anthem of Israel.

Third, he understood the ability of recordings to spread his artistry far beyond the reaches of his synagogue in New York. He made over 200 recordings for Columbia and Victor records between 1912 and 1930, spreading his fame around the world. And above all, he was a deeply pious man, whose very being radiated love and prayer to Hashem. By the early 1920s he was known to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences as the King of the Cantors, and turned down huge sums of money to sing in the opera. He even sang his composition for “Halleluyah,” from the Hallel prayer, for President Warren Harding.

And then, everything began to unravel. Naive in business matters, Cantor Rosenblatt was convinced to invest in a Jewish newspaper. The publication not only folded, but Cantor Rosenblatt was basically swindled out of all his money. He was forced to go into vaudeville performing to satisfy his many creditors. It is hard to imagine how degrading it must have been for him; but he labored on and after a few years he was able to pull himself out.

In 1927, the Warner Brothers offered him the then unheard of sum of $100,000 to play the role of the father in “The Jazz Singer.” He refused to sing liturgical selections as an actor and turned it down. He does appear in the film, however, singing a Yiddish song, “Dos Yahrzeit Licht” (“The Yahrzeit Candle”), for which he made considerably less. The Great Depression caused him further misery. In 1932, Ohab Zedek was no longer able to pay him and had to let him go.

Then the movies beckoned again: The Fox Palestine Film Company was going to film a series of travelogues showing the sights of the Holy Land; most had never been seen by Western audiences. Rosenblatt agreed to participate — footage of him singing various musical selections, would be interspersed throughout the film — and was excited about this new start.

They began filming, but then suddenly on June 19, 1933, Cantor Rosenblatt died of a heart attack. Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in Tel Aviv, and Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook delivered the eulogy. He was interred at the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem.

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt’s career was marked by great highs and devastating lows, but to this day, he represents the greatness, artistry, and kibud (honor) to G-d that was a hallmark of what has come to be known as the “Golden Age of Cantors.”

And for all those who love the cantorial art, Yossele Rosenblatt will always be the king. May his memory be for a blessing.

NEXT TIME: Broadcasting’s Forgotten Giant

 By Larry Shor