The Master Singer of His People

Written by Larry Shor on . Posted in Arts & Entertainment

Moishe Oysher was a unique talent. His style, passion, and presentation all combined into a fiery and brilliant voice that thrilled audiences. Even today, 50 years after his passing, his talent resonates in today’s performers.

Oysher was born in Lipkon, a city in the Bessarabia region of what is today Moldova, in 1907. His father and grandfather were cantors, and it was thought that he would follow in the family tradition; but Oysher was drawn to the world of the Yiddish theater, and his artistry would first be displayed on the stage. He began appearing in Yiddish plays while still a child, and studied acting. In 1921, Oysher’s family emigrated to Canada, and he began acting in the still-flourishing Yiddish theater. His talent caught the attention of major Yiddish theater star and producer Boris Thomashefsky and he went to New York. By the late 1920s, Oysher was performing on stage and radio. He even recorded a few selections for Victor records. In the early 1930s, he formed his own Yiddish theater company and toured all across Latin America.

When he returned home in 1934, the next chapter of his life opened, changing it forever.

Arriving in New York, Oysher found that all the shows had already been cast for the season. Friends encouraged him to apply for the cantor job for the High Holidays at the famous Romanian Shul on the Lower East Side. Oysher got the job, and although there were some complaints about a stage actor on the pulpit, the complaints were quickly overwhelmed by the brilliance of his voice and his artistry. His voice was a majestic lyric baritone, but what was fascinating about it was that it was a hybrid. He easily moved up into the tenor range and sang High C (the defining note of the soprano voice) with ease. In addition to his voice, the style was amazing. Oysher brought the rhythms of the theater and his love of jazz and fused them with traditional cantorial modes, always respecting the structure and nusach (style) of the davening (prayer service). His fame began to spread into the cantorial world as well, and he was always in demand for cantorial and concert appearances. No one had ever heard anything like his voice.

For the rest of his life, Oysher would straddle two worlds. In a play on words, it was said that Oysher was the first to work the bineh (“stage” in Yiddish) and the bimah (the dais in the synagogue). At that time, the Yiddish film industry was flourishing and Oysher found a venue to spread his artistry to an international audience. He made three Yiddish films between 1937 and 1940: “The Singing Blacksmith,” “The Cantor’s Son,” and “Overture to Glory.” His wife, Florence Weiss, often appeared with him. He made hundreds of radio appearances. There are some existing recordings of him on the radio that are fascinating to listen to. Oysher completely captivated his audience. They would respond with thunderous applause, whistles, and shouts of “Bravo!” He even tried his hand at getting into the American movies. In 1944, under the stage name Walter Lawrence, he appeared in an MGM film, “Song of Russia,” starring Robert Taylor.

About that time, Oysher began to develop heart trouble. He worked around it as best as he could, and though it definitely affected him, he pressed on.  In the postwar years, as the Yiddish stage began to disappear, he concentrated on radio and making records, which he did for a number of companies. He continued to conduct services in many different shuls across the country. In 1953, with his second wife, Theodora, known as “Teddy,” Oysher formed his own record label, Rozanna Records, named after his daughter. The label produced three albums between 1953 and 1955, designed to bring the music and flavor of various holidays in the Oysher style. They were: “The Moishe Oysher Seder,” “Kol Nidre Night with Moishe Oysher,” and “The Moishe Oysher Chanukah Party.”

In 1956, he made his last film appearance in “Singing in The Dark,” in which he played a cantor who has survived the Holocaust, but cannot remember who he is. His condition began to worsen severely, as he suffered several heart attacks and passed away on November 27, 1958, at the age of only 51.

Moishe Oysher entertained, inspired, and davened for his audiences in a way that affected not only the audiences of his day, but of ours as well. Even today, great singers still sing his music. One could not ask for a better tribute for the “Master Singer of His People.” May his memory be for a blessing.

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By Larry Shor