The Tisch: The (hassidic) jazz singer

Singing is central to hassidic life. Like prayer, it is considered a path of communion with the Almighty.

Choir 390 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Choir 390
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Singing is central to hassidic life. Like prayer, it is considered a path of communion with the Almighty. Did the hassidim acknowledge limitations on the types of songs or the timing of when songs could be sung?
In an undated responsum, the hassidic master and town rabbi, Rabbi Meir Horowitz of Dzikow (1819-1877) was asked “about the custom of Israel to sing on Rosh Hodesh at the festive meal.” The questioner felt that singing songs that were not mandated by tradition contravened Jewish law. He understood that since the destruction of the Temple and the abolition of the Jewish legal system, as a sign of mourning, Halacha forbade singing at meals. The only songs allowed at mealtimes were those that had been already accepted as normative.
R. Meir’s response was definitive: There was no such prohibition and singing in praise of the Almighty was to be lauded. The questioner, however, had based himself on the words of earlier halachic authorities who had written that “other poems” – that is, songs beside those that had been established from time immemorial – were not to be sung at festive meals (Magen Avraham 560:10).
How did R. Meir contend with that source? R. Meir explained that these authorities were referring to singing songs out of context. For example, cantors who sing passages from the service of the High Holy Days, such as the moving Unetaneh Tokef prayer, at festive meals. Such performances were merely for the public’s enjoyment and were not aimed at thanking or praising the Almighty, and as such they were forbidden.
In his conclusion to the responsum, R. Meir chastised the questioner: “One should not cast doubts on custom, particularly a time-honored custom.”
Years later, the world-renowned cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (1882- 1933) – who was raised in the Sadigora hassidic milieu – was given a lucrative offer to sing in The Jazz Singer (1927). The Jazz Singer was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue, signaling the decline of the silent film and the arrival of “talkies.”
The hero of the film, Jakie Rabinowitz, was played by the Russian- born Jewish entertainer Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson, 1886- 1950). Rosenblatt was asked to play the part of the old cantor, father of the hero of the film. The plot involved Rabinowitz pursuing a career as a jazz singer and coming in conflict with his Jewish heritage. Jackie runs away after being chastised by his father for choosing to “debase the voice God gave him.” That Yom Kippur, Cantor Rabinowitz says: “My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight – but now I have no son,” and then sings “Kol Nidrei.”
In classic showbiz style, the premiere of The Jazz Singer was set for October 6, 1927, immediately after the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
Rosenblatt declined the offer to play Cantor Rabinowitz, since the part required him to sing “Kol Nidre.” Reminiscent of the words of R. Meir of Dzikow, Rosenblatt felt that it was inappropriate to since High Holy Day prayers outside the framework of the service. He even refused to record himself singing “Kol Nidre” to dub Warner Oland (born Johan Verner Öhlund, 1879-1938) – the Swedish-American non-Jewish actor who eventually played the part of the old cantor.
The producers still wanted Rosenblatt, and in the end he appeared in the film as himself, singing the Yiddish song “Yartzeit Licht” (memorial candle). In the film, Jakie Rabinowitz – now going by the name Jack Robin – hears Rosenblatt and is reminded of his father.
Singing indeed is highly valued in hassidic tradition; but there is an appropriate time and an appropriate place for everything.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. His book
Relics for the Present was recently published by Maggid Books and Pardes.