The legend, legacy of the great Jewish cantor Yossele Rosenblatt

As we mark his 90th yahrzeit on 25 Sivan (June 14, 2023), Rosenblatt’s name is still the most widely recognized of all the world’s great cantors.

 YOSSELE ROSENBLATT as a young man. (photo credit: M. Brodszky)
YOSSELE ROSENBLATT as a young man.
(photo credit: M. Brodszky)

In April of 1933, the famed cantor Yossele Rosenblatt came to the Land of Israel to film the movie The Dream of My People. For him, it was also meant to be the fulfillment of a personal dream – to settle permanently in the Holy Land. Sadly, his death just 10 weeks later at age 51, made the cemetery on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem his only permanent resting place here. 

As we mark his 90th yahrzeit on 25 Sivan (June 14, 2023), Rosenblatt’s name is still the most widely recognized of all the world’s great cantors. A musical genius, both as a vocalist and a composer, he had a magnificently rich tenor voice of great beauty and exceptional range, described by renowned opera tenor Enrico Caruso as “a voice of pure gold.”

In addition, he had perfect pitch and could read the most difficult musical score by sight. The superb voice control he displayed – particularly in coloratura passages – and his trademark “sob,” coupled with his unrivaled falsetto, inspired his congregants and thrilled his concert audiences.

His most popular compositions, often tunefully influenced by his hassidic background or by his affinity with opera, are still regularly heard in synagogues and cantorial concerts around the world. He made around 200 78-rpm recordings, most of which are available online, many of them enhanced to remove the hisses and the scratches of the early phonograph records. 

The sweet timbre of Rosenblatt’s voice led him to the heights of fame and material success, but the sweetness of his personality and his overly generous nature brought him to penury at the end of his life. Through it all – as his career took him from the synagogue bimah to the concert hall platform to the variety theater stage and back to the shul – he remained a staunchly observant Jew, all the while wearing his large black kippah.

  COVER OF the musical score for ‘Eli, Eii,’ one of Rosenblatt’s most popular songs.  (credit: Courtesy David Olivestone)
COVER OF the musical score for ‘Eli, Eii,’ one of Rosenblatt’s most popular songs. (credit: Courtesy David Olivestone)

Who was the great Jewish cantor Yossele Rosenblatt?

Standing not much more than 1.5 meters (five feet) tall, he was still a commanding figure with his heavy dark beard and fastidious appearance, and he engendered great respect from all with whom he came in contact, Jew and gentile alike.

STEMMING FROM a hassidic family, Yossele (Josef) Rosenblatt was born in 1882 in the Ukrainian shtetl Belaya Tserkov. According to a biography written by his eldest, son Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt, Yossele was the first boy after nine girls.

His exceptional vocal talent was evident from a very young age and his father, who was a part-time cantor, took him on tour to help supplement the family income. His father would lead the services, but it was the solos of the child prodigy Yossele that the crowds came to hear.

When he turned 18, Rosenblatt was offered the position of cantor in Munkacs, Hungary. But in order to accept the post, it was stipulated that he had to be married. He was considered a catch, and a number of enviable matches were suggested. He rejected them all until he was reintroduced, at his own prompting, to a young lady named Taubele Kaufman, whose beautiful eyes had once met his when he and his father were guests in her parents’ home during the years they were touring. 

Munkacs, however, proved to be a disappointment, as Rosenblatt found the community very provincial and even stifling, offering him little opportunity to develop his talents. Within a year he had moved to Pressburg (now Bratislava), having been chosen over 50 other candidates. 

The five years he spent in Pressburg were very rewarding and productive. He was free to study music and voice production in nearby Vienna, where he could attend concerts. He also became acquainted with opera. He began to publish his own recitatives and choral pieces, and in 1905 he made his first recordings.

But in spite of his fairly respectable salary, he and his wife found it difficult to make ends meet, as Rosenblatt had taken his parents, brother and sisters into his home, and their own family was growing. In addition, there were always guests at his table, and he could never refuse a relative’s request for financial assistance. He found a better paid position in Hamburg, Germany, where he again won instant acclaim, and where he stayed for five years.

Rosenblatt’s invitation to move to America was triggered by the widespread distribution of his records and the glowing reports from American delegates about his singing at the 1909 World Zionist Congress, which was held in Hamburg.

In 1912, after an all-expense-paid trip to New York, he was appointed cantor of Congregation Ohab Zedek, one of New York’s premier synagogues, located in what was then the fashionable Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. He immediately brought his family to his new home.

ROSENBLATT WAS adored by his new congregation, who packed the synagogue every time he led the service. With his name on the lips of every shul-goer, he was soon being lured by extravagant pay offers, even just to lead services for the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In order to retain him, his synagogue was eventually forced to raise his pay to the then-record sum of $10,000 per year and to grant him as much time off as he needed to appear in concerts and as guest cantor in other cities. 

As his reputation continued to spread, Rosenblatt became the cantor of choice for all of New York’s Jewish philanthropic and commemorative events. With the involvement of the US in World War I, the Jewish community became increasingly aware of the plight of millions of their fellow Jews in Europe who were suffering from hunger, deprivation and increased antisemitism.

In order to raise the huge sums needed to help them, the American Jewish Relief Committee planned a national campaign with a kick-off event at the New York Hippodrome, which had seating for over 5,000 people. The hall was quickly sold out when it was announced that Yossele Rosenblatt would sing as part of the program.

This event, which raised $240,000 (in excess of $5,000,000 in 2023 dollars), drew the attention of the secular press to Rosenblatt’s talents. “The cantor is a singer of natural powers and moving eloquence,” reported The New York Times, “the possessor of a phenomenal tenor voice.”

The successful program at the Hippodrome was the opener for similar fundraisers in some 30 other cities across the US, and Rosenblatt set out on tour. His appearance in Chicago was the next turning point in his career. Among the invited guests to that program was Cleofonte Campanini, the artistic director of the Chicago Opera.

Highly impressed with Rosenblatt’s voice and musical abilities, Campanini offered him a fee of $1,000 for each of his 17 performances if he agreed to play the role of Eleazar in Fromental Halevy’s La Juive, one of the grandest operas.

Campanini’s offer presented Rosenblatt with a huge dilemma. On the one hand, the financial rewards were very tempting, coupled with the stardom that he would enjoy as an operatic tenor. On the other, how could he reconcile the life of an opera singer – with its make-up and make-believe – with his religious beliefs and his position as a cantor in a leading Orthodox synagogue? 

Sensing his hesitation, Campanini tried to convince him that he would not have to compromise his Jewish observance in any way. He would not have to appear on Shabbat or the Jewish festivals and would not have to shave his beard. If appearing together with gentile women on stage would be a problem, Campanini would arrange for his co-star to be a Jewish soprano, such as Rosa Raisa.

Rosenblatt considered Campanini’s highly tempting proposal very seriously. However traditional he was in his observance and outlook, it seems clear that he had a showman’s inner drive both to entertain and to be applauded. But in the end, he could not go through with it.

He told one of the Jewish newspapers, “Though I felt flattered by the offer and for a moment I was inclined to yield, I could never have gotten myself to carry out such an impulse.” In a later interview with the trade journal Musical America, Rosenblatt said: “The cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me.” He claimed that “suddenly a voice whispered into my ear, ‘Yossele, don’t do it!’”

Eventually, he had the president of his congregation respond to Campanini: “The Rev. Rosenblatt’s sacred position in the synagogue does not permit him to enter the operatic stage.”

The story of how a mere synagogue cantor had rejected the possibility of a glittering career in the opera because of his religious principles was widely reported. “Rabbi Rejects $1,000 Fee to Sing in Opera,” read a headline in The Times, explaining that the “Rev. Mr. Rosenblatt feared it would interfere with his sacred duties.”

A few weeks later, Rosenblatt was invited to sing alongside Caruso in an appeal for the War Savings Stamps Campaign on the steps of The New York Public Library. Now in great demand because of his refusal to join the opera, he was able to explore many more options.

ALTHOUGH HE would not appear on the operatic stage, Rosenblatt saw no problem with giving concerts. In May of 1918, a recital was arranged for him at New York’s most prestigious venue, Carnegie Hall. His program included a number of operatic arias, which he had rapidly learned, noting down the foreign words phonetically in Hebrew characters, as well as cantorial pieces and Yiddish songs. 

The reviews in the New York papers, many of which recapped his refusal to sing with the Chicago Opera, were mostly ecstatic. “Jewish Tenor Triumphs in Concert,” trumpeted The New York American, adding “Cantor Rosenblatt Reveals Voice of Exceptional Beauty, Evoking Thunderous Applause in Music Far from His Accustomed Field.”

The opinion of the music critic from The Tribune was that if Rosenblatt had been trained in the opera “he would unquestionably have been one of the great tenors of the world.” The Morning Telegraph said that “his rendition of Verdi’s aria ‘Questa o Quella’ could scarcely have been excelled by any living tenor.” Some critics, however, were less enthusiastic about his ventures into operatic arias, but all were swept away by the vocal agility he displayed when singing his cantorial pieces.

While he still retained his position at Ohab Zedek, his career as a concert artist took off, with his bookings in cities throughout the country being handled by Sol Hurok, one of the foremost impresarios of the day. The appearances of “the tenor Cantor Rosenblatt” were regularly listed in the newspapers as part of the cultural scene.

Rosenblatt was now earning impressive concert fees, as well as substantial royalties from his records. But as his income grew, so did his philanthropy. The many Jewish organizations that asked for his help were not only treated to a benefit concert but often also received contributions out of his own pocket.

He donated the royalties from one of his bestselling records, Keili, Keili, to the Jewish war relief effort, which benefited as much as $10,000 in 1918. His home saw a constant procession of those in need, who knew that he would never turn them away empty-handed. And he extended his generosity to various members of his wider family whom, in addition to his own eight children, he helped support.

BUT HE was as gullible as he was generous, and in 1922 he made a well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous, investment in a risky Jewish newspaper venture. However much he earned, the business demanded more, and in January 1925, with the newspaper a relentless drain on his finances, Rosenblatt was forced to declare bankruptcy.

So great was the public goodwill toward him that few questioned his sincerity when he announced that he would employ “the only gift left to me, of which nobody can deprive me – my voice” to earn the money to pay back his creditors, even though he was not legally bound to do so.

To that end, he undertook an exhausting series of appearances in vaudeville, then the most popular form of entertainment in America at the time. In order to distinguish his performance from the other “acts,” with their gaudy scenery, props, and drum rolls, Rosenblatt, who was usually given top billing, insisted on appearing on a bare stage with all the auditorium lights on. He would sing a mix of sentimental songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, “The Last Rose of Summer” in English, “Volga Boatmen” in Russian, and “La Campana” in Italian. 

He was a sensation wherever he appeared. Singing to three audiences a day, he sometimes shared the spotlight with such entertainers as Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Molly Picon, Al Jolson, and even The Marx Brothers, who were awed by this highly unusual artist with a thick black beard and a large black kippah on his head.

A fellow performer in Cincinnati, then a child star who was later to become notorious as Gypsy Rose Lee, wrote in her autobiography that when he had finished singing, “without a nod or bow, he turned toward the wings and walked... toward the stage door and out into the street.” Meanwhile, members of the audience were applauding madly and shouting for more, such that the manager had to lower the screen and show a newsreel in order to quiet them.

But the challenges that Rosenblatt faced on the road were very different from those of other artists. Finding kosher homes in which to eat was always a major priority. He might, for example, be on a train on Purim, and if he was unable to reach a synagogue, he would read the megillah to himself from his own scroll.

Theater managers had to explain why the headliner would not be appearing in the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon shows. His itinerary also had to be drawn up in a way that enabled him to be at Ohab Zedek for all the Jewish holidays. In 1926, Rosenblatt resigned from the synagogue, accepting an offer of $15,000 to lead the services in a Chicago auditorium just for the High Holidays. 

IN 1927, Warner Brothers began work on the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Yossele Rosenblatt was the obvious choice to be cast as Jolson’s father, the elderly cantor. Despite being offered $100,000 for the part, he refused. Contrary to popular belief, he would not even agree to dub the voice of Warner Oland, the actor who did play the role, when he sang “Kol Nidrei.”

However, Rosenblatt’s fame was so great at this time that the producers were determined to have him take some part in the movie and prevailed on him until he agreed to appear as himself in a concert setting singing a Yiddish song. Despite his tiny role, “Cantor Rosenblatt” received star billing. 

With vaudeville in decline, Rosenblatt became the cantor of Congregation Anshei Sfard in Borough Park, Brooklyn. But after the stock market crash of 1929, Anshei Sfard was unable to continue to pay him. He eventually returned to Ohab Zedek (now in its new home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side), the only congregation that could still afford him. Yet this, too, did not last, and his financial situation became acute. 

THEN IN 1933, he was offered a movie role that he could accept. The idea for the proposed production, The Dream of My People, was for Rosenblatt to sing his own compositions at the actual biblical sites in the Holy Land which were mentioned in the prayers themselves. 

While working on the movie, he also gave concerts and led the prayers in the major shuls and yeshivot in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere. Among those who attended one of his concerts was the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik. Hearing Rosenblatt sing the melody for “Shir Hama’alot,” which he had made famous, Bialik proposed that it become the national anthem of the Jewish people.

In order to raise funds for his wife and him to be able to settle in Eretz Israel, Rosenblatt decided to undertake a European concert tour. On Shabbat, June 17, 1933, he led a “farewell” service at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem.

The next day, he filmed several scenes for the movie, including one standing in a small boat in the Jordan River in stifling heat. When the filming then moved to the Dead Sea, he suffered a heart attack. He was taken back to Jerusalem, where he soon passed away.

More than 5,000 people joined his funeral procession through the streets of Jerusalem to Har Hazetim, and scenes from the funeral were eventually included in the movie that he did not live to complete. Rav Kook, the chief rabbi, gave the hesped (eulogy), and two of Rosenblatt’s most famous cantorial colleagues, Mordechai Hershman and Zevulun Kwartin, led the prayers.

A few days later in New York, some 2,500 stunned and mournful devotees attended a memorial service in Carnegie Hall. Two hundred of Rosenblatt’s fellow cantors assembled on the stage to sing his music and the Kel Malei Rachamim

In an obituary, The New York Times noted, “He was so well known in this country that letters from Europe addressed to ‘Yossele Rosenblatt, America,’ reached him promptly.” No other cantor has ever attained such popularity and fame among both Jewish and gentile audiences, while remaining completely observant and retaining his position in the synagogue.

Ninety years after his passing, the name Yossele Rosenblatt still evokes the world’s most celebrated and admired cantor, whose magnificent voice, sublime compositions, evident piety and shining integrity continue to entertain, to inspire and to uplift. 