Guest Post from David H.:
The name “Yossele Rosenblatt” is synonymous with the Golden Age of Jewish cantorial music. For America’s Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries hazzanut was a connection to the Old Country and to their former lives and the traditions of their shtetels and their own parents and grandparents. Regardless of philosophical bents or religious affiliations almost all Jewish institutions, from Hassidic courts to Reform congregations, included hazzanut in their celebrations and liturgies because they knew that their congregants craved the customary chanting and singing of their childhoods.
One of the best-known, most widely-recognized cantors of this era was Yossele Rosenblatt. “Yossele,” as he was known to his audiences and admirers, was recognized the greatest hazzan of his era. He was a highly-sought-after performer whose expressions of his love of Jewish liturgy, and his ability to express that devotion, inspired his listeners from every stream of Jewish identity.
Yossele was born in 1882 in a small shetel in the Ukraine. The Rosenblatt family included many generations of hazzanim and from an early age Yossele’s talent was evident. Rosenblatt’s father refused to send Yossele to any of the great academies of the day because he was afraid that the wrong influence could weaken Yossele’s devout religious commitment. Yossele began his career as a member of the local synagogue choir and by age 18 he was recognized as a prodigy and was given the position as the premier hazzan of Munckz, Hungary. After Munckz Yossele moved to Pressburg Austria and in 1912 he immigrated to America where he had been offered a position as the hazzan at the Ohab Zedek synagogue.
In America Rosenblatt’s skills continued to grow. He had an incredible sense of melody which combined with a strong tenor that infused the ancient prayers with new spiritual heights. His audiences generally were comprised of new immigrants who were struggling in the New World. They cherished Yossele’s hazzanut that brought back the sounds and atmosphere of their childhoods.
Yossele developed a structured, meter styled which continues to influence cantors of all streams of Judaism till today. He was able to transmit the familiar Askanazi music of his audience’s youth to the synagogue stage where his soothing emotive expressions and a dramatic style satisfied the listeners’ nostalgia for the traditions of their homelands.
Yossele was best known for his ability to hit high notes at a high speed as well as for cantillations which caused his voice to break in the middle of an arrangement. In combination with his talent for transitioning his voice into a falsetto at the drop of a pin and “kretches” — sobs — he could convey passions and emotions in a way that other hazzans — indeed, all other singers — could only dream about. Rosenblatt was recognized for bringing the ancient tradition of hazzanut to new heights.
Rosenblatt was famous for his High Holy Days hazzanut which included compelling sections of operatic-like recitatives, snippets of folk melodies and large sections of improvised chanting. He aimed to create musical dramas that would allow the congregation to feel the prayers as true supplications and experience the spirituality of the Days of Awe in new and meaningful ways.
On many occasions Rosenblatt expressed the opinion that his voice was a gift from God. His commitment to use his voice only in God’s service was tested when the general director of the Chicago Opera, Cleofonte Campanini, offered Yossele $1,000 per performance to sing the role of Eleazar in Halevy’s La Juive opera. Campanili promised Rosenblatt that his religious sensibilities would be honored during the performances — there would be no Shabbat performances and the stage crew would adhere to all necessary religious strictures, including issues of modesty. Rosenblatt considered the proposal but in the end, he decided to refuse the offer. Later however he did feature in Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, a 1929 film about the son of a cantor who turns to secular music.
Over one hundred and eighty pieces of Rosenblatt’s work have been preserved, including some pieces by the Lowell Milken Music Archive, a recent project to preserve American Jewish Music. Among the best-known are V’af Hu Hoyo Miskaven, Hasheim Malakh, Mi Shebeirakh and, Tal. U’vnucho Yomar. Rosenblatt’s rendition of Tehillim — Psalms — 126 was so popular that when the State of Israel was born its leaders considered U’vnucho Yomar as a possible national anthem, though in the end HaTikva was chosen.