🕯 Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) – 25th of Sivan

June 13, 2023

Mazal Tov to a relative, a friend, and a relatively friendly authentic Jewish music enthusiast, Dovi S., upon the birth of a son!
!תזכו להכניסו לברית בעתו ובזמנו ולגדלו לתורה לחופה ולמעשים טובים

By a show of hands, how many of you are fans of chazzanus? (……Insert crickets here……) That’s what I thought. However, in spite of this, it behooves us to step outside of our normal comfort zones, and very briefly – emphasis on neither very nor briefly – cover the life and career of The King of Cantors – The Golden Voice of Jewish Music, Yossele Rosenblatt. I think you’ll find it’s worth the read.

Standing at not much more than five feet tall, Rosenblatt was still an impressive figure with his heavy, dark beard and fastidious appearance. Until the early post-World War I years, Rosenblatt pretty much dominated the world of chazzanus in America. Reviewers sometimes described him as a man with two, even three voices: a warm baritone, a ringing tenor, and a shimmering falsetto. What’s more, he could navigate between them with ease.

Rosenblatt, almost completely self-trained, had perfect pitch and could read the most difficult musical score at sight. He had a pure voice of extraordinary sweetness and carrying ability. The placement of his voice was fantastic. It was facetiously said that he could hit a fly in the gallery with a high B Flat. The voice itself was not large in size or in volume, but so well was it placed that it carried to the furthest part of any auditorium with utmost ease, whether in a heavenly pianissimo or in a ringing forte.

His range was phenomenal. To get a little more technical for your vocalists out there, he sang into bass clef with no effort whatsoever and was able – in falsetto – to reach a sustained E above high C, a male range extending some three octaves, about a third more than is customary for an average good operatic tenor.

The singer’s vocal control was something that had to be heard to be believed. His ability to sing runs, trills, sustain a legato, handle coloratura passages and to color his voice all came from a technique no longer taught and which has not been known for well over three-quarters of a century. Altogether, the sweet timbre of his voice, the superb control he displayed, the incredible range and his trademark “Rosenblatt sob,” inspired his congregants and thrilled his concert audiences.

When Rosenblatt sang, the shul was jam-packed. Every seat, every aisle was filled, everyone there to hear the little man with the full dark beard. He soon developed an enormous reputation among Jews and non-Jews alike. Widely considered the most popular cantor of his time, Rosenblatt composed and arranged hundreds of works – many of which were so difficult that only he could sing them – and had a major influence on the cantorial world that followed him. In fact, much of what he sang, and later recorded, were his own compositions, significantly influenced in its tunefulness by his chassidic background.

With his sweet songs, he captivated the Jewish heart throughout the world. He did not embellish his music. Without ceremony and without subtlety he sang in simplicity and perfection. Rosenblatt had the ability to squeeze the pathos or elation out of every tefillah. One need only listen to the quiet chants of “Yahrtzeit Licht,” “Kol Nidre,” “Rosh Chodesh Benshen,” “Omar Rabbi Elazar,” “Nishmas,” “Aheim,” etc., etc. to get a feeling of what Yossele Rosenblatt was to chazzanus, and to Jewish music as a whole.

Reb Yossele was born on May 9, 1882 in the Ukrainian shtetl Belaya Tserkov in a house with a dirt floor – the first boy in the family after nine girls. His father, Rafael Shalom, a Ruzhiner chossid who frequented the court of the Sadigura Rebbe, was himself a chazzan. Recognizing his young son’s extraordinary talent, he began to tour with him to help supplement the family income. The father would daven as the chazzan, but it was the child prodigy, little Yossele, whom the crowds came to hear.

But his father refused to allow the young boy to attend the conservatory of Music, despite the constant urging of friends and professors of music that had occasion to hear the child officiate at concerts and religious services. The elder Rosenblatt would not agree to send his son to a purely secular education. He did, however, train him to read and notate music.

In 1900, when he was eighteen and just married, Rosenblatt accepted his first full-time position in Munkatch (Munkacs), Hungary. But when the position of Oberkantor (chief chazzan) at the Orthodoxe Israelitische Kultusgemeinde in the city of Pressburg (Bratislava), Hungary, became available, Rosenblatt – still only eighteen years old – was chosen for the job over fifty-six other candidates.

It was in Pressburg that Cantor Rosenblatt began to compose the first volume of his compositions, called Shirei Yosef. In 1905 he received an attractive offer from the Edison Company of Vienna to record a series of phonograph records. Among his first recordings were his famous Mekimi Meofer Dol, Mi Sheberach, Tikanto Shabbos, T’ka Beshofar and V’shomru.

A year later, he accepted the position of chazzan at the Kohlhöfen Synagogue of Hamburg, Germany, a move that would prove to better support his now growing family. There, he first became acquainted with opera music and heard Enrico Caruso. He was immediately fascinated by Caruso’s methods of tone production and began to study his techniques. Caruso, who had heard about Yossele Rosenblatt, came to hear him sing at the Hamburg shul. Years later, the two singers became very close friends.

In 1912, he came to America by invitation of the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek (est. in 1873), to officiate for four Shabbosim, after their previous chazzan (the dazzling Yeshaye Meisels) had just recently resigned. After only two weeks, he was unanimously elected chazzan, and paid the highest salary ever received by a Jewish liturgical singer in America. That July, his wife Taubele, their seven young children, and her brother Shmuel came to New York enroute from Hamburg.

The great talent of Yossele Rosenblatt was quickly recognized by all in his newfound surroundings. His first public concert on the Lower East Side was an immediate success, and word of the newly arrived chazzan with the golden voice spread far and wide. Through his concert programs and later appearances on the vaudeville stage, the cantor did an enormous amount to familiarize Americans with Jewish customs and life. People who came to scoff at the black-bearded five-footer stayed to cheer and shout after he finished his “foreign” songs.

In order to fight off offers from other congregations, Ohab Zedek paid Rosenblatt a record salary of $10,000 a year (approximately $320,000 in today’s dollar); Rosenblatt was also earning huge concert fees and royalties from his records. But as his income grew, so did his philanthropy and his generosity to various members of his family whom, in addition to his own eight children, he helped support. He was a tremendous baal tzedakah, and the many Jewish organizations that asked for his help were not only treated to a benefit concert, but often also received a donation out of his own pocket. His home saw a constant procession of those in need, who knew that he would never turn them away empty-handed.

In 1923, he and Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt’l (among others) founded Dos Yiddishe Licht, a short-lived English and Yiddish language weekly that included articles of comment and inspiration. The goal of the venture was to spread Torah values and challenge the dominant secular Yiddish press, which often espoused views antithetical to Jewish tradition. To finance the project, the renowned chazzan put up $25,000 of his own money, and Rav Shraga Feivel added $10,000, which he borrowed from friends.

While Rosenblatt took no official role in newspaper operations, as a general partner, he carried liability when the paper subsequently fell into debt. However much he earned, the publisher demanded more. The Great Depression struck, money was impossible to come by in sufficient quantity, his synagogue could no longer afford him, and in January 1925, the highest-paid chazzan in the world was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Although legally freed of most of his debts, he vowed to repay them anyway. Under no obligation to do so, he sacrificed himself and his family by turning over every cent of his earnings not actually needed to live upon, in order to pay off the debts of the paper. He made deals. He borrowed from here, to pay there. The bills grew and grew – he couldn’t pay his rent; his creditors hounded him.

Driven by these dues, he began an exhausting series of world tours and appearances in vaudeville, then the most popular form of entertainment in America. 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. In 1926, Rosenblatt resigned from the shul, accepting an astonishing $25,000 to daven in Chicago’s Wigwam auditorium for the Yomim Nora’im and would subsequently travel to Detroit for Succos.

With vaudeville starting its decline, and tiring of not having his own shul in which to daven, Rosenblatt – having slowly climbed back to solvency – became chazzan of Congregation Anshe Sfard in Borough Park, in 1927. But after the stock market crash of 1929, Anshe Sfard was no longer able to pay him. He eventually returned to Ohab Zedek (now in its new home on West 95th Street), the only congregation that could still afford him. Yet this, too, did not last, and his financial situation became critical once again.

Then in 1933, he accepted a role from Kol Ohr, an American film company, to sing in a film that would be shot in Israel. Not only would this give him some much-needed income, but it would, at least temporarily, give him some breathing room between him and the debt collectors. The idea of the proposed production, “The Dream of My People,” was for Rosenblatt to sing his own compositions in Israel at the Biblical sites relevant to the words of those prayers. The movie was designed to show the Jews of America the Holy Land, with its sacred sites, newly built cities and settlements; the producers felt they had a sure success on their hands.

For Rosenblatt, the idea of visiting Eretz Yisroel was the realization of a lifelong dream of his own. Besides working on the film, Rosenblatt gave concerts and davened in the major shuls and yeshivos in Yerushalayim, Tel Aviv and elsewhere, enchanting all who heard him. He spent Shabbos afternoons in the home of HaRav Avraham Yitzchok HaKohen Kook zt’l, the Chief Rabbi of what was then Palestine, who was deeply moved by his singing.

Here would be as good a place as any to mention the incredible anecdote that HaRav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt’l would tell when he was asked how he became who he was. Besides being an excellent student, a young Rav Elyashiv was a naturally gifted vocalist and had a good taste for music. So, when he had heard that the famous Chazzan Rosenblatt had arrived in Yerushalayim and was going to be performing nearby, he was naturally very interested in the opportunity to go hear the world’s best-known Cantor, and planned to attend the performance accordingly.

At some point along the way, however, it occurred to him that as enjoyable as the concert might be, his time would better be spent learning the heilige Torah. With that, he turned around midway, and went back to his gemara. Rav Elyashiv felt that after this incident, he experienced far greater success in his Torah learning than he had previously, and he attributed much of what he became to that small, simple decision.

Conversely, among those who attended one of his concerts was the renowned (and sadly, slightly misguided) Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934). Hearing Rosenblatt sing his famous Shir Hama’alos, Bialik immediately proposed that it become the national anthem of the Jewish people. The melody was composed by noted Russian chazzan and composer Pinchas (Pini) Minkowski (1859-1924), but became most closely associated with Rosenblatt following Yossele’s landmark rendition.

A song of gratitude to Hashem for being freed from captivity and for fulfilling a dream of returning to a rebuilt Yerushalayim, Dovid HaMelech’s 126th kapittal is set to a transcendent tune that somehow represents a time long ago and the longing for a time that has yet to arrive.

{It is interesting that, before Hatikvah was chosen for the purpose, Shir Hama’alos was a serious contender as Israel’s national anthem. In the end, however, Hatikvah was chosen primarily because the early non-religious pioneers liked it more. (Although officially adopted by the members at the 18th Zionist Congress in Prague in 1933, “Hatikvah” only officially became Israel’s national anthem in November of 2004.)}

It was on this trip that Yossele and his wife decided to move to Israel. Then and there, Rosenblatt committed himself to undertake a European concert tour to raise funds that would enable him to settle in Eretz Yisroel for good. On Shabbos, June 17, 1933, he davened at a “farewell” service that was held at the Churvah Shul in The Old City.

The very next day, he drove to Kever Rochel where he sang the pesukim of Yirmiyahu HaNavi, Kol b’rama nishma, with full intent. He then drove to the Yam Hamelach to sing some more. When finished shooting there, he headed to the Yarden River where he was filmed singing B’tzeis Yisroel Mi’Mitzrayim while standing in a rowboat. At this point, Yossele began looking noticeably uncomfortable and was starting to feel very ill. By the time he returned home, he was in horrible pain. A doctor who examined him told his family members that he had a heart attack and told him to rest. That afternoon, after davening Mincha, Rosenblatt returned to his bed and returned his soul to his Creator.

More than 5,000 people attended his funeral in Yerushalayim, and scenes from the funeral were eventually included in the movie that he did not live to complete. Rav Kook gave the hesped, and two of his most famous colleagues (who happened to be in Palestine at the time), Mordechai Hershman and Zevulun “Zavel” Kwartin, sang.

No other chazzan has ever attained such nationwide popularity and fame among both Jewish and Gentile audiences as Yossele Rosenblatt, while remaining completely observant and retaining his position at the amud. Despite having turned down offers to appear in the opera, he rose to become a star of the entertainment world of the 1920s, all the while wearing his large black yarmulke and frock coat. He endeared himself to all who heard him, whether in person or in his recordings. His enormous popularity was evident even decades after his death.

Ninety years after his passing, Yossele Rosenblatt’s impact on chazzanus, in particular, and Jewish music, in general, continues to be felt. Many of his pieces have become staples in the repertoires of Ashkenazic chazzanim and are still regularly sung in shuls and concerts.

His recordings have been repeatedly reissued, but his was a time when music was recorded on heavy shellac or celluloid 78 r.p.m. records. Essentially, all of Rosenblatt’s recordings were done in the early 1900s while the recording industry was in its infant stages. Some of them were even done personally by Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph and the gramophone!

In light of the underdeveloped technical abilities in those days, Rosenblatt’s recordings suffered from a low sound quality and from noises which harm the quality of music and musical experience. So, besides for the quality of those recordings never being that faithful in the first place, they would only become decidedly worse as they wore away over the years. As such, until recently, the only way you could hear Rosenblatt’s extraordinary voice was on scratchy old recordings.

Along came R’ Mendy Werdyger (son of the late Chazzan David Werdyger and brother of famed singer Mordechai), owner of Mostly Music and the Aderet Records record label, who, in 2006, started to dabble in audio restoration. He began by cleaning up old recordings of his father’s music, but it didn’t take long for him to turn to a new challenge – the work of Yossele Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt became his Everest.

Werdyger listened to CD reissues of Rosenblatt, but “they were duplicates of the 78s and the sound was not what I wanted – with every generation it deteriorates greatly,” he said.

So, he searched out collectors willing to lend him their 78s, people like radio host Charlie Bernhaut, and institutions like Florida Atlantic University, which has one of the largest libraries of Jewish music. He found mentors like Alan Silverman, an engineer who advised him on making transfers from 78s, and Adam Constantino, who taught him to put recordings into a 24-bit digital format.

Werdyger transformed Yossele’s voice into electronic bits – sometimes taking the same recording off as many as seven 78s to get the clearest passages, then splicing them together. Working with a half-dozen restoration programs, he broke each song into frequencies that appeared as waves on a computer screen. Such programs make the crackles and hisses implanted by the original recording equipment or by the ravages of old phonographs visible as anomalous patterns. With a few clicks of the mouse, Werdyger could strip those away from those creaky old 78s, and the restoration program filled in the voids, much as a Photoshop program patches in the missing color.

“It sounds better than when it was recorded in the room,” Mendy Werdyger said. “I don’t think Rosenblatt would have recognized how well we preserved and enhanced the original recording.”

In a series of releases called Od Yosef Chai, Werdyger painstakingly labored through thousands of recordings in order to recreate the original richness and quality of the rare and aging recordings. It is from this collection (Od Yosef Chai Vol. 1, 2008) that I have chosen the restored, remastered and musically-rejuvenated version of this famous Shir Hama’alos, along with the 1929 original, full-length recording posted below it for contrast.

Using computer programming and a lot of good ol’ fashioned elbow grease, this historic rendition has been polished back to greatness, revealing to a whole new generation of listeners just how unique and special Chazzan Rosenblatt really was.

In shul, he gave voice to the deepest feelings and yearnings of those who entrusted him as their shliach tzibbur. On the concert stage and in the theater, he would bring down the house night after night, impressing his audiences as much with his Yiddishkeit as with his artistry. In both settings, Yossele Rosenblatt created a kiddush Hashem every time he sang.

ר’ יוסף בר’ רפאל שלום

His neshoma should have a heavenly Aliyah.

Original Victrola “Shir Hamalois” 1929

Yossele Rosenblatt age 14
Yossele Rosenblatt, cantor in Hamburg, age 25
“The King of Cantors” circa 1918
Matzeiva of Yossele Rosenblatt on Har Hazeisim
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