Yossele Rosenblatt (II)
1882 - 1933
The remarkable career of Cantor Rosenblatt
By David Olivestone
In an obituary for Cantor Josef Rosenblatt, whose
seventieth yahrtzeit was observed in 2003, 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 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.
There have been some who became world-famous, such as the celebrated
tenor Richard Tucker, who also began his career as a cantor. Tucker,
however, was not Orthodox, and once he became a star of the Metropolitan
Opera, he led congregations only on the Yamim Noraim or on Pesach.
Rosenblatt, on the other hand, despite having turned down offers to
appear in the opera, 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
Yossele was born in 1882 in the Ukrainian shtetl Belaya Tserkov---the
first boy in the family after nine girls.  His
father, a Ruzhiner chassid who frequented the court of the Sadagora
Rebbe, was himself a chazzan. Recognizing his young son's extraordinary
talent, Yossele's father began to tour with his son to help supplement
the family income. The father would daven as the chazzan, but it was the
child prodigy, Yossele, whom the crowds came to hear.
When he was eighteen and just married, Rosenblatt accepted his first
permanent position in Munkacs, Hungary. His creative genius as a
composer had already begun to bloom, and he soon found the atmosphere in
Munkacs too confining. When the position of Oberkantor (chief cantor) in
the more forward-looking city of Pressburg, Hungary, became available,
Rosenblatt, still only eighteen years old, was chosen over fifty-six
Standing not much more than five feet tall, Rosenblatt was still a
commanding figure with his heavy, dark beard and fastidious appearance.
He possessed a magnificent tenor voice of great beauty and extraordinary
range, with a remarkably agile falsetto. In addition, he had perfect
pitch and could read the most difficult musical score at sight. The
sweet timbre of his voice, the superb control he displayed---
particularly in coloratura passages--and his trademark "sob," inspired
his congregants and thrilled his concert audiences. And much of what he
sang, and later recorded, was his own composition, significantly
influenced in its tunefulness by his Chassidic background.
His five years in Pressburg saw the composition and publication of 150
recitatives and choral pieces, and in 1905 the first of numerous
phonograph recordings.  But although he was happy
there, the demands of a growing family and of supporting several
relatives whom he had taken into his home forced him to seek a better
paying position. This he found in Hamburg, Germany, where he again won
instant acclaim; he stayed there for another five years.
By this time, Rosenblatt's fame had begun to reach the
New World, both through his records and the accounts of
travelers, including delegates to the 1909 Zionist
Congress, which was held in Hamburg. In 1911, the board
of the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek, one of
New York's premier synagogues whose chazzan had just
resigned, invited him to daven for the congregation for
two Shabbatot, paying all his travel expenses and
guaranteeing him a substantial honorarium. Rosenblatt's
success at Ohab Zedek, which was then in Harlem and
later, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was immediate,
and he soon cabled his wife, telling her to bring the
family to America.
In New York his reputation quickly spread. Not only was
Ohab Zedek packed to overflowing every time he davened
(sometimes the police had be called in to control the
crowds attempting to enter the synagogue), but
Rosenblatt became the chazzan of choice for all of the
city's Jewish philanthropic and memorial events. In May
1917 a crowd of 6,000 filled the Hippodrome Theater to
raise funds for Jews suffering in Europe because of the
war. Although there were many prominent speakers, it
was Rosenblatt who was the draw, and an incredible
$250,000 was raised.
It was this event that brought Rosenblatt to the
attention of The New York Times. "The cantor is a
singer of natural powers and moving eloquence," it
reported. In a postscript that is remarkable for its
insight into the Orthodox Judaism of that day, the
Times noted that despite the fact that Rosenblatt sang
"prayers and chants . . . the audience listened with
uncovered heads." 
The concert at the Hippodrome was the kick-off for a
tour of thirty cities on behalf of the war relief
campaign. Rosenblatt's appearance in Chicago marked the
next turning point in his career. An invited guest at
that event was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of
the Chicago Opera, who was so struck by Rosenblatt's
artistic ability that he visited him immediately after
the concert and offered him $1,000 per performance if
he would sing the role of Eleazar in Halevy's opera La
There is no doubt that Rosenblatt was tempted.
Campanini carefully outlined a contract with terms that
he believed would ensure that Rosenblatt would not have
to compromise his Yiddishkeit in any way. He could
retain his beard; he would not have to appear on
Shabbat or Yom Tov; kosher food would be obtained for
him; and if he was uncomfortable about appearing on
stage with Gentile women, as Campanini seemed to think,
it would be arranged that his co-stars would be Jewish
sopranos such as Alma Gluck or Rosa Raisa.
In the end, however, Rosenblatt could not bring himself
to agree. But not wishing to offend Campanini, he asked
the president of Ohab Zedek, Moritz Newman, to provide
the final answer. Newman wrote to Campanini that " . .
. the Rev. Rosenblatt's sacred position in the
synagogue does not permit him to enter the operatic
The offer---and its refusal--caused a storm, with
reporters from national newspapers, as well as the
Jewish dailies and weeklies, vying to understand how
Rosenblatt could turn down such an offer of fame and
fortune. In an 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!'" 
Now a celebrity, Rosenblatt was in demand everywhere.
Appearing just a few weeks later on the steps of The
New York Public Library for the War Savings Stamp
Campaign, he sang "The Star Spangled Banner," followed
by "Keili, Keili," at the conclusion of which Enrico
Caruso, the great star of the opera, stepped forward
and kissed him.
Although the opera would be denied his talents, neither
Rosenblatt nor his congregation saw any problem with
his giving Jewish or secular music concerts. He aspired
to be to the Jews "what John McCormack is to the
Irish," and was proud to be introduced as the "Jewish
tenor," rather than the Russian, German or Hungarian
tenor. He rapidly learned some operatic arias and a
repertoire of other ethnic songs, and in May 1918, gave
his first recital at Carnegie Hall.
The reviews in the New York papers,  all 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
Morning Telegraph said that his rendition of Verdi's 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
pieces of chazzanut and Yiddish songs.
From this point on, Rosenblatt was an integral part of
the New York cultural scene, and the appearances of
"Cantor Rosenblatt" were regularly listed in The New
York Times together with those of other celebrated
artists of the day. His bookings were handled by
well-known managers, including the foremost impresario
Sol Hurok, who promoted him in advertisements in the
Musical Courier alongside other worldfamous artists
such as Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and Austrian
pianist and composer Artur Schnabel.
In order to fight off offers from other congregations,
Ohab Zedek was now paying Rosenblatt the record salary
of $10,000 a year; 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. The many
Jewish organizations that asked for his help were not
only treated to a benefit concert but often also
received donations out of his own pocket. And his home
saw a constant procession of those in need, who knew
that he would never turn them away empty-handed.
But Rosenblatt was generous to a fault, and in 1922, he agreed to invest
in a dubious Yiddish newspaper venture. However much he earned, the
business demanded more, and in January 1925 Rosenblatt was forced to
declare bankruptcy.  So great was the public
goodwill towards 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.
With this in mind, he began an exhausting series of
appearances in vaudeville, then the most popular form
of entertainment in America. Typically, the program
would include the showing of a silent movie and a
newsreel as well as various performers such as singers,
acrobats, comedians and child and animal acts.
In order to distinguish his performance from the others
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
such as "Keili, Keili" 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 throughout the country.
Entertainers with whom he shared the bill were awed by
this highly unusual "act." A fellow performer in
Cincinnati reported that when the cantor was finished
singing, "without a nod or bow he turned towards 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. So great
was the uproar that the manager had to lower the screen
and show the newsreel in order to quiet them.
Of course, some of the challenges Rosenblatt faced on
tour were very different from those of other artists. Clearly,
finding kosher homes in which to eat was always a major
priority. But he might, for example, be on a train on Purim,
unable to reach a synagogue for Ma'ariv or Shacharit, in
which case he would read Megillat Esther for himself from
his own klaf (scroll). Theater managers found themselves
explaining why the headliner would not be appearing in the
Friday evening and Saturday shows, and his itinerary had to
be drawn up in a way that he could be at Ohab Zedek for
all the Jewish holidays. In 1926, Rosenblatt resigned from
the shul, accepting an offer of $15,000 to daven in a
Chicago auditorium just for the High Holidays.
In 1927, when Warner Brothers set about casting the first talking
picture, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, Rosenblatt was the obvious
choice to play Jolson's father, the elderly chazzan. Despite the
proffered remuneration of $100,000, he refused the role because it would
have entailed singing Kol Nidrei in a make-believe setting. Contrary to
popular belief, he would not even agree to dub the singing voice of
Warner Oland, the actor who did play the chazzan. 
Yet 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, singing a Yiddish song, "Yahrtzeit
Licht," in a concert setting.  Despite his tiny
role, "Cantor Rosenblatt" received star billing.
With vaudeville in decline, and tiring of not having
his own synagogue in which to daven, Rosenblatt became
the chazzan of Congregation Anshe Sfard in Borough
Park, Brooklyn, in 1927. But after the stock market
crash of 1929, Anshe Sfard was unable 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 acute.
Then in 1933, he was offered a movie role that he could
accept. The idea of the proposed production, "Dream of
My People," was for Rosenblatt to sing his own
compositions 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, visiting Eretz Yisrael was the
realization of a lifelong dream of his own.
Besides working on the movie, Rosenblatt gave concerts and davened in
the major shuls and yeshivot in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere,
enchanting all who heard him. He spent Shabbat afternoons in the home of
Rav Kook, the chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, who was deeply
moved by his singing.  Among those who attended
one of his concerts was the great Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik.
Hearing Rosenblatt sing his famous "Shir Hama'alot,"  Bialik proposed that it become the national anthem
of the Jewish people.
Rosenblatt decided to undertake a European concert tour
to raise funds that would enable him to settle in Eretz
Yisrael, as he and his wife had determined to do. On
Shabbat, June 17, 1933, he davened at a "farewell"
service held at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem. The
next day, after filming a scene at the Dead Sea,
Rosenblatt suffered a sudden heart attack. Within a
short while he died, at the tragically young age of
fifty-one. More than 5,000 people attended his funeral
on Har Hazetim, 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
Rosenblatt's most famous colleagues, Mordechai Hershman
and Zavel Kwartin, sang. 
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
chazzanim assembled on the stage to sing his music and
the Kel Malei Rachamim. 
Seventy years after his passing, Yossele Rosenblatt's
impact on chazzanut, 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 regularly sung in shul services and
concerts. His recordings have been repeatedly reissued,
most recently on CD. And still the greatest compliment
that can be paid to any aspiring chazzan is that he is
"a second Yossele."
But there has been no second Yossele who has captured
the hearts of the public quite the way he did. In shul,
he gave voice to the deepest feelings and yearnings of
those who entrusted him as their shaliach 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.
- The New York Times, 20 June 1933.
- Rabbi Dr. Samuel Rosenblatt, Yossele Rosenblatt (New
York, 1954). Much of the information related here is
taken from this book, which was written by Yossele's
eldest son. I am grateful to Yossele's youngest (and
only surviving) son, Ralph Rosenblatt, for providing me
with additional details, and to his great-grandson,
Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale, NY, who
directed me to other sources.
- For a discography see The Record Collector 20, nos.
6 and 7 (May, 1972).
- The New York Times, 7 May 1917.
- Musical America, 22 June 1918.
- 20 May 1918.
- The New York Times, 15 January 1925.
- According to Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence
(New York, 1990), 546, the voice was provided by tenor Joseph Diskay.
- Samuel Rosenblatt's biography is in error here, claiming that
his father refused to be filmed for the movie at all. Clearly, the
author had not actually seen the film when he wrote these words.
- Simcha Raz, An Angel Among Men (Jerusalem, 5763), 295-296.
- There is some confusion as to whether this melody
for "Shir Hama'alot," which is probably the one most
commonly sung in American homes, was composed by
Rosenblatt or by another famous chazzan, Pinchas
- The New York Times, 21 June 1933.
- The New York Times, 28 June 1933.
David Olivestone is director of communications and marketing at
the Orthodox Union. He contributed several biographies of famous
chazzanim to the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He is the editor and
translator of The NCSY Bencher. He can be reached by e-mail via
davido at ou dot org.
This article is reproduced with permission from "Jewish Action," the
magazine of the Orthodox Union. © Copyright by the Orthodox
Union, September 2003. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Josef Rosenblatt, Yossele, biography.