Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt, Harlem, 1912 -1933

rosenblattJosef (Yossele) Rosenblatt (May 9, 1882 – June 19, 1933), was Ukrainian-born in Bila Tserkva chazzan (was the most famous cantor in the world) and composer in Harlem, New York.

He was so well-known that it is said that letters addressed to “Yossele Rosenblatt, America” reached him in Harlem (the same was said of Louis Armstrong). Rosenblatt’s voice was so magnificent that it attracted all sorts of tourists, including many non-believing Jews, to the West 116th Street Synagogue. He also became a star of the stage in the 1920s, singing not only Jewish music but folk songs and lieder from a variety of traditions at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to vaudeville houses across the country, always in his black skullcap, though he turned down an offer to appear at the Chicago Opera, even though management promised him he wouldn’t have to appear on the sabbath, shave his beard, or perform with gentile co-stars. Rosenblatt left Ohab Zedek in 1926 and the next year he turned down an offer of $100,000 to play the role of Al Jolson’s father in The Jazz Singer because it would have required him to sing holy prayers in a non-holy setting, and he worked at a Brooklyn Congregation before returning to his old synagogue, Ohab Zedek, around 1930. He died in Israel in 1933 after he had a heart attack during the shooting of a film in which he sang works relevant to particular sites in the Holy Land.

The scion of a long line of cantors,Rosenblatt’s devoutly religious upbringing prevented him from receiving formal musical training at any of the great academies of his day. He began his career as a member of the local synagogue choir. Quickly lauded as a “wunderkind”, or child prodigy, Rosenblatt’s solo career was launched.At the age of 7, he moved with his family to Sadigora, Bukovina (Austria).

He accepted his first full-time position in Munkacs, Hungary at the age of eighteen. Shortly afterword he relocated to Bratislava. He later occupied a position in Hamburg, Germany. In 1912, he moved to Harlem to take a position at the Ohab Zedek orthodox congregation. In August 1927, he left his position at the Ohab Zedek congregation. During the following High Holy Days, he led the services in a hall in Chicago, and on Sukkot – in Detroit. During the succeeding months, he traveled throughout the United States, leading services in cities such as Minneapolis, Seattle, Indianapolis, Columbus, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In Washington, D.C., he met with then-President Calvin Coolidge. In 1928, he signed a 10-year contract with First Congregation Anshe Sfard, located in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

Rosenblatt’s fame extended beyond the Jewish world earning him large concert fees, a singing role in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, and the sobriquet “The Jewish Caruso”.

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He was known for his extraordinary technique, for the sweetness of his timbre, and for his unique ability to transition from normal voice to falsetto with hardly any noticeable break at all.

His technique in cantillation was unique. Notes were hit remarkably accurately at high speeds. Fiorituras, similarly, were struck near perfectly, both rhythmically and on pitch. His fame spread so far that Toscanini appealed to him to sing the leading role in Fromental Halévy’s La Juive, but Rosenblatt replied that he would only use his vocal gift for the glory of God, in service to his religion. Notably, he turned down a “Golden Hello” from the Chicago opera house because it violated his religious principles.

Rosenblatt corresponded with many of the great tenors of his day. It is told that upon hearing Rosenblatt sing “Elli Elli”, Enrico Caruso was so moved that he ascended the stage and kissed him.

Rosenblatt perhaps exerted the greatest influence on cantorial music’s “Golden Age”. He led the transition from the more freestyling cadenza-laden approach prevalent before his era, to a more structured, metered style. Rosenblatt pioneered the use of several cantorial techniques which have subsequently been adopted by cantors around the world. These include his trademark krekhts, or sob in which he would deliberately allow his voice to crack to convey the emotion of what he was singing. He also developed a realistic soprano falsetto as a method of easing the strain on his overworked voice. A prolific composer, more than one hundred and eighty pieces of his have been preserved.

Rosenblatt’s great-grandsons include Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center  and Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt of Congregation Schara Tzedeck in Vancouver.

Since the 78 RPM era, Rozenblatt’s recordings have been re-issued many times in LP and CD format. In recent years, a set of 3 CDs Od Yosef Chai containing restored versions of 78s of Rosenblatt’s performances has been issued by Mostly Music and Galpaz Music, a Brooklyn record store.

Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt died on June 19, 1933 in Jerusalem.

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