Yossele Rosenblatt

The cantor whose religious observance led him to reject some offers of fame and fortune.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union. This is the first of a two-part article.

In an obituary for Cantor Josef Rosenblatt, whose 70th yahrtzeit [the anniversary of the date of his death] 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 hazzan [cantor] 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 [podium of the synagogue]. 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 [High Holidays] or on Pesach.

music notes

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 his death.

Early Talents

Yossele was born in 1882 in the Ukrainian shtetl [small village] Belaya Tserkov--the first boy in the family after nine girls.His father, a Ruzhiner Hasid who frequented the court of the Sadagora Rebbe, was himself a hazzan. 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 [pray] as the hazzan, but it was the child prodigy, Yossele, whom the crowds came to hear.

When he was 18 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 18 years old, was chosen over 56 other candidates.

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 Hasidic background.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

David Olivestone, director of communications and marketing at the Orthodox Union, contributed several biographies of famous hazzanim to the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He can be reached at davido@ou.org.

Print this page Print this page