Yossele Rosenblatt

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

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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.

To America

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 hazzan 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 hazzan 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.

Growing Fame

Yossele Rosenblatt

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 30 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 Juive.

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 [Jewish festivals]; 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.

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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.