Yossele Rosenblatt's Later Career

The talented cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) becomes an international star.

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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 toward 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.

Jewish Challenges

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 [evening prayers] or shaharit [morning prayers], in which case he would read Megillat Esther [the scroll read on Purim] 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.

Hollywood Calls

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 hazzan. 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 hazzan.

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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.