Yossele Rosenblatt's Later Career

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

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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 hazzan 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 [the Land of Israel] 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 [Torah study academies] 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.

The Voice is Silenced

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 51.

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 [eulogy], 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 hazzanim assembled on the stage to sing his music and the Kel Malei Rachamim [a prayer for the dead].

Seventy years after his passing, Yossele Rosenblatt's impact on hazzanut, in particular, and Jewish music, in general, continues to be felt. Many of his pieces have become staples in the repertoires of Ashkenazic hazzanim 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 hazzan is that he is "a second Yossele."

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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.