The Tragedy of Yossele Rosenblatt (23 cents)

Of all the well known cantors of the early 20th century (and for those who knew cantors, there were many), Yossele Rosenblatt was probably the best known.  He was known for the strength of his voice and its richness, for his ability to evoke a tear or a speck of joy in his listeners, and (most amazingly) for his four octave span, which enabled him to sing like an operatic basso and like a soprano (using falsetto), and for some of the melodies he composed for sacred verse.  You can enjoy him, as well.  Just Google him, or look for him on Youtube.

In 1954, his son Samuel Rosenblatt, rabbi at Baltimore’s orthodox Beth Tfiloh for 45 years, wrote a biography of his father which is, to my knowledge, still definitive.

My own connection with Yossele Rosenblatt is a bit weak, I will admit.    It runs through my father’s first cousin, Al Jolson.  When Warner Brothers decided to make a movie of the Broadway hit “The Jazz Singer” (the first “talkie”, loosely based on Jolson’s life), they asked Rosenblatt if he would play Jolson’s father, Cantor Moishe Reuben Yoelson (my great-uncle).  He turned them down because he didn’t think he could sing religious music in a non-religious setting, but agreed to sing one non-religious song (Youtube, again), which he did.  In the film, the song reconnected the character Jolson was playing with his Jewish heritage.

It was not surprising that Rosenblatt was asked to be a part of the film.  He was so well known, and so well respected, that they were sure that his name would add to the popularity of the film, which I am sure it did.  In fact, earlier, Rosenblatt had been asked to sing for the Chicago Opera Association for a very tidy sum (and was assured he would not have to perform on Friday nights or Saturdays, or on Jewish holidays).  Rosenblatt had turned this down as well, this time because of the costumes, and the fact that he would have to appear in scenes with people of the opposite sex.  All understandable.

Samuel Rosenblatt clearly had a great amount of love and respect for his father, and his book shows how he venerated him.  Whether or not this led him to omit or gloss over certain unpleasant aspects of incidents of his life, I don’t know, but there was enough said to paint his father, with all of his talent and with all the respect of others he had gathered, to be a highly tragic figure.

Yossele Rosenblatt was born in the Ukraine in 1882.  His father was also a cantor, and a follower of the Ruszyner rebbe, a Chassidic sect. Rosenblatt’s voice was a marvel even as a young child, and he followed his father from town to town, singing as much of a service as a young boy was permitted to sing.  When he was 13 and a Bar Mitzvah, he was able to lead the entire service, and from then on was, wherever he was, in great demand as a cantor.

He married at 18 (an arranged marriage, which was typical, although he had met his wife several years before and was sure that she was the girl for him), and had several positions in Europe, first with a very strict Hassidic group in Munkacs (Hungary), and then in Presburg (Bratislava, now in Slovakia), and finally at an urban, more modern orthodox synagogue in Hamburg.  The pattern in each place appears to have been the same — great excitement on all sides at the beginning, but with Rosenblatt quickly chafing at some of the restrictions of his job and also (in large part because of his growing family and his need or desire to take care of his sisters and their children) and with him making financial demands that his congregation couldn’t meet. I am sure that each such situation caused its own degree of torment.

In 1909 (he was only 27), Rosenblatt and his family immigrated to the United States, which he (as opposed to his wife) loved at first sight, and he was engaged by Oheb Shalom, a Hungarian synagogue in Harlem, then the home of the largest and wealthiest New York Jews.  He remained with this synagogue, with a few breaks and continual financial wrangling (“I need more money for my family, and I need more time off for my other commitments.”) for several decades.

But the synagogue was not enough – certainly not enough financially as his family now included eight children, and he began to tour throughout America – a concert here, a service there, a charitable benefit everywhere.  And of course returning from touring to his own synagogue where he was expected to lead services whenever he was in New York.

His concertizing was not without its detractors.  Why should a respected cantor be doing this?  How does Yossele Rosenblatt, good as he is in liturgical music, think he can sing opera or light opera on the concert stage, something for which he had no experience or training.  But the crowds came, and it was financially and I am sure psychologically rewarding, if exhausting.

Then, out of the blue, Rosenblatt did something very dumb.  He met two men who wanted to start a new Jewish newspaper in New York, they asked him to be a part of the enterprise.  It excited him.  He thought it would lead to a lot of money and at last financial freedom, so he signed on.  But by signing on, he signed on as what appears to be a guarantor of the financial success of the venture.  It was not financially successful, Rosenblatt used up his savings as well as a lot of his current income, but the creditors kept gaining on him.

More concertizing.  But now he was no longer the “new kid” in town.  The audiences began to diminish.  He expanded his touring – now playing movie theaters, singing three or four songs before the film started (this was common in the 1920s).  More criticism came his way.

The the Depression struck, money was impossible to come by in sufficient quantity (his synagogue could no longer afford him), and Yossele Rosenblatt had to file for bankruptcy.  Although legally freed of most of his debts, he vowed to repay them anyway.  He made deals.  He made promises he couldn’t keep. He borrowed from here, to pay there.  The bills grew and grew – he couldn’t pay his rent, his creditors hounded him.

He was then offered a chance to participate in the making of a film in Palestine.  Although payment would depend again on financial success of the film, he decided to take another chance.  For one thing, it would get him away from his creditors, and for another it would allow him to see Palestine.  He had never been.

With his wife and two youngest children (some of his older children were adults, and they took in their other younger siblings to permit their parents to travel), he went to Israel, which (not surprisingly) he fell in love with.  He decided he would stay, although he apparently was not sure he could support himself in this small colony.  He planned a major concert tour of Europe – that would give him a start.

In the meantime, the film making (it was a documentary about the new country – and his voice was to accompany the footage) continued.  One day, the film traveled from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. At the Dead Sea, Rosenblatt said that he was not feeling well.  He was driven back to Jerusalem.  He had suffered a heart attack and he died.  It was 1933. He was only 51.

I found his story unspeakably tragic.  A man with such talent, and (if his son’s picture of him is accurate) such high moral and ethical standards, keeping his strict religious practices under such a variety of circumstances.  Reaching the pinnacle of success, but making some terrible choices, and destroying his life and that of his wife and, most likely, his family’s.  And probably having it prey on him continually, the pressure building up, until his body could stand it no more.

Now there are a lot of things not covered in Samuel Rosenblatt’s book.  What happened to his wife (the author’s mother)?  How did all of the other children turn out?  It would be interesting to know.

Perhaps one day, a subsequent biography will be written (or perhaps it has or is underway).  I would like to read it.


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