Author Archives: David Olivestone

About David Olivestone

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.

Cantorial Music

The following article looks at some of the great Orthodox cantors of yesterday and today. The non-Orthodox movements also have a rich heritage of great cantors, though they are omitted from this piece. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.

Of all the different types of Jewish music, hazzanut [cantorial music] may be the most difficult to appreciate. In a sense, it is the Jewish equivalent of classical music. Just as classical music is an acquired taste, hazzanut needs to be worked at to be understood. By becoming more familiar with it, one can learn to enjoy it.

Hazzanut History

At one time, before the advent of recordings and easy access to popular entertainment, a performance by a hazzan [cantor] and his choir was the major form of entertainment for Jewish people. But somehow, the line between entertainment and davening [praying] became blurred. Hazzanim started singing many elaborate pieces in synagogue that were composed for the concert stage but were never really intended to be used during davening.

jewish cantorial musicDuring the first half of the 20th century, hazzanut enjoyed what has become known as its golden age. While Yossele Rosenblatt was one of the first of Europe’s great hazzanim to move to America, he was not the only hazzan of his time to do so. Scores of highly talented hazzanim davened [prayed] in shuls in New York and other major cities. Recordings and concerts proliferated, and many of the most famous pieces of hazzanut were composed in that era.

Today, even those who tend to avoid shuls where the chazzan gives lengthy performances can often sing or hum some famous cantorial melodies, such as “Sheyibaneh Beit Hamikdash,” “Shehecheyanu,” and “Retzei.”

Recordings

You might like, therefore, to learn to appreciate hazzanut outside of a shul setting, through recordings and concerts. There is a vast range of recordings by virtually all the great hazzanim of the past century that you may sample to discover your preferences.

Listen to the music a few times before you decide if you really like it. See how it reflects your own understanding of the words of the prayer. Or just enjoy it for the vocal artistry of the performer. Remember that–as in any art form–not every piece is of the same quality, and you have to learn how to be discriminating.

Yossele Rosenblatt’s Later Career

This is the second of a two-part article about the life of famed cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. The first part ends with Rosenblatt, the most talented cantor of his day, turning down an offer to sing with the Chicago Opera. His refusal, ironically, lent him fame on a scale he hadn’t experienced previously, as described below. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.

Although the opera would be denied his talents, neither Rosenblatt nor his congregation saw any problem with his giving Jewish or secular music concerts. He aspired to be to the Jews “what John McCormack is to the Irish,” and was proud to be introduced as theĀ  Jewish tenor,” rather than the Russian, German, or Hungarian tenor. He rapidly learned some operatic arias and a repertoire of other ethnic songs, and in May 1918, gave his first recital at Carnegie Hall.

Rave Reviews

The reviews in the New York papers,all of which recapped his refusal to sing with the Chicago Opera, were mostly ecstatic. “Jewish Tenor Triumphs in Concert,” trumpeted the New York American, adding “Cantor Rosenblatt Reveals Voice of Exceptional Beauty, Evoking Thunderous Applause in Music Far from His Accustomed Field.” The Morning Telegraph said that his rendition of Verdi’s Questa o Quella “could scarcely have been excelled by any living tenor.”

Some critics, however, were less enthusiastic about his ventures into operatic arias, but all were swept away by the vocal agility he displayed when singing pieces of hazzanut [cantorial music] and Yiddish songs.

From this point on, Rosenblatt was an integral part of the New York cultural scene, and the appearances of “Cantor Rosenblatt” were regularly listed in The New York Times, together with those of other celebrated artists of the day. His bookings were handled by well-known managers, including the foremost impresario Sol Hurok, who promoted him in advertisements in the Musical Courier alongside other world-famous artists such as Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and Austrian pianist and composer Artur Schnabel.

Yossele Rosenblatt

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.