The Golden Age and Yossele Rosenblatt
For many people the name "Yossele Rosenblatt" conjures up images of the Golden Age of Jewish cantorial music. Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Hazzanut as their connection to their former lives, the traditions of their shtetels and the world of their parents and grandparents. Regardless of philosophical bents or religious denominations almost all Jewish institutions, from Hassidic Rebbes to Reform Rabbis, incorporated hazzanut into their liturgies. Jewish leadership throughout the American Jewish world recognized that the congregations craved the customary singing and chanting of Eastern European Hazzanut. Early 20th century Jewish institutions vied with each other to bring the highest possible level of cantorial expression to their services.
Yossele Rosenblatt was one of the most widely-recognized cantors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Simply "Yossele," to his audiences and admirers, he was a highly-sought-after hazzan who expressed his love of Jewish liturgy with every fiber of his being.
Yossele was born to a family of hazzanim in the Ukraine in 1882. The family followed the Ruzhiner Rebbe and Yossele's father often brought Yossele with him to perform at the court of the Sadagora Rebbe. Yossele and his father toured together. Yossele's father would chant the services while Yossele accompanied. By his Bar Mitzvah Yossele was identified as a prodigy whose unique talent infused Jewish tefillot with new strength and power.
Yossele's father was afraid that the wrong influence might weaken Yossele's devout religious commitment so he refused to send Yossele to any of the great yeshivot of Europe. This lack of learning, however, this did not diminish Yossele's abilities or his commitment to religious observance. He accepted the position of head hazzan of the Munckz community when he was only 18 and moved to Pressburg before immigrating to America in 1912. When he arrived in New York he already had a secured position as the hazzan at the Ohab Zedek synagogue.
Yossele became an overnight sensation in America. Audiences recognized his incredible sense of melody which melded with a strong tenor to infuse the tefillot with new spiritual meanings. Jews of all social positions and statuses filled his performances but it was the simple Jews, the new immigrants who were struggling to feed their families, who absolutely adored him. His music spoke of his passion for his people, his culture and his religion and it was this fervor that enthused the common Jews who flocked to him, hearing in his chants the sounds and senses of their childhoods.
Yossele chanted according to a structured, metered style which continues to influence hazzanut in all streams of Judaism till today. The familiar Askanazi sounds of his audiences' youth were fused with a dramatic style and soothing emotive expressions that satisfied the listeners' nostalgia for their homelands. He accomplished this by hitting high notes at unusually high speeds and using cantillations to cause his voice to break in the middle of an arrangement. This combined with his ability to transform his voice into a falsetto create "kretches" -- sobs -- in his music to convey deep emotions.
Yossele was famous for his High Holiday hazzanut into which he incorporated compelling sections of operatic-like recitatives, snippets of folk melodies and large sections of improvised chanting. Yossele aimed to create musical dramas that would allow the congregation to experience the liturgy as true supplications as they felt the spirituality of the Days of Awe.
Yossele believed that his voice was a gift from God, to be used only in God's service. His commitment was tested when Cleofonte Campanini, the Chicago Opera's general director, offered him $1000 per performance to sing in Halevy's La Juive opera. Campanili assured Rosenblatt that all of his religious needs would be met including cancelling Shabbat performances and directing the cast to adhere to all rules of modesty. Yossele was tempted but in the end he demurred. He did, however, accept a role in the 1929 Jazz Singer movie starring Al Jolson, a story of a cantor's son who turns to secular music.
Over 180 pieces of Yossele Rosenblatt's work have been preserved including Hasheim Malakh, V'af Hu Hoyo Miskaven and Mi Shebeirakh. He even takes an important role in the collections of the Lowell Milken Music Archive. Yossele's rendition of Tehillim 126, U'vnucho Yomar. was so popular that Israeli leaders considered it as a possible national anthem in 1948 but in the end they chose HaTikva.