Monday, June 02, 2014

Yossele Rosenblatt: A post from the Milken Archives

Chazanot of Yossele Rosenblatt

Yossele Rosenblatt passed away in 1933 but his style of hazzanut guides and inspires hazzanim from all streams of Judaism till today. No other hazzan has ever attained the popularity and renown that Yossele achieved. Throughout his life Yossele retained a strong commitment to observant Judaism. He was not prepared compromise his beliefs, even when the temptation was very strong. Yossele always appeared wearing his large black yarmulke and his frock coat which distinguished him as a religious Jew but he was able to create a legacy that continues to captivate both non-Jews and Jews from the various streams of the Jewish world.

Yossele was born in the Ukraine in 1882. His father was a hazzan who was often invited to perform in the court of the Sadagora Rebbe. Yossele's father would take his son to the Rebbe's court and they would sing together for the Rebbe. As Yossele grew older more and more people came to hear the young prodigy perform.

When Yossele turned 18 he was given the position as hazzan of Munkacs, Hungary. From there he moved to Pressburg where his voice, along with his creativity as a composer, evolved. Yossele's fame grew and people would travel for great distances to hear him sing. Yossele's style was influenced by his Hassidic background but he was always interested in trying new pitches and tones as he stretched his magnificent tenor to new ranges and heights. Many of these early pieces featured the trademark "kretch" -- sob -- which would later become a trademark of Yossele's hazzanut. Early recordings of his singing were made and the first one was made available to the public in 1905. During this time Yossele  continued to evelve, both as a composer and as a singer. He moved to Hamburg  where he lived for five years and in 1911 Yossele and his family immigrated to America where he had a  job waiting as hazzan of the Ohab Zedek synagogue in New York.

Yossele's fame increased once he had situated himself at Ohav Zedek. In addition to his position at Ohav Zedek the New York Jewish community requested that he perform at philanthropic and memorial events. The New York Times featured Yossele in an article and his appeal to Jews of all streams of the Jewish community was noted when the NYTs reported that  "The cantor is a singer of natural powers and moving eloquence" and his prayers and chants moved the largely non-religious audience which "listened with uncovered heads."

After World War I Yossele began to perform throughout the United States for relief efforts that were aimed at helping European Jews who had been left homeless by the war. Yossele felt responsible for doing whatever he could to help these fund-raising activities. When Yossele performed in Chicago the general director of the Chicago Opera, Cleofonte Campanini, came to hear him. Campanini was captivated by Yossele's voice and offered him $1,000 per performance if he would accept the role of Eleazar in the La Juive opera. Campanini made every effort to accommodate the production to Yossele's strict Orthodox practices. He promised that no Shabbat performances would be scheduled and that the company would obtain kosher food. He even assured Yossele that he wouldn't be asked to sing with women but Yossele, although tempted by the offer, demurred. He explained that if he moved to the non-Jewish stage he might feel tempted to compromise on other, more important matters.  "The cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me" Yossele said, acknowledging the temptation. Yossele felt that his voice was a gift from God and he wanted to use that voice only in God's service.

Yossele employed a structured, metered style. This is the style which influences hazzanut of all streams of Judaism till today. Yossele fused a dramatic style with soothing emotive expressions that could be heard in the high notes that he hit at unusually high speeds. Yossele used cantillations that caused his voice to break in the middle of arrangements. These cantillations transformed his voice into a falsetto and created the famous Rosenblatt sobs of deep emotions. His tracks continue to be popular even today, years later and some are available from the Milken Archive project.

Yossele's High Holiday hazzanut was particularly famous. He incorporated sections of operatic-like recitatives with snippets of folk melodies and large sections of improvised chanting to create musical dramas that allowed listeners to experience the High Holiday liturgy as true Days of Awe supplications. 


  1. I just want to say that my father o''h was, as a little boy, in Yossele's choir at Ohav Zedek.

    Chag Sameach

  2. Should read born in what today is ukraine, then was hungary. Important for proper cultural nuances.

    Also, he was chazzan in many other shuls (frankly, he had a problem with employers.) Also, note that OZ was then on 116th street (harlem).

    Since you mention he died in 1933, also mention he died young, in what was then palestine.

  3. Thanks.

    See this great recent post about him with great text and illustrations, including Rav Kook being maspid Yossele -