Yossele Rosenblatt and Other Cantors

The play “The Jazz Singer” was written by Samson Raphaelson based on the life of the singer and actor Al Jolson, and under his original name Asa Yoelson. Like Jolson, the play’s protagonist Jackie Rabinovich is a singer, the son of a cantor who emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York. Jackie wants to be a jazz singer and changes his name to Robin. The parents wish for him to be a cantor like his father, but the son succeeds in his new way, ascending the stairs of fame, his big show scheduled for the eve of Yom Kippur. Then, as expected in such plots, his mother informs him: “Dad is ill, maybe dying. You must replace him tonight and sing ‘Kol Nidrei’ in the synagogue.” Jackie is waging a struggle in his heart, on the one hand the impresarios and his spouse, on the other, his parents. And at the end he shows up at the synagogue to open the Yom Kippur prayer. The next day his father passes away and he returns to Broadway, to the delight of his fans and the box office.

Due to the play’s success, Warner Brothers decided to turn it into a film in 1927. Not just a movie, the first talking and singing movie. Who do you turn to? To greatest cantor of his generation, Yossele Rosenblatt. He is offered to play the cantor (Jack’s father) for $ 100,000 (about $ 1,490,000 today). Rosenblatt, as far as is known, refuses. Orthodoxy, it was argued, would not approve of a cantor’s appearance in an entertainment show. But he agreed to participate in the film and sing some of his own compositions, all but “Kol Nidrei”. The producers agree and he receives a considerable sum.

So two Jews, Yossele Rosenblatt and Al Jolson are identified with the first talkie. 13 years later, the cinema and Kol Nidrei have another encounter. In 1940, a new film was produced in the United States – “Overture to Glory”. The plot is similar to The Jazz Singer, although here the young Vilnius synagogue cantor is inviter to appear at the Warsaw opera house, in a leading role in an opera by Moniuszko, Poland’s national composer. The role was played by the cantor Moishe Osher. In 1952, another version of “The Jazz Singer” was produced, in which the cantor Danny Thomas appeared in the role of the cantor. Not a Jew, for a change, rather the son of Maronite immigrants from Lebanon. In a 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer the rebellious son is played by the famous Jewish pop singer Neil Diamond, in his first cinematic role, whereas Lawrence Olivier plays his cantor father. Diamond, an offspring of Jewish immigrants from Russia, sings in the film one of his famous hits, “America”, a song about the immigration to America, and dedicates the song to his grandmother.

Let’s go back to Rosenblatt, the greatest cantor of the beginning of the last century.

The story of Yossele Rosenblatt’s life, his performances throughout Mandatory Palestine, his acquaintance with the then Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, Rosenblatt’s sudden death here in Jerusalem and his large funeral, documented in the film “Dream of My People,” continues to ignite the imagination of creators.

In the work “Harmony” commissioned by the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra from the composer Tal Yardeni, the music of Rosenblatt and cantors of his generation was expressed in a special combination of excerpts from the film, additional cantor voices and the counter-tenor voice of David D’Or, the leading soloist in Yardeni’s work.

Five years ago, the “Jerusalem Theater Group” staged the play “Rosenblatt Express” by Ron Guetta. The plot recreates the story of Yossele Rosenblatt’s life and was inspired by the same film.

It is impossible not to denote the presence of ‘Kol Nidrei’ in well-known works, so we will mention here the beloved arrangement for cello and orchestra by the German composer Max Bruch, written at the request of the Jewish community in Liverpool, inspired by the Berlin cantor Avraham Yaakov Lichtenstein. Furthermore, Arnold Schoenberg’s setting for a narrator, chorus and orchestra, commissioned by Rabbi Yaakov Sonderling from Los Angeles and the wonderful story of the famous cellist David Popper who was the son of a cantor from Prague. Popper came to perform in Odessa in the late nineteenth century, in a period of hardship for Russian Jews, the days of “Storms in the Negev.” At the end of his successful performance, an elegantly dressed guest knocked on his door and asked him to play “Kol Nidrei” by Bruch for him. Popper sat down and played, but not Bruch’s version, rather the traditional version he remembered from his childhood. The only listener in the dressing room was moved, and tears welled up in his eyes. When the playing was over, the tearful guest thanked Popper and slipped a thousand rubles into his hands.

Yossi Schiffmann

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