Updated: Jan 3, 2019
You've probably never heard of Yossele (Josef) Rosenblatt unless you're a serious fan of Jewish cantorial music. But if you have, you know he's the equivalent of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti -- a singer to be remembered forever.
Rosenblatt was born in 1882 in a small Ukrainian town, in a house with a dirt floor. By the 1920s, he was a superstar cantor in the United States, often mentioned in the same breath as opera great Enrico Caruso. Reviewers sometimes described Rosenblatt as a man with two, even three voices: a warm baritone, a ringing tenor and a shimmering falsetto. What's more, he could navigate between them with ease.
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"People felt that he was authentic, that what he sang was real," says Cantor Bernard Beer, the director of the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University in New York. "He was an Orthodox Jew. He meant what he was doing. His prayers came from the heart."
Rosenblatt seemed born to the cantor's life. The stories of him making beautiful musical sounds while still in the cradle are impossible to verify. But by the time he was 8 years old, he was being paid to sing at synagogues throughout Eastern Europe. He emigrated to New York in 1912, and when Rosenblatt sang, the synagogue was jam-packed. Every seat, every aisle was filled, everyone there to hear the little man with the full dark beard.
"They treated ... these cantors like superstars. They were the superstars of their era," says Joseph Gole, a past president of the international Cantors Assembly.
Yossele Rosenblatt performs in a scene in A Cobbler's Tale.
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