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The Man with the $50,000 Beard

How a cantor became an American music legend

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Josef Rosenblatt

The most revealing photo of Josef Rosenblatt shows a squat, well-fed figure decked out in a chesterfield, a high gray hat, and a golden fob and tiepin, holding a cane with a gloriously ornate knob. What stands out most are the grave, intelligent eyes behind the rakish round spectacles, and a dark beard so finely groomed that it could be a Persian lamb collar. Like so many portraits from the raucous 1920s, this one has a whiff of Diamond Jim Brady about it, a sense of vagabond self-invention and glamour that recalls images of Babe Ruth in his beaver coat or Gloria Swanson on the set of Queen Kelly. Like them, Rosenblatt was the highest-paid practitioner of his art, a superstar. What’s different, of course, is that Reb Yossele”as nearly everyone addressed him”was also a functionary of the temple, a hazzan who, long before coming to America, had chanted for the Hasidic rabbi of Komarno, in Galicia. The holy man who had proclaimed of the nervous ten-year-old: “He has a pure mouth and his prayers will be heard. In those early years, at the close of the 19th century, when Rosenblatt made a living as an itinerant boy cantor who wandered from town to town across the Pale of Settlement, these righteous men often repaid him with homemade amulets believed to ward off illness.

I hadn’t been looking for Rosenblatt when I discovered his recordings. To me, he belonged to the drab twilight of America’s unassimilated Jewry, lost behind a century of gaudy modernity like the lone jar of gefilte fish stowed at the back of my grandparents’ refrigerator. An immigrant myself, I didn’t want to look. Then, last September, Ornette Coleman changed my mind. “I was once in Chicago, about 20-some years ago, the 76-year-old saxophonist and composer told Ben Ratliff of The New York Times. “A young man said, ‘I’d like you to come by so I can play something for you.’ I went down to his basement and he put on Josef Rosenblatt, and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath…. He’s making the sound of what he’s experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, Coleman went on to say about Rosenblatt. “He’s singing about something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad.

It was definitely bad. The advent of electronic recording in the late 1920s brought into being America’s most powerful and original music to date, nearly all of it composed and performed by disenfranchised and culturally mutated communities”the Western Swing of working-class white Texans and Mexicans, the hot jazz of transplanted Southern blacks, and–of course–country blues. Coleman touched upon something I’d always hoped to discover”an indigenous Jewish soul music of the Eastern European immigrant, of the remembered miseries of Bialystock and Minsk and the newer privations of the tenement, of world socialism and the Yiddish stage and the Lower East Side.

While Rosenblatt achieved unheard-of secular fame, he never managed to eclipse his celebrated contemporaries and near-contemporaries in America and abroad. For one, Rosenblatt didn’t possess the most operatically legitimate instrument (that was Mordechai Herschman) nor was he the most emotive singer (that one’s a tie between Gershon Sirota and Moshe Koussevitsky) but he was the hottest showman by a mile. At his disposal he had a buttery baritone with the worrying upper register of a tenor, epic breath control that allowed him to string together seemingly endless interlocked phrases without a pause, a coloratura that would have made a Neapolitan soprano red with envy, and, almost unfairly, a pure, pleading falsetto that he used to roughly the same effect as Prince. And Rosenblatt took the sob–that most Jewish interjection, and the cantor’s bread and butter–to its theoretical summit. Today, to listen to Rosenblatt’s Melech Rachaman, from 1914, is to invite disbelief. It’s best attempted with headphones, to pry the miraculously uncompressed voices from the sludge of the Columbia 78 rpm disk. The male choir’s bizarrely high singing, harmonies and all–is it a boy choir?–makes Rosenblatt’s thundering entrance all the more savory. Over the course of next three minutes and change, Reb Yossele takes off on outrageous coloratura runs up and down the register, appears to break down and weep at least twice, and completely kicks out the footlights when he unleashes the falsetto. The text is Hebrew liturgy, but the recording, with its frantic interplay between the singers and the eerie combination of Middle Eastern melody and operatic technique, is a singular, strange, highly premeditated, and brilliant piece of pop music. Field hollers and Sonic Youth notwithstanding, American music is most effective at its most populist, and like every truly devastating gospel record, Melech Rachaman is at once unapologetically commercial–in the best sense–yet resolutely divine. Underlying the vocal drama, the cantor’s voice is heavy with the deeper hues of devotion. In Coleman’s words, “he’s singing pure spiritual. Though in his lifetime he was often called “The Jewish Caruso, today Rosenblatt sounds more like the Jewish Clara Ward.

He was born in 1882 in the Ukranian town of Belaya Tzerkov (white church), which resident Jews called Scwartze Tum’oh (black defilement), because like so many nearby towns, it had a vandalized Jewish cemetery to attest to its long history of pogroms. By the time he was four, Rosenblatt and his father, a Ba’al Tefilah (prayer leader) at the local shul, had already taken to the road, performing in synagogues and private homes in settlements across Ukraine, Galicia, and Carpatho-Ruthenia. By the age of 12, the boy was already a sensation, packing record crowds into synagogues in Krakow and Vienna. At 18, he married a childhood sweetheart and began officiating in front of his own congregation in Munkacs, a Hungarian outpost that would change sovereignty five times in the coming decades. In rapid succession, he traded his post there for the title of oberkantor in Presburg (now Bratislava), then, beckoned by Hamburg’s high Germanic cosmopolitanism, took a job at one of the city’s largest synagogues. It was there, in 1906, that Rosenblatt first heard Caruso, an encounter that radically expanded his understanding of the vocal possibilities of song. But the prim, conservative Hamburg Jews discouraged his growing showmanship, a mixture of Eastern European emotiveness and stylistic flourishes gleaned from the opera house. “Mr. Rosenblatt, you sing so divinely, one of them remarked after a service. “Why, then, should it be necessary for you to sigh and wail? “How do you like that? the cantor told his wife Taubele that evening. “I serve the most delectable dish, the Jewish sob, which is the sauce of hazzanut, and along comes my good friend and tells me that I wail,”  recalls Rosenblatt’s son Samuel in a hagiographic but thoroughly entertaining account of his father’s life, published in 1954. All along, Rosenblatt’s migrations were spurred by a growing need for money. If feeding his seven children wasn’t enough, he had to consider his seven older sisters, whose dowries had become his responsibility. (As the biggest earner in a quite poor family, he had taken the responsibility onto himself.) He’d become the continent’s most celebrated cantor, but his congregation’s repeated refusals to grant him a raise left him dispirited. Then, one day in 1912, two visitors from abroad approached him with an unbelievable offer.

Jewish New York was in the midst of a flowering of theater, poetry, and the mighty Yiddish press. Columnists debated the merits of the city’s swelling ranks of celebrity cantors, who enjoyed renown outside the temple as cultural heroes, and when Rosenblatt arrived In New York he was received like a long-awaited heavyweight. (You can watch Reb Yossele and a gallery of his most daunting rivals in their mind-boggling primes on Great Cantors of the Golden Age, a fascinating new DVD.) He settled in Harlem, home to many of the city’s prominent Jews, not far from the Hungarian congregation Ohab Zedek, whose members had lured him with the unheard-of salary of $2,400. Including tips, his annual take exceeded $5,000, making him the world’s highest-paid Jewish cleric. Taubele loathed New York, with its gutter speech and lack of manners, but Rosenblatt loved its wide-open possibilities. He became a United States citizen at the earliest opportunity and named his first American-born child Ralph. His showmanship was never curtailed again, and when he officiated at Ohab Zedek, the congregation often burst into applause mid-service, in blatant violation of orthodox tradition. Nothing if not industrious, Rosenblatt embarked on a vastly productive recording career, signing a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company and later doing dozens of sessions for Okeh, Columbia, and RCA, a practice that proved all the more remunerative because most of the compositions were his own. More controversial among the faithful were his unprecedented appearances at Carnegie Hall and on other concert stages with a repertoire that eventually included folk songs and romantic arias sung in a half-dozen languages.

During his two decades in America, Rosenblatt’s negotiation of the sometimes porous line between the religious and the worldly was followed with minute interest in the Yiddish dailies. He made headlines around the world in 1918 by turning down an opportunity to appear in the Chicago Opera’s production of Halevy’s La Juive opposite the Odessa-born soprano Rosa Raisa, an offer that came with a guarantee of $1,000 per night (the offer was later doubled), kosher meals, and Saturdays off. “I have certainly no desire to obtain glory for myself, Rosenblatt told a reporter, “at the hands of aristocratic non-Jews who might come to the opera to see for themselves how a Jew forsakes his God and forswears his religion and his people on account of money. Years later, when Warner Brothers executives arrived at his door promising a hundred thousand dollars to play the role of Al Jolson’s father in The Jazz Singer, Hollywood’s first talkie, Rosenblatt said no again, though he later appeared in the film as himself in a brief recital. He was less adamant about ventures that didn’t involve makeup and acting. In addition to commanding astonishing fees for officiating on high holidays–he received $25,000 for chanting the midnight Selichos with a choir of 35 in front of 3,000 Jews at Chicago’s Wigwam–his appetite for performing outside the temple was both voracious and catholic. He sang on the steps of The New York Public Library to help hawk war bonds, pitched in for Irish Easter Relief, entertained at Sing Sing prison, and lent his voice to a benefit for striking tailors at Madison Square Garden.

But by the mid 1920s, an investment in a failed Yiddish newspaper had bankrupted Rosenblatt. The crisis pushed him onto the vaudeville stage, a place that many among the Orthodox considered undignified and possibly blasphemous. The cantor took it in stride. Billed as “The Man With the $50,000 Beard, he toured the nation by train, entertaining at movie theaters between showings of Westerns and comedies. At a typical stop, at the Pantages Theater in San Francisco, he sang “Mother Machree between screenings of Broken Hearts in Hollywood, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Louise Dresser. His opening act was “child memory marvel Dodo Reid. Rosenblatt felt at home in front of the mostly gentile audiences. He goofed on stage with Will Rogers and Sophie Tucker, dropped in on Caruso and Charlie Chaplin, and even had time for pranks, like the time he belted out Irving Berlin’s “When You and I Were Seventeen with Tito Schipa, the bel canto tenor, in an alley behind a Chicago auditorium. And when Irish tenor John MacCormack greeted him onstage in Chattanooga with “Hello, Jewish MacCormack,”  the cantor shot back, “Hello, Irish Rosenblatt.”

He’d become the world’s most renowned Jewish entertainer and one of its highest-paid performers. He toured Europe twice and even swung through South America; on stateside tour stops, a police escort accompanied Rosenblatt to his hotel. But soon the talkies would obliterate vaudeville, while the secularization of America’s Jews was slowly dimming the lights on the golden age of hazzanut. While on an initial visit to Palestine, where he was working on a Zionist documentary and had decided to relocate, Rosenblatt died of coronary thrombosis in 1933. He was nearly destitute. The best of Rosenblatt’s roughly 200 sides bequeath recordings every bit as eternal as The Carter Family’s, as willfully uncompromising as Uncle Dave Macon’s, and as original as Sidney Bechet’s. Alongside them Reb Yossele presides over the joyous, weird celestial banquet of America’s musical forefathers, whistling a benediction for the ages.

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The Man with the $50,000 Beard

How a cantor became an American music legend

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