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Singing Sensation

Moishe Oysher, a midcentury cantor and performer, is enjoying an unexpected second act

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Moishe Oysher in The Singing Blacksmith. (The National Center for Jewish Film)

If you follow the pop charts, you might have thought that Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha are vying for the title of 2010’s biggest summer star. You’d have been wrong.

Last Tuesday, Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman presented a 1938 Yiddish film, The Singing Blacksmith, at a screening in Brooklyn. The singing blacksmith in question is played by Moishe Oysher, one of the great celebrity cantors and Yiddish movie stars of the World War II era, and from a show of hands taken by Hoberman, most of the few dozen film geeks in the audience had never heard of him before. Little did these trendsetters know they’d gotten in on the best micro-fad of the summer. A day after the screening and by total coincidence, Arik Luck, a young cantor in Chicago with a background in musical theater, released a live album of an all-Oysher musical revue he’d produced earlier this year. And next week (also by coincidence) a newly restored version of Oysher’s last picture, Singing in the Dark, will premiere at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. In a strange cosmic syzygy, Moishe Oysher is having a moment.

It’s particularly striking that the stars have aligned for Oysher, who died in 1958, because for many cantors alive today, it’s been a rough year. In February, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship educational institution, folded its cantorial school into its rabbinical school, prompting cries of outrage from students and faculty. And a longtime movement in Conservative and Reform synagogues away from hazzanut and toward participatory singing has been exacerbated by the recession, which has prompted some cash-strapped shuls to have their rabbis do double duty as prayer leaders rather than hiring a cantor. At the same time, though, a resurgence of interest in the cantorial music of yore—less among synagogue-goers than among musicians—was recently given an endorsement by no less an eminence than violinist Itzhak Perlman, who, according to prominent klezmer musician Hankus Netsky, will be touring this year with Yitzhak Helfgot, one of today’s biggest cantorial stars.

“I think maybe we’re far enough away from the sound or the period that it sounds new again,” said Mark Slobin, a music professor at Wesleyan University. For younger musicians, he said, cantorial music “wasn’t some kitsch they had to sit through. It’s just kind of a sound, not an investment in an institutional structure.”

Enter Moishe Oysher—yes, that is said to be his given name—a charming, womanizing rogue whose own approach to “institutional structure” involved claiming that, as part of his vocal regimen, he had to smoke in synagogue. Born in Bessarabia in 1907, Oysher—whose story is told in Bridge of Light, Hoberman’s classic study of Yiddish cinema—performed in the Yiddish theaters of New York and Buenos Aires as a young man, but in his early thirties, desiring steady employment, he followed his father and several grandfathers before him into the cantorate. He quickly proved a divisive figure: His vocal chops earned him a job at the First Roumanian-American Congregation, a synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that was known as “the cantor’s Carnegie Hall,” but some congregants recoiled at the notion that a vaudevillian scamp was to lead them in prayer.

“You had people revoking their membership,” said Luck, who joined the staff of Beth Emet, a Reform temple in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, last summer. “People would come with him on Shabbos as witnesses to vouch that he wasn’t taking the train.”

Oysher’s story struck a chord with Luck, who was himself an aspiring stage actor before he entered cantorial school six years ago, “almost in desperation to be happy with what I was doing in my life”—and was “pleasantly surprised” to find that he loved it. In the course of his studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, he discovered Oysher and adopted him as a kind of alter ego. Rather than performing a standard recital as he prepared to graduate from HUC last year, Luck put on a full-length musical revue, Arik Luck Is … Moishe Oysher: The Master Singer of His People! This March, he reprised the show at Beth Emet, drawing a crowd of 700; now he wants to take it on the road. (The live album of the concert is now available through Beth Emet and will be more widely available online in a couple of weeks.)

Back on the 1930s Lower East Side, Oysher struck a deal with the local board of rabbis: He would try to rein in his excesses and would refrain from stage acting but would still be allowed to sing everything from cantorial hits to commercial jingles on the Yiddish radio and to pursue his dream of Hollywood stardom. He never made it into mainstream American cinema, but he did become one of the biggest names in Yiddish film. The Singing Blacksmith—which tells of a blacksmith who overcomes his low station and his own womanizing ways to win the hand of a beautiful maiden—was one of his three musicals in that language. (The movie is also known for its director, Edgar G. Ulmer, an Austrian Jewish émigré who made a number of “nationality films” for American immigrants in their native tongues. According to Hoberman, Ulmer constructed a set on the grounds of a New Jersey monastery that features as the shtetl in The Singing Blacksmith; a year later, he used the same “village,” onion domes looming in the background, for a Ukrainian film called Cossacks in Exile.)

Singing in the Dark, Oysher’s one English-language picture, was a 1956 genre hybrid about an amnesiac Holocaust survivor—and cabaret singer— pursued by gangsters. The National Center for Jewish Film, which previously restored Oysher’s Yiddish movies, will premiere its new version of the film next week. The film institute’s single most popular seller, according to its executive director Lisa Rivo, is a 2-disc set, Great Cantors of the Golden Age and Great Cantors in Cinema—both of which, of course, feature Oysher.

“You listen to a lot of classic cantorial music and it sounds very austere,” said Jeremiah Lockwood, frontman of The Sway Machinery, a band that draws on the sounds of hazzanut. Oysher, he said, “was a little bit slumming, there’s an extra vulgarism to his arrangements. There’ll be horns, maybe a little Latin percussion or something. My grandfather looks down on him as being a little bit of a huckster.”

Oysher did not become, like some of his cantorial contemporaries, an opera singer with highbrow gentile audiences; nor did he reach the pantheon of more “austere” celebrity cantors like Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe Koussevitzky. But he may have had the last laugh. He’s been preserved on film the way no other cantor has, and if Luck gets his way, Oysher will finally make it to the real Carnegie Hall. Meanwhile, there’s no Koussevitzky fad in sight.

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Burton Paikoff says:

Great Article. I believe that the young Jews of today are missing the beautiful Jewish Prayers sung by those Great Cantors. You also forgot to mention Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker, they both were also leading Tenors at the New York Metrapolitan Theater.

It would also be nice to find CD’s of them all. I have a tape of some of them copied from an old 78 Platter.

Rivka says:

My mother would turn the radio dial to hear Moise Oysher, the Yiddishe Philosoph, plus whatever Yiddish show was on. Unfortunately, I can’t remember Oysher’s voice.

georgianna says:

He is the uncle of Marilyn Michaels.

chanukah says:

He was a chazzir fresser, a mechalel shabbes, a true o{e}pikores, with a great voice.

He believed in money and fame. Luck believes in luck.

Great piece — there are a bunch of videos of him on YouTube (including one from the crackly, blurry unrestored version of A Cantor’s Son). I like this one, where he’s in handsome leading man mode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbEIY1KeX6I&feature=related.

Check out the CD set CANTORS, KLEZMORIM AND CROONERS: 1905-1953 put out by Living Traditions.
http://www.livingtraditions.org/docs/store.htm

P Kalina says:

My parents told me Moishe Oysher sang at their wedding in New York in 1950. Until today, that’s the only context in which I’ve heard of him.

Richard Sloan says:

This is great news. I love Oysher! Knew him as a child. Sat on his lap at a hotel seder and together we sang his famous “Chad Gadya” together.I’ll never forget it. I am one iof the children on his Passover LP, and my father, who was a good friend of his, has a cameo in the synaghogue scene of “Singing in the Dark.” Even after all these years, Oysher’s recordings move me. There has never been a cantor like him. But today’s audiences –those who hear his recordings and see his films have no idea what it was like to see and hear him in a shul. He moved congregations like noone else before or since. Sure, he had a flair and he knew what turned on the audiences and the congregations. So what? He moved people to the most fervant prayer.
I wish I could have seen Lucks’ live performance.
Oysher also made an appearance in another little known movie, I think as a cabaret singer. He only did one number, but as usual, he was great.
I attended a sneak preview of “Singhing in the Dark.” It’s not a great movie, but at least we have in it Oysher in the 1950′s doing his shtick, which makes it moe than merely “worthwhile.” (p.S. It’s director once actually directed a Buster Keaton movie!)

I enjoyed this article very much! I met Freydele Oysher, his sister who was one of the very first female cantorial singers- She knew my grandfather , Cantor Adolph Katchko a revered cantor’s cantor during the Golden Age of Hazzanut- I’ve always enjoyed listening to Moishe Oysher, and the duet with Cantors Abe Mizrahi and Jackie Mendelson doin the Oysher Chad Gadya is always a treat!
shalom!

I have had the absolute pleasure of seeing this wonderful performance this past March and I am so excited because I just found a copy of the trailer for this concert on you tube. I have posted the website and I encourage everyone to take a look! It really is a gem of a show and Cantor Arik Luck is absolutely incredible! I have already ordered a copy of the cd from the concert to give to my grandchildren!!! What a gift this concert is!

Here is the address for the website to watch the trailer for this concert and there is information at the end if you want to order a C.D!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KipDb1FZnE

S Fisher says:

A number of recordings by Moyshe Oysher and Freydele Oysher can be heard at the website of the Judaica Sound Archives (Florida Atlantic University), by visiting
http://faujsa.fau.edu/jsa/collection_album.php?collection=oysher.

The JSA streams live over the web many, many other recordings of classic hazzanut and other Jewish music.

Jacob says:

The beautiful cantorial style of the these chazens was operatic and probably influenced by grand opera.

Too bad that today we don’t have songa sang with such deep feelings.

Larry Kaufman says:

I’m proud to be a congregant of Cantor Luck, and to have been present for the reprise of his Moishe Oysher show. (The Tablet article does not mention that this was originally put together as his cantorial thesis for investiture from the School of Sacred Music of HUC. Nor does it mention that the role was a natural for Luck, who explored a career in theater before finding that the cantorate was bashert for him.)

If you’re in the Chicago area, I invite you to come daven with Cantor Luck any Friday at 6:30. As they said in the world of Moishe Oysher, it’s a mechayeh.

Allan Leicht says:

I also grew up with Moishe Oysher, who was one of my parents dearest friends, along with his sister Fraydele. Fraydele’s daughter, Marilyn Michaels, and I are still very much in touch. Marilyn sent me this excellent article, which is vividly and affectionately written. I called him “Uncle Moishe.” He sang at my bar mitzvah in 1955. With all the opinions about his religious orientation there can be no question about his sincerity, he adoration of Yiddishkeit and Yidden, his musical genius or his expansive soul. By the way, I seem to recall that Georgianna is his daughter. Am I wrong? And is this the Georgianna of a previous reply?

I grew up with Moishe Oysher in my life…….he was my father, Mel Simon’s best friend. I idolized him and his voice…….I loved his whole family, his wife, his daughter Rozana, his sister Freydela, his niece Marilyn…….what an incredibly talented and passionate family.

They all made me feel so proud to be Jewish.

We would go to the Pines Hotel every Passover to sing along with Moyshe and the Abe Nadel choir…….memories that are still so alive in my heart today.

My love for music and my dedication to the music industry are a direct result of Moyshe’s impact on me as a young boy.

walther van rooij says:

Hello, I am not jewish and born after his death,but I now enjoy his music through CD’s and You Tube ! And let’s be honest his career was also intertwined with the succes of both The Barry Sisters and The Feder Sisters (Mimi Sloan),names that were not mentioned here and should be,I think ! Walther,Netherlands

Ing Daniel Rojtkop says:

I was lucky, I had the pleasure to see and hear this great theatre actor Moishe Oysher here in Buenos Aires. Never foget those american yiddish stars.
Without a mike close to his mouth, as now the actors use, his voice was high and clear as we hear him from the last seats on the pullman on the first floor. The poorest place where my parents could pay for. But he rest in my mind. Thank you for put this on internet and then make possible to remember him around the world.

Ethel Anne says:

My mother, Ida Rollin,(age 93) is the sister of Freydele Oysher’s husband, Harold Sternberg. I remember going to Moishe’s home in Scarsdale once as a child;there was a jewish star(as a window) on the front door. I remember playing with his daughter, Rozanna. This was only a year or so before his untimely death.
I also have a CD of his Passover Seder, and love Had Gadyah!
This was sent to me by my cousin, Marilyn Michaels, the accomplished singer/comedienne.
I went to see “Singing in the Dark” with my parents, but was too young to understand it. I look forward to seeing it again.

I’m coming late to this party, but wonderful to read all these wonderful comments from people who knew Oysher himself! I just want to say a couple of things about Moishe Oysher’s films directed by Edgar Ulmer &, later, Max Nosseck. Just saw the restored print of “Singing in the Dark,” and to my mind Nosseck’s earlier [1940] feature “Overture to Glory” (aka Der Vilner Shtot Khazn] is a masterpiece. Here he plays a historical Vilna cantor, Dovid Strashunsky, who actually went to sing at the 19th c Warsaw Opera. So we see him sing both khazones & the Polish classical aria “Halka,” which in turn conflates with Yiddish lullaby “Unter Beymer” as part of the film’s plot Here’s a clip from the movie’s opening which has moves me every time, his cantorial singing for Rosh Hashana as appreciated both by congregants and ‘scouts’ from the Polish opera:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgOmKqob-bA

(Arik Luck’s trailer opens with an homage to this scene.)

Just a small possible correction to this Tablet piece: I believe that Hoberman describes Ulmer using the NJ rural wooden village setting for Ukrainian and Yiddish film shoots back-to-back in a matter of weeks during the same summer… rather than one year later. That might have been including “Grine Felder” in 1937. Jim Hoberman’s book is also now being republished with new introduction (20 years after original publication!), there’s a book signing tomorrow at The Jewish Museum.

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Singing Sensation

Moishe Oysher, a midcentury cantor and performer, is enjoying an unexpected second act

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