Reissues of early 78 RPM recordings of Yossele Rosenblatt were playing as we were taking our seats in the intimate Hall 4 of the Habima Theatre (Tel Aviv) on November 23rd 2015 to attend “Rosenblatt Express”, a play written by Ron Guetta, directed by Denise Boyd Shama and performed by members of the Theatre Company Jerusalem, the performance telling the story of one of the world’s greatest Jewish cantors.
Born in 1882 in the Ukrainian shtetl of Belaya Tserkov (Galicia), Yossele Rosenblatt was the son of a cantor. Recognizing his son’s extraordinary talent, his father began to tour with the young boy whose singing helped supplement the family income. Married at 18, Yossele took his first cantorial position in Munkacs Hungary, soon moving to Pressburg (Hungary). A commanding figure with a dark beard and suave appearance, he possessed a superb, mellifluous and gripping coloratura tenor voice, a large range and a flexible falsetto range. His creative talents as a composer of Hassidic-flavored music were already becoming recognized. The five years in Pressburg saw the composition and publication of 150 recitatives and choral pieces and in 1905 Rosenblatt recorded his first phonograph record. Moving to Hamburg, where he again won instant acclaim, meant a better-paying job. His fame now spread to America, where Rosenblatt was invited to sing two Saturday morning services at the Ohab Zedek Synagogue of New York, then receiving a permanent position there, bringing his wife and children over to America. In May 1917, he sang to a crowd of 6000 people at the Hippodrome (New York) at a fund-raising concert for Jews in Europe. This prompted a tour of 30 cities on behalf of the war relief campaign. Attending his concert in Chicago was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, who offered the cantor the role of Eleazar in Halevy’s opera “La Juive” at $1000 per performance. Despite the fact that Campanini’s contract endeavored to take into account Rosenblatt’s orthodox lifestyle (his co-stars would be Jewish sopranos) Rosenblatt refused the offer. In an interview appearing in the “Musical America” journal in 1918, he admitted that the “cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me”. However, he did start performing concerts that included opera arias and ethnic songs, becoming acquainted with the great opera singer Enrico Caruso and making his Carnegie Hall debut in 1918. Now an integral part of the New York musical scene, Rosenblatt was earning very well from his synagogue position, concerts and royalties from his recordings. However, his philanthropy, the burden of supporting eight children and his generosity towards several other family members weighed heavily on his finances. In 1922, he made a risky investment in a Yiddish newspaper, resulting in his being declared bankrupt in 1925. To pay back his debts, Rosenblatt turned to performing in vaudeville shows, singing sentimental songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian and English and managing to avoid having to share the stage with other singers, acrobats, animal acts and gaudy scenery. In 1933 he was made an offer that he accepted – “Dream of My People” – a movie in which he would sing his own works at the relevant biblical sites in Israel. He also sang in synagogue services and gave concerts all over Israel, meeting Rav Kook and the national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik. Rosenblatt’s next plan was to undertake a European concert tour to make enough money to enable him and his family to settle in Israel. As fate would have it, however, he suffered a heart attack in Israel and died at age 51; he was buried on the Mount of Olives. Seventy years later, Yossele Rosenblatt’s pieces are still a staple of cantors. In his recordings, which now appear on CDs, his artistry, deeply emotional singing and magnificent singing voice live on.
Denise Boyd Shama’s direction of Guetta’s play brings to life the rollercoaster story of Yossele Rosenblatt, with Daniel Botzer comfortably cast as the totally human and naïve Rosenblatt and Neta Bar Rafael portraying his wife Tovale with warmth, depth and winning sincerity. A strong element running all the way through “Rosenblatt Express” is indeed their story of love and loyalty. A bare stage with few to no props fills with theatrical energy, as the two leads, joined by Rafi Kalmar, Amir Yerushalmi, Leon Moroz, Ariel Krizopolsky and Eyal Raz taking on a number of roles, present a host of fast-moving and vibrant small scenes taking the audience on “Rosenblatt Express’s” bumpy yet fame-filled ride through life. Not a musical, the few numbers heard in the performance consist either of recordings of Rosenblatt (at one moment, showing Botzer standing behind a white screen as Yossele singing in a vaudeville performance) or, for example, “Ain’t She Sweet” composed in 1927 (Milton Ager-music, Jack Yellen-lyrics) one of the hit songs typical of the Roaring 20s, capturing the atmosphere of that time in America. The play raises issues of the conservative lifestyle expected of a cantor: Yossele’s father is shocked to hear that his son has been to see “Madama Butterfly”, Yossele is criticized for making gramophone recordings and the powers that be of the Hamburg Synagogue insist there be no improvisation in his cantorial singing. “Rosenblatt Express” offers some moments of suspense: missing the train for a performance in New York, Rosenblatt hires a train to whisk him off at record speed from Philadelphia to New York…hence the play’s title. There is the episode of another big job offer with the manic Sam Warner of Warner Bros. and Sam Warner’s sudden death, followed by the tragedy of the Great Depression, the latter bringing the cantor back to singing in the synagogue, but for a low salary that leaves him helpless to pay back loans.
In the foreword to his book of Recitatives (1928), Rosenblatt wrote “…I was moved by the double impulse of serving the needs of the Jewish cantor and of demonstrating to the musical world at large that genuine Jewish hazzanut [cantorial singing] can still satisfy completely even the refined taste of today…I shall feel amply rewarded for my efforts when I shall see this work widely disseminated…” Telling his story in a dynamic, entertaining and accessible manner, the performance at Habima concludes with a few more moments for the audience to relish in the sound of Rosenblatt’s voice, yet another moving reminder of the greatness and uniqueness of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.