Cantorial Music on Secular Kibbutzim



The following letter has a news report about a growing interest in cantorial music on secular kibbutzim. It also has information on a world-famous cantor of the early 20th century who passed away in the Land of Israel. At the end of the letter is a link to a special recording of this cantor:


Dear Friends,


In a previous letter – Part 2: The Renewal Tour of the Rabbis – there was the following comment:


“Many of the early leaders and policy-makers of the State of Israel came from secular, leftist kibbutzim that were known for their anti-religious attitude. In our generation, a new Jewish spirit is emerging on these kibbutzim, for a growing number of their members have begun to explore their spiritual roots. One can now find synagogues on these kibbutzim, as well as Torah classes. These kibbutzniks inherited the legacy of the pioneers of the New Yishuv, and many of them are now willing to study Torah with Chareidei men and women who inherited the legacy of the pioneers of the Old Yishuv. For example, there is a Chareidi organization named, Ayelet Hashchar (Morning Star), which has been placing Torah-committed couples on more than 60 kibbutzim and smaller settlements around the country, where they serve as teachers and guides.”


 The following excerpts from a recent news report discuss another related development:




Traditional Jewish Music Sought in Secular Kibbutzim
by Hillel Fendel   (Tevet 5, 5770, 22 December 09) – A new initiative by the Ayelet HaShachar (Morning Star) outreach organization is gaining in popularity in the Galilee: Cantorial (hazanut) evenings featuring traditional Jewish cantors singing traditional Jewish music. The first one was held in Kibbutz Kinneret, one of the first kibbutzim (agricultural cooperative communities) in Israel and long considered a bastion of secularism, and enthusiastic requests have already come in for more.


…In addition, Ministry of Education officials have informed Ayelet HaShachar that they are interested in setting up a national program of such concerts…The driving force behind the idea is Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, head of Ayelet HaShachar. He says the goal is to bring Judaism into people’s lives: “They’ll taste it and realize it's good!” …Rabbi Raanan has much experience with sparking Jewish interest where there has been no Judaism before. He and his organization have built synagogues in secular communities, organized literally thousands of telephone study-pairs (chavrutot) between religious and secular Jews, and sponsored Torah programming and classes in places that had never seen the likes of it before.




In the spirit of the new interest in cantorial music on these kibbutzim, I have attached at the end of this letter a link to a recording of a beloved and world-famous cantor of the early 20th century: Yossele Rosenblatt. He was born in 1882 in the Ukranian Jewish town “Belaya Tserkov.” His father, a Ruzhiner chassid who frequented the court of the Sadagora Rebbe, was himself a cantor, and the Chassidic spirit and music was a major influence on Yossele’s life.


He left Europe to serve as a cantor in New York City. As David Olivestone wrote in “Jewish Action” (Fall, 2003): “He possessed a magnificent tenor voice of great beauty and extraordinary range, with a remarkably agile falsetto. In addition, he had perfect pitch and could read the most difficult musical score at sight.” Both his congregants and his concert audiences loved the sweet timbre of his voice, and his heartfelt singing evoked the emotions of his listeners. According to an old Jewish saying, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart,” and this was also true with the songs of Yosselle Rosenblatt.


His fame spread, and his concerts were reviewed in the New York Times and other leading American newspapers. Although this was an age when many Jewish immigrants were abandoning their traditional Torah way of life in order to assimilate into the American culture, this was not the case with Yossele Rosenblatt. Despite his success and fame, he continued to fervently fulfill the Torah’s path of mitzvos, and even when he gave concerts to the general public, he would wear his large black yarmulke and frock coat.  Through his spiritual songs, he expressed the yearnings of our people, and he was affectionately known among our people as “Yossele.” He felt a deep concern for the suffering of our people; thus, in 1917, he went on a concert tour of thirty cities in order to help raise funds for the many Jews who had suffered greatly during World War I.


His successful appearance in Chicago during that tour presented him with a great challenge. An invited guest at the Chicago concert was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, who was so struck by Rosenblatt’s artistic ability that he visited him immediately after the concert and offered him $1,000 per performance – a very high fee in those days – if he would sing the role of Eleazar in Halevy’s opera, La Juive. Campanini carefully outlined a contract with terms that he believed would ensure that Rosenblatt would not have to compromise on his traditional Jewish way of life. For example, he could retain his beard; he would not have to appear on Shabbos and the Jewish Festivals; and kosher food would be obtained for him. Although Cantor Rosenblatt was greatly tempted by the offer, in the end he decided not to accept it.


The offer and its refusal caused a storm, with reporters from both the general and Jewish media vying to understand how Yossele Rosenblatt could turn down such an offer. After all, this was “America” – the land where even new immigrants could achieve fame and fortune. In an interview with the trade journal “Musical America” (June 22, 1918), Rosenblatt admitted: “The cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me.” He added that “suddenly a voice whispered in my ear, ‘Yossele, don’t do it!’ ” The “cantor” within his soul overcame his desire to be a famous opera singer.


Cantor Rosenblatt’s loyalty to Judaism led him to help Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, a leading Torah educator and head of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, with a new outreach project. Rabbi Mendlowitz was involved in starting a new Yiddish Chareidi newspaper which would provide a Torah perspective and thereby serve as an alternative to the secular Yiddish newspapers which were read by most of the Jewish immigrants to America. Rabbi Mendlowitz and Cantor Rosenblatt were the main investors in this new publication. Among the talented writers it attracted was Rabbi Leo Jung, a prominent community leader who wrote weekly articles in English. The publication, however, was going against the strong trend towards assimilation during that period, and after a few years, the newspaper went bankrupt. This caused Cantor Rosenblatt and Rabbi Mendlowitz to go into debt, and Cantor Rosenblatt did concert tours in order to pay his creditors.

In 1933, he was offered a movie role that he could accept in good conscience. The proposed movie, “Dream of my People,” would show the Jews of America the Land of Israel with its sacred sites and newly built cities and towns. In this movie, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt would sing his own compositions at the biblical sites relevant to the words of those prayers.

For Yossele, this was an opportunity to visit the Land of Israel – the realization of a lifelong dream of his own. While he was in the Land, he gave concerts, and he participated in the services of various synagogues. Among those who attended one of his concerts was the well-known Hebrew poet of the modern Zionist movement, Chaim Nachman Bialik. After hearing Cantor Rosenblatt sing his famous rendition of Shir Ha-ma’alos (Psalm 126), Bialik proposed that it become the national anthem of our people. The psalm opens with the following words: “When Hashem will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers.” 

Yossele hoped to later go on a European concert tour, in order to raise funds which would enable him and his family to settle in Zion.


On Shabbos, June 17, 1933, he led a “farewell” service held at the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem.  The next day, after filming a scene at the Dead Sea, Yossele suffered a sudden heart attack. Within a short while, his soul left this world.


He was buried on the Mount of Olives, and over 5,000 Jews came to the levaya - the honoring and escorting of the soul as it begins its journey to the World to Come. (Scenes from this moving event were later included in the movie.) The eulogy was given by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.


Over seven decades later, Yossele Rosenblatt’s impact continues to be felt. Many of his compositions have become staples in the repertoires of Ashkenazic cantors and are regularly sung in synagogue services and concerts. His recordings have been repeatedly reissued, and there is also a recording of the songs that he sang when he was in the Land of Israel.


I have attached a link to a recording of Cantor Rosenblatt chanting an ancient Hebrew prayer for our endangered people – a prayer which is especially relevant for our own situation when our people living in the Land of Zion are facing very great danger and anti-Jewish hatred is spreading all over the world. The following is an English translation of this prayer:


“Our brethren, the entire family of Israel, who are delivered into distress and captivity, whether they are on sea or dry land – may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily, and soon –and let us say: Amen.”


May the soulful songs of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt bring us closer to Hashem and to all our brethren, the entire family of Israel.


Much Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. Most of the above information appeared in an article by David Olivestone about Cantor Rosenblatt which was published in “Jewish Action” (Fall, 2003). Some of the information about the Yiddish Chareidi newspaper that Cantor Rosenblatt invested in appeared in the biography of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz titled, “Reb Shrage Feivel” by Yonoson Rosenblum (ArtScroll History Series).


2. Recent letters – including “The Renewal Tour of the Rabbis” – have been added to the archive of our series which appears on our website:

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