Yossele Rosenblatt was the most famous chazzan (or, cantor) of his era, known as “the Jewish Caruso.” After arriving in America from Europe a century ago, he not only led services around the country before settling in New York, but also earned large sums for concerts and sang in “The Jazz Singer,” the first talkie.
People of a certain age, on meeting me, sometimes ask if I’m related to that gifted tenor and composer.
I tell them that if they heard me sing they wouldn’t even ask.
But there was a period of several years, many years ago, when I led the Shacharit (or, morning) service on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at my father’s synagogue in Annapolis, Md. And while my voice was more reedy than robust, I can honestly say that my prayers were fervent, especially the poignant one where the chazzan offers a plea, asking God to heed his supplications on behalf of the congregation.
Translated from the Hebrew it begins, “I am frightened as I open my mouth to bring forth words of prayer … I am short of deeds and therefore I fear. I lack understanding – how can I hope?”
Trust me, every word came from the heart.
When the Shacharit service would begin, in dramatic fashion, with me first chanting aloud in place and then slowly walking from my seat to the bima, there weren’t that many people in attendance. As I led the service I faced the ark, with my back to the congregation. But when I reached the end of Shacharit, taking the Torah and turning to face the congregation to lead the Shema, my knees would grow weak as I saw the full house of hundreds of people. That memory is still vivid, and I have great empathy and respect for those who not only lead the services but also inspire us with their prayers.
I learned the special High Holy Day nusach, or melodies, from my Dad, my older brother, and a recording made by Avraham Davis, the famed cantor whose son Mayer succeeded him at Cong. Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.
The senior Davis’ recorded cantorial primer is a classic of its kind, taking the novice listener step by step through the pages of the Machzor, even injecting a krechtz, or sob, at times to indicate the emotional pitch of a particular prayer.
If memory serves, on the recording the cantor would sometimes switch abruptly from the expressive to the practical, as in chanting a few heartfelt “oy yoy yoy”s and then announcing matter-of-factly, “continue like that to the bottom of page 163.”
In any event, my brief stint as a High Holy Day chazzan, or more accurately ba’al tefiloh — which translates as “one who offers prayers” but has come to mean a person who is not in the league of a real cantor but can lead the service serviceably — was a humbling experience, one that helped me appreciate the beauty of the davening, in both words and melodies.
But clearly I was “no Rosenblatt,” which is to say I didn’t have cantorial chops.
There was another time, back in college, when it was made clear to me that I was no Rosenblatt, or at least not the right one.
You see there was reason for confusion about my lineage because Yossele Rosenblatt’s son, Samuel, was a prominent rabbi in Baltimore when I was growing up, and my Dad was a rabbi in nearby Annapolis. But we weren’t related.
When I was a student at Yeshiva University, I took a course in philosophy with the highly respected and much feared professor, Alexander Litman, who at the time was in his 36th year teaching there. On the first day of class he liked to engage in a very high level form of Jewish Geography with the students; he had been at YU so long he had taught brothers, fathers and uncles of many of us.
The professor, whose distinct accent was a mixture of European and The Bronx, was frail in body but strong in intellect and sharp in wit.
On the night of the famous Northeast Blackout of 1965, which plunged 30 million people into the dark for 12 hours, we were in philosophy class when all the power went off.
As we wondered whether it was just our building affected or more widespread, a student looked out the window and reported, “The lights are out in The Bronx.”
“Gentlemen,” Professor Litman said without missing a beat, “the lights have been out in the Bronx for many years.”
In general he enjoyed making us aware of our intellectual limitations. He often picked on one senior in the back of the room, a star of the YU basketball team who was better known for his jump shot than his grasp of philosophical theories.
Professor Litman would ask him tough questions, and when the student had no reply, the teacher would say dismissively, “ach, go dribble.”
Or he would command us to “take out the notebooks” and proceed to offer up a lengthy and obtuse definition of philosophy. When he was finished he would call on one of us and say, “You got that? You understand it now?”
He might hear a shaky “I think so,” from the student, and then Professor Litman would stop, smile, and say, “Then you’re a better man than I.”
His point being, I suppose, that philosophy defies simple, spoon-fed definitions.
My moment with the professor goes back to the very first day of class when he was going through each of our name cards and trying to figure out a connection to a former student or someone he knew.
When he called out “Rosenblatt,” I identified myself, and he said, “Are you from Maryland? Is your father a rabbi?”
I answered yes, but had a sinking feeling he was on the wrong track.
“Ah, Rosenblatt, I know your father well, your grandfather was a towering figure. Your father and I studied Ugaritic together at Johns Hopkins with [the famed Biblical scholar] Professor Albright,” and he was off and running, free-associating and warming to the task.
“How is your father?” he finally asked.
“He’s fine,” I said, “but my father’s a rabbi in Annapolis and we’re not related to the rabbi in Baltimore.”
Professor Litman was quiet for a moment, glared at me, looked down at my name card in front of him, looked at me again and then said brusquely, “Rosenblatt, you’ve got the wrong father.”