Had Josef Rosenblatt merely been the greatest Jewish cantor, the news of his death in Palestine early this week could not have aroused the profound feeling that it did. He had qualities which endeared him to hundreds of thousands of Jews all over the world, qualities that included not only his golden voice, but his simplicity and integrity as a Jew.
“He had been active all day yesterday,” the despatch the day after his death said, “visiting the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea and the River Jordan, in which he bathed, while the American-Palestine Fox Film Company was making the last shots of a film in which he was starring.”
The picture is completed, and the world will have a record not only of the voice but of that short, bearded figure who had in him the power to move every Jew within range of his voice. He died at the age of fifty-one. For more than forty of these he had lifted his voice in song, for he was a boy prodigy who remained a prodigy when he grew up. The first time that he sang in a synagogue, it is reported, he had to stand up on a box so that he could be seen.
He was orthodox not because it was convenient, but because it was a conviction. It is not entirely inconceivable that the emotion of bathing in the sacred water of the Jordan and re-living the scenes of the past in Palestine may have over-excited him and brought on the heart attack from which he died. It is to his eternal credit that he refused to appear before the Austrian Emperor in order that he might thus avoid the possibility of being commanded to remain in Vienna, when his real wish was to sing in synagogues.
His reputation extended far beyond the boundaries of Jewry. It is incredible, but true, that letters addressed to “Yossele Rosenblatt, America,” reached him with no difficulty.
Some years ago he was drawn against his will into a publishing venture, which quickly proved a dismal failure. Cantor Rosenblatt was left owing about $150,000 to various creditors. Undaunted, he went into vaudeville. Only few persons really know what agony it was for this dignified figure to sing “When You and I Were Seventeen”, and similar popular ballads before unappreciative audiences in small towns scattered throughout the United States. They thought him grotesque; they often laughed at him; they seldom appreciated the beauty in both his voice and his own appearance, as he stepped out of the wings wearing a “Yarmelka” and a black suit.
He was the author of more than 400 compositions. He never shaved. He once refused an offer of $3,000 a night to sing in “The Jewess” with the Chicago Opera Company because the role would have required him to shave off his beard.
Born on May 9, 1882, the tenth child of a poor cantor in the Russian Ukraine, he became the “wonder boy” in many cities in Europe before he was twelve years old.