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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

When Jews attend services this week for Rosh Hashanah, they may hear melodies composed by cantor Josef Rosenblatt. He's the latest subject in our series 50 Great Voices.

Yossele Rosenblatt, as he was known, was born in Ukraine in 1882. He became a superstar tenor in the U.S. in the early 1990s. NPR's Ina Jaffe has this profile.

INA JAFFE: You've probably never heard of Yossele Rosenblatt unless you're a serious fan of cantorial music, in which case he is Elvis, Sinatra, Pavarotti -a singer to be remembered forever.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. YOSSELE ROSENBLATT (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. BERNARD BEER (Director, Belz School of Jewish Music, Yeshiva University): People felt that he was authentic, that what he sang was real.

JAFFE: Cantor Bernard Beer is the director of the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University in New York.

Mr. BEER: He was an Orthodox Jew. He meant what he was doing. His prayers came from the heart.

JAFFE: Then there's that voice, a range of around three octaves that he could navigate with ease, including a famous falsetto.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: Rosenblatt was born to the cantor's life in a small, Ukrainian town in a house with a dirt floor. The stories of him making beautiful musical sounds while still in the cradle are impossible to verify.

But by the time he was eight years old, he was being paid to sing at synagogues throughout Eastern Europe. He emigrated to New York in 1912, and when Rosenblatt sang, the synagogue was jammed. Every seat, every aisle was filled, everyone there to hear the little man with the full dark beard.

Mr. JOSEPH GOLE (Former President, Cantors Assembly): They treated, actually, these cantors like superstars. They were the superstars of their era.

JAFFE: Joseph Gole was, until recently, the president of the Cantors Assembly.

Mr. GOLE: We have to think back at that time where, you know, so much of the immigration of Jews that came in the late 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, these were people that found their culture and their art in the synagogue. And so to them, going to hear a cantor was like maybe other people's experience of going to hear an opera or going to hear a concert.

JAFFE: Worshippers were drawn not only by Rosenblatt's voice but by his compositions. He wrote most of what he sang, says Gole, and gave listeners something more concrete to hang onto than the traditional free-form cantorial chanting.

Mr. GOLE: For instance, one of the pieces he's very well known is a recording of a tal(ph). And he starts out with a melody.

Mr. GOLE: (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. GOLE: So as opposed to just doing something very cantorial:

Mr. GOLE: (Singing in foreign language).

Mr. GOLE And the congregation could really join in and could really walk out humming, if you will.

JAFFE: Rosenblatt's extensive recording career made him known to an audience beyond the Jewish community, likewise his relentless schedule of concerts that took him around the country and across Europe.

But he rejected a generous offer to sing for the Chicago Opera Company. He didn't want to play a fictional character or wear makeup or sing on a stage with women.

Mr. BEER It probably helped his career.

JAFFE: Says Bernard Beer.

Mr. BEER: Here's a cantor who feels that opera is not compatible with his calling as a cantor. Because of that, his engagements doubled and tripled. They wanted to hear and see this cantor who turned down in 1918 what was $1,000 a night to sing.

JAFFE: A few years later, Rosenblatt turned down $100,000 to play a part in the first talking picture, "The Jazz Singer," for the same reason that led him to say no to the opera. Still, Warner Brothers just had to have him. So they threw a scene into the movie where Rosenblatt plays himself in concert.

(Soundbite of film, "The Jazz Singer")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: This rendition of (speaking foreign language) sounds convincingly scratchy to be from the first talkie, but now you can hear Rosenblatt sing it with clarity.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: That's from a collection of digitally restored Rosenblatt recordings produced by Mendel Werdyger, who runs a Jewish music store in Brooklyn.

Mr. MENDEL WERDYGER (Operator, Mostly Music): I hope that the people that listen to it now will have the same pleasure of listening to his voice like when he was alive.

JAFFE: So far, Werdyger's produced three CDs of digitally cleaned-up Rosenblatt recordings.

Mr. WERDYGER: And there are literally tens of thousands of fans throughout the world that he has now that never knew him. They never you know, they never had anything to do with him, but they still adore his music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: Having legions of fans during his lifetime was not enough to save Rosenblatt from his own folly. He made a disastrous investment in a Jewish newspaper that left him a ruined man.

Then the Depression hit. His synagogue let him go. Concert bookings became scarce. Finally, he traveled to Palestine to sing in a documentary about the Holy Land. There, at the age of 51, Rosenblatt died of a heart attack. He is buried in Jerusalem.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: While Rosenblatt is still revered, his elaborate compositions are not sung in synagogues now as often as they used to be. But something of his style is heard today, no matter what composition a cantor is singing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: It's that little sobbing sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: If Rosenblatt didn't invent it, he certainly popularized it, and Joseph Gole says the source of that sound was very deep.

Mr. GOLE: It's a dialogue that Rosenblatt was having with God, you know, and it was a questioning, and it was a struggle in the sense of whatever he was struggling with in his life. And many of the prayers emote that kind of feeling, you know, a questioning feeling.

JAFFE: Rosenblatt once said that he prayed not as a cantor, but as just another member of the congregation. I pray, he said, and listen to the prayer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: Ina mentioned Yossele Rosenblatt's appearance in the movie "The Jazz Singer." You can watch that scene at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROSENBLATT: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: This is NPR.

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