The Real-Life Jazz Singer
Mar 20th 2015

Those of you who know me well know that I am a huge movie buff. I believe I have mentioned before that my wife and I are often accused of constantly speaking in movie quotes because the scripts become cemented in our brains.

As long as there have been movies, there have been cantors trying to get into movies. More often than not, when a cantor is fortunate enough to get cast in a film, he finds himself playing the role of “the cantor”, singing a Hebrew prayer to add authenticity to a scene taking place at a synagogue or Jewish funeral. My friend Rafi Frieder, an Israeli cantor in New York, is the cantor in the Ben Stiller film Keeping the Faith, and my friend Chayim Frenkel, a cantor in Los Angeles, plays the cantor in the Billy Crystal film Mr. Saturday Night. Cantor Uri Frenkel, Chayim’s father, got the role of the cantor in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond, and in the original 1927 Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, the part of the cantor singing Kol Nidrei went to none other than the great H̱azzan Yossele Rosenblatt.

If you’re like me, you get a kick out of seeing a cantor in a Jewish scene on screen. You look and listen carefully in case there’s a blooper to spot and discuss later with your friends. Sometimes, the presence of a cantor in a scene seems contrived, although in a film like The Jazz Singer, it fits in easily to the story line: the young son of a cantor turns his back on his father’s profession in order to seek a career in show business. This classic tale has been re-told on stage and in film for many generations, so much so that the term “Jazz Singer” is recognized to mean someone who sings both liturgical and popular music.

When I was performing in Europe in the late 1970s, one of the reviewers of my show referred to me as “the British Jazz Singer” because I was known as the cantor who was also in mainstream show business (or possibly the pop singer who was also a cantor). Somehow the name stuck and they called me “the British Jazz Singer” for decades following. I was young, and the idea of a real-life jazz singer was a novelty.

Long before I was born, however, there was another “real-life Jazz Singer” and from the first note I ever heard him sing, I was instantly enthralled.

Born in Bessarabia, Moishe Oysher came from a line of six generations of cantors. Instead of becoming a cantor, however, he became an actor and entertainer. He was a star of the Yiddish theatre right here in Canada—first in Winnipeg, then in Montreal—before moving to the United States where he continued to perform on stage, film and radio. Many years later, he took a High Holy Day job as a cantor on the Lower East Side of New York, thus becoming the first singer to step from the bine (stage) to the bimah (pulpit). The rest of his life was a finely worked balancing act between the two worlds.

For last year’s Ashkenaz Festival, I presented a one-hour performance of Moishe Oysher’s songs. The overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the audience coupled with a suggestion from Moses Znaimer to develop the concept further encouraged me to do just that. On Tuesday, May 12 at the St. Lawrence Centre, I am delighted to present The Wonderful World of Moishe Oysher. It has been extremely rewarding to put together this music event with more story lines, pictures, sound bytes and movie clips, along with the most memorable and enduring songs that are associated with this great charismatic entertainer. The show will feature the fabulous Moishe Oysher Orchestra as well as surprise guests who will present a tribute to the iconic Barry Sisters. This concert is a part of Jewish Music Week in Toronto and tickets go on sale to the public on April 1. Beth Tzedec members, though, can take advantage of an early bird opportunity to purchase tickets in advance, available only through the Beth Tzedec office until April 2.

I look forward to seeing you all at this new, exciting musical event. Before Passover, take a break from preparing and ‘YouTube’ Moishe Oysher’s Chad Gadyo. Then you’ll understand everything!