I was pleased to see a profile in the New York Times on July 20 of the unusual cantorial-music-aficionado-turned-audiophile-sound-engineer Mendel Werdyger. Werdyger is the proprietor of Mostly Music, one of the last bastions of old school Jewish culture in New York City. While you can certainly buy the standard schlock recordings of Hasidic boys choirs there, the shop is also rich with reissues of powerful cantorial records and classics of Yiddish theater and Hasidic music.
My cousin Cantor Zachary Konigsberg and I have long been fans of Mostly Music. Zachary first introduced me to the shop when he was living in Kensington, a stone’s throw from Boro Park’s heavily populated Jewish enclave and specialty shops. We would go there partly because we got a kick out of seeing our grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg’s cassette on the shelves alongside the pantheon of cantorial greats. Here we had the opportunity to buy cassettes by many of the classic names in hazanus: Pierre Pinchik, Leib Glantz, Zavel Kwartin and more. We chatted with Werdyger on a few occasions. I was always struck by his warm and open presence and his obvious scholarship in the field of cantorial music.
So I was very glad to see Werdyger’s restoration project receive such high profile attention. At the same time, I wonder if the records will have the same emotional impact without the layers of noise and sound coloration that 78 rpm records have. For me, part of the excitement of listening to old cantorial records comes from doing the mental work of parting the mist of noise and delving deeply enough into the sound so that the separation between the noise and the music becomes blurred. I have always loved the feeling of being both repelled and beckoned forward by the strange and eerie noises of old time recordings.
Regardless of my personal listening perversities, a major reissue of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt’s music is reason for celebration. Rosenblatt is one of the best known of the Golden Age Cantors, and his power as a performer translates beyond the boundaries of genre and culture. I once saw him name-checked in an interview with experimental Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, an indication of the far-reaching nature of his artistry. I am deeply happy to have the opportunity to listen to his work anew.
Watch Yossele Rosenblatt perform in ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927):