The Lost World of African American Cantors

July 20 2020

During the first half of the 20th century, American Jews became eager consumers of cantorial music. This was also a time of increased interaction between Jews and African Americans—by the 1920s Harlem had become home to the world’s second-largest concentration of Jews—and the proliferation of black synagogues. Perhaps one result of these trends, writes Henry Sapoznik, was the phenomenon of the black cantor:

That we even know anything about the diversity of black cantors in the 1920s is thanks to journalist and essayist Sh. Rubinzohn of Di Yiddishe Togblatt (the “Jewish Daily News”). . . . In his June 28th, 1920 column, entitled Mendel, der Shvartser Khazn (Mendel the Black Cantor) Rubinzohn tells of arriving in his office to find a young black man waiting to speak to him. He introduced himself as Mendel, a press agent for Kessler’s Theater—a popular Yiddish stage on the Lower East Side—and was looking for a plug in Rubinzohn’s column for their new show which featured Mendel’s specialty: Yiddish songs and cantorial prayers.

Asked for a demonstration, Mendel launched into the industrial-strength Yiddish showstopper, “A Khazndl af Shabes” (“A Cantor on the Sabbath”) a demanding pyrotechnical mix of ornate cantorial melismata and snappy barn-burning theatricality.

“He sings with a real Jewish turn,” Rubinzohn marveled, “with a real Jewish moan and sigh.” . . . Rubinzohn [also] commented on Mendel’s reyner yidish (literate Yiddish), about his birth in Barbados, his coming to America around 1910, and his eventual migration to the Yiddish theater.

A few months later, Rubinzohn profiled one Dovid Ha-Kohen, from the Ethiopian city of Massawa:

[Ha-Kohen] claimed to know 29 languages and who, in a wide-ranging conversation which toggled effortlessly between Yiddish and Hebrew, offered a whirlwind narrative about being educated in Paris and Palestine, studying under a cantor in Russia as a meshoyrer (an apprentice cantor), marrying a Jewish woman in Pinsk and fathering two children, doing translation work for the U.S. Army and coming to the United States to become a cantor.

Rubinzohn was curious: what did his parents say about his marriage? They were horrified and [said] that it was a “shande” (disgrace.)

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Read more at Henry Sapoznik

More about: African Americans, American Jewish History, Jewish music, Yiddish theater

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter