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.)