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

How China Equips the Islamic Republic to Repress Its People

In its dedication to bringing totalitarianism into the 21st century, the Chinese Communist party has developed high-tech forms of surveillance using facial-recognition software, a vast system of “social credit,” and careful control over its subjects’ cellular phones. Even stricter and more invasive measures are applied to the Uyghurs of the northwestern part of the country. Beijing is also happy to export its innovations in tyranny to allies like Iran and Russia. Playing a key role in these advances is a nominally private company called Tiandy Technologies. Craig Singleton describes its activities:

Both Tiandy testimonials and Chinese-government press releases advertise the use of the company’s products by Chinese officials to track and interrogate Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province. According to human-rights groups, Chinese authorities also employ Tiandy products, such as “tiger chairs,” to torture Uyghurs and other minorities.

Iran has long relied on China to augment its digital surveillance capabilities, and Tehran was an early adopter of Beijing’s “social-credit” system, which it wields to assess citizens’ behavior and trustworthiness. . . . Iranian government representatives have publicized plans to leverage smart technologies, including AI-powered face recognition, to maintain regime stability and neutralize dissent. Enhanced cooperation with China is central to those efforts.

At present, Tiandy is not subject to U.S. sanctions or export controls. In light of Tiandy’s operations in both Xinjiang and Iran, policymakers should consider removing the company, its owner, and stakeholders from the international financial system and global supply chains.

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Read more at FDD

More about: China, Human Rights, Iran, Totalitarianism, U.S. Foreign policy