It’s said that in the late 1920’s, a most extraordinary court case was held in the United States. Two of the world’s most famous Chazanim were engaged in a battle to claim the rights to two musical compositions – Ashamnu Mikol Am, from Selichot, and Rachel Mevaka al Baneha, a concert item, based on words from the prophet Jeremiah. Both Yossele Rosenblatt and David Roitman claimed to have composed them and, at the end of the day, the court ruled in Roitman’s favour. I don’t know if the transcript of the case was ever published, or if the trial ever happened, but, if it did, it would surely make for fascinating reading!
David Roitman was born in Derezhinke, Podolia. As a lad he sang in various Synagogue choirs with some very famous Chazanim, including Moshe Gruberman and Zeidel Rovner and, like most Chazanim in those days, he graduated from being a chorister to become a Chazan in his own right. At 18 he was appointed in Elisavetgrad and at 25 he became Chazan in Vilna. The Great Synagogue in St. Petersburg was his next post and in this prestigious position, with a salary commensurate with its importance, he remained until 1917.
Being forced to move on by the Bolshevik Revolution, he went to Odessa and then Kishinyev. He remained in Kishinyev for a time and was even able to embark on some concert tours from there, and it was on one of these tours, while he was in Bucharest, that he was fortunate to be heard by the American consul, who was greatly impressed by his singing and arranged for him to emigrate to the US with his family.
When he first arrived in the States, Roitman occupied the Bimah at the Ohev Shalom Congregation in Brooklyn, where the renowned Leo Low was choirmaster, and from 1924 until his death, he officiated at Congregation Shaare Zedek in New York, making many concert tours in Europe and South America.
When Roitman came to England, he was guest Chazan at the Nelson Street Synagogue.
Roitman had a most beautiful, lyric tenor voice. It was very flexible, and he was able to sing the most complicated coloratura ( ie the long, flowery, twiddly bits). He was renowned for having the unusual facility of being able to pass from a very high falsetto into full voice with absolutely no discernable break. This is technically very difficult to execute and few, of even the world’s greatest male singers, have ever been able to achieve it as faultlessly as Roitman.
Although David Roitman died at the comparatively young age of 59, it is fortunate that he left us with quite a number of his recordings, some of which were made whilst he was still in Russia. Thanks to modern technology, we can continue to thrill at his wonderful artistry.