Some of the most ‘entertaining’ Chazanut every recorded, must surely be that executed by the late Moishe Oysher. His Ki Hinei Kachomer from Kol Nidrei, or Dayeinu from the Seder service, for example, with their orchestra and large choir accompaniment, have a popular appeal that belie their artistry.
And it’s hardly surprising that Oysher attempted unashamedly to appeal to the masses, when you realise that he became as famous on the stage and in the movies, as he ever was at the Amud.
Moishe Oysher (and that was indeed his real name), was born in Lipkon, Bessarabia in 1907. Even though there were Chazanim in his family, reputedly going back for six generations, he seems to have been drawn more to the stage than following in his predecessor’s footsteps, and whenever travelling players visited his village, much to the disapproval of his father, he would try to get a part in their production as a child player.
In 1921, he was taken to Canada and joined a travelling Yiddish theatrical company, with whom he appeared on the Yiddish stage in New York. In 1932 he led his own company in South America.
In 1934, after he returned from a trip to Buenos Aires, he was unable to get a part in the New York shows since they had all been cast. Needing work, and with the encouragement of his friends, since it was coming up to the High Holyday season he applied to conduct services at the Rumanian Synagogue. He obtained the position and was a sensation.
Moishe now had two careers running. He starred in Yiddish films, ‘The Cantor’s Son,’ ‘Yankel the Blacksmith,’ and ‘Der Vilna Balebesel,’ and it was not long before he became something of a ‘Kosher heart throb.’ He also made numerous recordings, and continued to sing at the Amud. Although he received many offers to appear on Broadway, Moishe always refused, since he would not desecrate Shabbat.
His extensive acting experience clearly gave him a great advantage at the Amud. Listening to his recordings, one can hear the great artistry in his superb, rich voice. He was a Chazan who knew how to manipulate the emotions of his congregation (or audience) and was clearly a great showman.
Moishe Oysher’s style of Chazanut truly reflects the ‘old time’ Chazan. He was a ‘zogger’, praying every word with great emotion and fervency, and his Chassidic background is clearly discernable in many of his renderings.
His style would probably not be acceptable in Shul today, but it is wonderful to listen to his recordings and hear ‘pure’ Chazanut as our grandparents would have done.