Thursday, July 22, 2010

Od Yosef Chai in the NY Times

He was called the Jewish Caruso. Indeed, fervent enthusiasts sometimes referred to Caruso as the Italian Yossele Rosenblatt.
Mr. Rosenblatt, who died in 1933, was regarded as the greatest cantor of his time. But his was a time when music was recorded on heavy shellac or celluloid 78 r.p.m. records. The quality of those recordings was never that faithful in the first place and wore away over the years.
Enter Mendel Werdyger, a lush-bearded 52-year-old Hasidic Jew who runs a record shop on 13th Avenue in Borough Park, Brooklyn. With no college degree and no professional training in sound engineering, Mr. Werdyger has used advanced audio restoration programs on the ordinary computer in his ragtag office to patiently clean away the crackles, hisses and other distortions on those creaky old 78s.
The result: three compact discs with Mr. Rosenblatt singing 35 tracks, including prayers and even a folk chestnut, “Mein Yiddishe Mama.” The first CD has sold 15,000 copies; the third was released a few weeks ago.
“It never sounded so clear,” said Bernard Beer, director of the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University. “I was brought up with this music and I know those recordings from childhood, and I listened to it and I told my associate there’s no comparison to anything that was done before.”
The achievement would have been striking had it been that of a sound engineer. But what sound engineer would spend 5 to 10 hours per song to produce CDs for the rarefied world of cantorial buffs? It was, for Mr. Werdyger, a work of love and zeal.
A tall, broad-shouldered father of 6 and grandfather of 10 who, like many Hasidim, wears a double-breasted frock coat known as a rekel, Mr. Werdyger has cantorial DNA. His 90-year-old father, David Werdyger, is a cantor who succeeded another superstar, Moishe Oysher, in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. His brother Mordechai Ben David, 59, is a popular singer of what Mr. Werdyger laughingly calls “Hasidic rock.” With a sonorous voice of his own, Mr. Werdyger leads prayers at his shtibl, or room-size synagogue, in Borough Park.
Growing up in Crown Heights and Borough Park, Mr. Werdyger had a yeshiva education, going all the way through kolel — a Talmudic institute for adults. At 21, he went into his father’s business, Aderet Music, a wholesaler of Jewish recordings.
About 20 years ago, he found himself at the old 47th Street Photo store buying his first computer — with a now-ancient 20-megabyte hard drive — but was captivated by the other equipment around him, including a machine the salesman had to explain was a fax.
“He told me you put it in one end and it comes out the other,” Mr. Werdyger recalled. “I was totally awe-struck and I got hooked on technology.”
About five years ago, he started dabbling in audio restoration, cleaning up recordings of his father’s music. Rosenblatt became his Everest.
Mr. Rosenblatt was born in Russia in 1882 and toured Eastern Europe as a child prodigy. In 1912 he immigrated to the United States and became the cantor at Ohab Zedek, an Orthodox synagogue then on 116th Street in Harlem. Blessed with a penetrating bell-like tenor with a range of two and a half octaves, and a gift for coloratura and falsetto, Mr. Rosenblatt had the ability to squeeze the pathos or elation out of every prayer.

Continue Reading at the New York Times