Yiddisher Black cantors from 100 years ago rediscovered thanks to rare recording

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Renee Ghert-Zand (The Times of Israel) writes about the many black cantors of Yiddish theater. Musicologist Henry Sapoznik explains that there were at least a dozen, including one woman (known as Goldye, di Shvartze Khaznte). In the Black congregations highlighted by Sapoznik, were the Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham founded by the Barbados-born Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford, and the Saint Kitts and Nevis-born Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, founder of The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, and “a network of synagogues in the US and the Caribbean based on traditional Orthodox Ashkenazi traditions.” Here are excerpts from The Times of Israel:

Early 1920s newspaper ads for the blockbuster New York Yiddish stage shows Dos Khupe Kleyd (The Wedding Dress) and Yente Telebende (Loquacious Battle‐Ax), featured a Black artist among the spotlighted performers. This was Thomas LaRue, a Yiddish-speaking singer widely known in the interwar period as der schvartzer khazan (The Black Cantor). Although long-forgotten now, LaRue (who sometimes used the surname Jones) was among the favorites of Yiddish theater and cantorial music. Reportedly raised in Newark, New Jersey, by a single mother who was drawn to Judaism, he even drew interest from beyond the US.

LaRue was booked for more than one European tour in the 1930s, but audiences and critics in Jewish communities in Poland and Germany were somewhat more skeptical than the Americans. Although many were impressed with The Black Cantor — who sometimes added the Yiddish first name Toyve to his billing — others doubted his Jewish bona fides. One Warsaw newspaper published a cartoon of a Black man dressed as a cantor with an upside down prayer book on the podium in front of him, insinuating that LaRue was a scam.

But LaRue was the real thing, according to musicologist Henry Sapoznik, who recently spoke with The Times of Israel about the little-known history of Black cantors. Sapoznik related that LaRue was hardly the only Black cantor or Yiddish theater performers of that era. There were at least a dozen, including one woman.

The proof of LaRue’s cantorial and Yiddish singing chops rests with what can be heard on a recently rediscovered 78 RPM record that he made in 1923. So far, it is the only known early 20th century recording of an African-American singing cantorial music. An avid discographer, Sapoznik had been searching for this record for 45 years, and finally located it this past July. Ironically, Sapoznik recovered the disc at the sound archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, which he himself founded and directed from 1982 to 1995. [. . .]

Among the Black congregations highlighted by Sapoznik were The Moorish Zionist Temple founded by Rabbi Mordechai Herman, who claimed direct Ethiopian lineage, and Congregation Beth B’nai Abraham founded in 1929 by the Barbados-born Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford.

Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, a West Indian immigrant, founded The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in 1919, and would go on to establish a network of synagogues in the US and the Caribbean based on traditional Orthodox Ashkenazi traditions.

Sapoznik surmised that Blacks from the Caribbean may have adopted the religion of Jewish slaveholders, and that Blacks claiming Abyssinian (Ethiopian) lineage did so as a way of claiming a connection to Old Testament Hebrews. [. . .]

Goldye, di Shvartze Khaznte (Goldye the Black Female Cantor aka Goldye M. Steiner), who appears to have been the second female cantor after a white woman named Madame Sophie Kurtzer, was said to be from an African Jewish tribe called “Sheba of Gza.” According to a 1925 promotion in The Jewish Criterion in Pittsburgh, Goldye studied opera in Milan and sang in six languages. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.timesofisrael.com/yiddisher-black-cantors-from-100-years-ago-rediscovered-thanks-to-rare-recording

More about them can be obtained on Wikipedia and at https://www.blackjews.org/biography-of-rabbi-arnold-josiah-fordhttps://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/harlems-rabbi-arnold-josiah-ford-prominent-member-of-jewish-community-1887-1935https://www.blackjews.org/biography-of-rabbi-wentworth-arthur-matthew, and https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/rabbi-wentworth-arthur-matthew-founder-of-the-living-god-in-harlem-1892-1973.

They are discussed at length in Jacob S. Dorman’s Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford University Press, 2013); see our previous post, https://repeatingislands.com/2013/10/13/chosen-people-by-jacob-dorman-argues-for-new-understanding-of-cultural-formation.

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