Cantor Gershon Sirota, ca. 1910. (YIVO)

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Sirota, Gershon

(1874–1943), cantor, concert singer, and recording celebrity. Gershon Sirota was born in 1874 in Podolia; little is known about his early years. His first appointment as a cantor was in Odessa, and he also served in Vilna. In 1908, he became cantor of the Tłomackie Street Synagogue in Warsaw, a position that he left in 1927 to devote himself to a concert career. He toured the United States several times and in 1935 became the cantor at Warsaw’s Nożyk Synagogue. He died with his family in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

"Weseorew olecho" (Ve-Te`erav `alekha). Words and music: Traditional. Performed by Cantor Gershon Sirota. Columbia E6001 mx. 4104-o, Warsaw, 1908. (YIVO)

Sirota was famous for his extraordinarily dramatic tenor, which led him to be called the King of Cantors and the Jewish Caruso. In 1903, he was one of the first in his field to make commercial sound recordings. This venture stimulated an international market for East European cantorial music well beyond the synagogue and attracted the attention of non-Jewish listeners as well.

Not surprisingly, Sirota inspired other cantors to take advantage of the technological innovations. Zaval Kwartin (1876–1952) was also among the first to make recordings, and Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt (1882–1933) recorded more than two hundred 78 rpm records. The practice was condemned, however, by a number of rabbis and cantors, including Pinchos Minkowsky of Odessa. Nonetheless, Sirota’s recordings made it possible for him to move from the synagogue to the concert stage. The large crowds that attended his Carnegie Hall Concert in 1915 testify to the enthusiasm that his recordings generated.

Despite their technological limitations, Sirota’s surviving recordings provide a vivid sense of the extraordinary power and expressive range of his voice. His was a brilliant and rich instrument, both warm and penetrating, capable of extraordinary dramatic contrasts. The influence of contemporary operatic style is apparent to some degree in his use of elaborate coloratura and his open, Italianate vocal production, particularly in the upper register. Much of the emotive power of his singing resulted from vocal gestures and ornaments that are central to the East European cantorial tradition, which includes not only the traditional modal patterns, but also glottal attacks and glissandos, bended pitches (singing between the standard chromatic pitches), trills and turns, sudden dynamic contrasts, and a distinctive use of highly elaborate coloratura in the service of text and affective expression.

Suggested Reading

Isachar Fatar, “Gershon Sirota: An Appreciation,” Journal of Synagogue Music 2.3 (1968): 16–21; Mark Slobin, Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate (Urbana, Ill., 1989); Samuel Vigoda, Legendary Voices: The Fascinating Lives of the Great Cantors (New York, 1981).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 36, Abraham Moshe Bernstein, Papers, 1878-1933.