Cast & Crew
Jack Mylong Munz
On Rosh Hashanah , the Jewish New Year, the famous Polish composer Manyushko visits the synagogue in Vilna to listen to cantor Yoel Duvid Strashunsky sing. Very impressed, Manyushko invites Yoel to his home to cultivate his voice. Yoel says that he learned from his deceased father that singing with feeling is most important for Jewish prayers. This is what Yoel teaches his son Peretz, yet he is intrigued with the music of Beethoven and Chopin, which he hears at Manyushko's home, and he learns to read notes as he secretly visits every night. Nute, the shames , or sexton of the synagogue, follows Manyushko one evening on orders from Yoel's father-in-law, Reb Aaron, who has taken care of Yoel since he was thirteen and made him the cantor of the Vilna synagogue. Reb Aaron demands that Yoel vow to never set foot in Manyushko's house again, and the rabbi reminds Yoel of the necessity for a cantor to keep his heart and thoughts clean so that his prayers for the congregation will be pure. Yoel agrees not to return to Manyushko's, but one evening, when he is out with his wife Chana, he hears strains of Manyushko's new opera. Seeing that he longs to visit, Chana encourages him to go in. Manyushko tells Yoel that he is leaving for Warsaw in a few days to prepare for the opening of the opera, Halka , and invites him to be the leading singer. The rabbi is crushed when Yoel announces that he wants to go to Warsaw, and Reb Aaron says that a dybbuk , or evil spirit, has taken hold of him. Yoel argues that if he sings in Polish, those who hate the Jews will be able to understand their suffering and what goes on in the Jewish heart. The rabbi counters that the world has been deaf to the Jews for thousands of years and warns Yoel that if he leaves, he'll live between two worlds, and, in fact, be nowhere. Before he leaves for Warsaw, Yoel sings Peretz to sleep, then visits the deserted synagogue, where he is disturbed as he imagines voices in song, but he regains his determination. Yoel is a great success at his first exhibition in Warsaw. As he leaves the theater, he finds Countess Wanda Mirova, the twenty-two-year-old student of Manyushko, waiting in his carriage to take him to Manyushko's banquet. Wanda flatters him and gives him a flower as a present, whereupon he says she is as beautiful as a flower. Although Yoel writes asking Chana and Peretz to come, Reb Aaron forbids them to go to Warsaw. Soon Yoel is plagued with longing for Vilna and dark thoughts about his choice to leave. He tells Wanda that he feels like a stranger in Warsaw and that he has lost the world where his soul resides. Although Wanda tells him that she feels she is growing closer to him, Yoel longs to sing in a synagogue again, and an assistant at the opera arranges for him to sing prayers at a Passover service. Afterward, Yoel realizes that he must go back to Vilna, and when he tells this to Manyushko a week before the opening of the opera, Manyushko and the director become greatly agitated. However, Wanda pleads with Yoel to stay, and he remains in Warsaw. Meanwhile in Vilna, Peretz becomes very ill. Before he dies, Chana sings to him the same song that Yoel sang before he left. Backstage midway through the opera, Yoel excitedly thanks Wanda for giving him the courage to continue, and when Reb Aaron arrives to tell Yoel the news about Peretz, it is obvious to him that Yoel and Wanda are deeply affected by each other. Reb Aaron says that Peretz's death is God's punishment to Yoel, and when Yoel returns to the stage, he attempts to sing the lullaby he once sang to Peretz and then collapses. A doctor diagnoses a nervous breakdown and says that Yoel has lost his voice. Yoel then disappears and wanders through the countryside. On the eve of Yom Kippur , the Day of Atonement, Yoel arrives at the Vilna synagogue and sings the Kol Nidre , a prayer to absolve the congregation from any vows taken. He then dies at the altar, and the rabbi says that for generations it will be remembered that Yoel, "our Vilna balabessel ," or beloved citizen, sang for "them" and prayed for "us."
Jack Mylong Munz
The Yiddish title of this film was Der Vilner Shtot Khazn. According to the screen credits, the film was based on the legend of "The Vilna Balabessel," the most famous cantor of the 19th century. An essay in the copyright descriptions relates the following information: The Balabessel was born Joel David Levenstein to the cantor of Vilna. His father began his education after he showed talent at age six, and at age eleven, the boy prayed at the altar in the main synagogue. The wife of one of the leading Jewish citizens decided then that he would marry her daughter, and Joel was married at age thirteen. The next year, he became the chief cantor after his father died. His singing powers were so inspirational that they attracted not only Jews to the synagogue, but Christians also. The famous Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko induced Joel to leave Vilna, and he went to Warsaw with a retinue of religious Jews. He caused a sensation at a concert in Warsaw when the daughter of a count kissed him in front of thousands. According to the legend, the two had met earlier when he passed her home and overheard her playing the piano, and to spite those who gossiped about them, she kissed him in public. The cantor's visits to the daughter of the count ceased, and in the midst of his success, he returned to Vilna. He was overwhelmed by the sudden deaths of two children, and he divorced his wife, to whom he was never well-suited. He then developed severe melancholia, and to help him, some townsfolk traveled with him to a foreign country, but he developed consumption and died in Warsaw at age 34. This was European director Max Nosseck's first film in the U.S. Modern sources state that the film was based on Mark Arnshteyn's play Der Vilner Balabesl, which was based on the legend and first produced in Polish in Lodz, Poland in 1902 under the title Piesniarze. Although the film includes songs, no information concerning their identity has been located.