Hershman was one of the best and most important Jewish cantors ever, and more than that, one of the best tenors ever. And yet, his
biography remains somewhat obscure. He was born on January 12th, 1888 in Chernihiv, Ukraine. He lost his father when he was
only six years old, and grew up with foster parents first and then with his grandfather. His musical interest was early and
genuinely his own, since both his parents and his foster parents were very emphatically indifferent to music. He started to
study voice with the cantor of his local synagogue when he was in
fact still a child; at age 16, he already got his first post at the synagogue in Zhitomir, and soon after in Vilnius, where he was to stay
until 1920, interrupted by military service during WWI.
However, something must have singled that military service out, and
somehow, he seems to have been exempted from all true military activities – different sources say either
because his commanding officer was so impressed by his voice, or because cantor David Roitman
arranged his dismissal from the army and a temporary position for him at the synagogue in Kremenchuk. Either way, he went back to Vilnius
after the war, and emigrated to the USA in 1920, where he became chief hazzan at the Beth El Temple in Brooklyn, New York (until 1930).
Already from Vilnius, and then from Brooklyn, he went on extensive concert tours in Europe, the USA and Palestine; after 1930, those tours
were his only activity. In his concerts, he sang cantorial music of course, Yiddish folk songs – but also operatic arias,
which he unfortunately never recorded.
He died early: most sources say in 1940, and I found also 1943. Either is wrong; he is buried on Mount Carmel Cemetery in
New York City, and his tombstone says clearly that he died on January 30th, 1941.
Hershman had a penchant for Jewish cabaret songs. This is one: an acerbic characterization of three types of Jews, rich, poor and assimilated.
Here the cynicism hits the goyim. Anybody looking for the best tenor recording ever should seriously consider this one...
This is the rather fascinating case of a traditional Jewish song – to a text not in Yiddish but in Ukrainian.
From the 1931 documentary movie The voice of Israel.
| Mordechai Hershman sings:
Tombstone picture source
Many thanks to David Prager for the link to the tomb picture and hence his correct date of death, for a copy of his
application for US citizenship (containing his precise date of birth, nowhere published so far), and for pointing out that I
formerly had a picture of the "wrong" Hershman on this page: of Mordechai's brother Solomon, who was a cantor in Warsaw and
later in Manchester.