Meet the African-American cantors of Harlem

Meet the African-American cantors of Harlem


norman lebrecht

November 06, 2020

Fascinating story in the Times of Israel.

Musicologist Henry Sapoznik 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…

Who knew?

Read on here.


  • V.Lind says:

    Boy, there’s fodder for a movie of the week that ticks all the boxes that the box-tickers and the “oh, you’re box-ticking” crowd can enjoy equally.

  • Papageno says:

    can we do a story on the black monks of Shaolin Temple too?

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Absolutely fascinating! (Be sure to read the full article.)
    And LaRue’s singing is lovely.
    Serious question for you, Norman, or anyone else who cares to answer: how does LaRue’s cantorial singing style differ from that of today? Or DOES it differ?

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    When I started to read this article I jumped to the conclusion that he was of Ethiopian descent but then when Yiddish was mentioned, realised that I was wrong. I’m not Jewish but seem to remember that the black Jewish people from Ethiopia were eventually recognised by Israel. Am I correct Norman?

    • Old Man in the Midwest says:

      Yes, the Ethiopian Jews are considered the “Lost Tribe” of Israel and some have migrated to Israel where, from what I have read, experience discrimination due to their race.

    • Liam Israel says:

      The so called
      African American is the True Jew.

      ARE THE

  • sam says:

    Which of the following is most true?

    1) Negro spirituals (the term in its full historical context), so steeped in the text of the Old Testament, is essentially singing about the Jewish experience.

    2) Jazz (or Motown) would’ve taken a very different route if Jews were not so intertwined with its history and development, both as musicians and as producers?

    3) Jews got more out of jazz than African-Americans got out of cantorial music? Or to put it positively, Jews were more integrated and integral to jazz than African-Americans were to cantorial music?

  • Una says:

    Lovely to get this.

  • Save the Met says:

    Impressive coloratura technique and the tear in the voice. Wow!!!!

  • Jack says:


  • Martin Danenberg says:

    I did read that AfricanAmerican Jews went to Marcus Garvey to ask him to make Judaism the official religion of Back to Africa.

  • Kimberly Shaw says:


  • Sharon says:

    To Elizabeth: Some Ethiopian Jews are recognized by Israel. There is a group called the Falash Mura whose ancestors were forced or felt forced to convert to Christianity around 100 years ago but have Jewish relatives. Many of them are waiting to immigrate to Israel.

    As far as the Times of Israel article is concerned–Black Jewish life continued beyond WWII. At least into the 1990s and as far as I know even today there were/are at least 3 Black Jewish congregations in New York City, one in Harlem, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens.

    In the mid nineties I saw a presentation on the congregation in Queens by the son of the rabbi. The son was taking courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary although they would not allow him into the ordination track
    (because they did not consider him Jewish).

    Many Black Jews are from the Carribbean. American Blacks joined these congregations based on their reading of the Jewish Bible (Old Testament). I had a Black friend who started in a Messianic Jewish (Christian but follow many Jewish customs) congregation and later converted to Judaism by an Orthodox rabbi and immigrated to Israel.

    There are still Blacks who speak Yiddish which they learn through working at “Borscht Belt” (Jewish) hotels or by living and working with Orthodox Yiddish speaking Jews.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Thanks for that Sharon, very interesting. I worked at a summer camp for Jewish girls from NY city and Long Island, in New Hampshire, years ago and picked up some Yiddish and also working in theatre in London. Mostly forgotten now. I do hope that they are accepted as truly religious people.