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The Cantor: A Song is a Prayer

By Sandra M. Eisenberg

(for South Florida)

As a child Yosef Gottesman was surrounded by music. Born in Florence, Italy the music of Opera filled the air. As a Jewish boy his musical world also included the music of the Synagogue including the rich, melodic and moving sound of Kol Nidre sung by the cantor. Yosef was blessed with a beautiful voice. Soon he was singing the songs around him. As moving as opera can be, he knew that it is the music of the cantor that stirs the soul and draws us nearer to G-d. Gottesman nurtured his gift, and his love for G-d to become a cantor of prominence with numerous albums to his name, the first at the age of eighteen. Having traveled the world, Cantor Gottesman now performs in both Boca Raton and Delray Beach. In Delray he presides at Anshei Emuna during the High Holidays.

Critics have praised the natural attractive timbre of Gottesman’ s tenor voice, commenting on his powerful voice which combines heartfelt sincerity with control and power. Yosef Gottesman has received great acclaim in his concerts around the world, and – is known also as the “Jewish Pavarotti”, due to their similarity in the voice and having sung in the same Piccolo Teatro in Milan that has hosted great opera singers including Pavarotti and Placido Domingo .

His first recording, made at the age of eighteen, was with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra “Hallelu – a Song is a Prayer,” was dedicated to his late father. His beautiful voice has inspired Jews in Europe, Israel, Italy, South Africa, Canada and the United States. Since then he has recorded other CDs. In 1996 he recorded his second album Lechu Nerannena (light Cantorial music) with his three sons. Light Cantorial music is designed to appeal to younger listeners. In 2002 his third album was published “Opera in the Synagogue.” This album features well known opera songs with the lyrics based on prayers. Most recently, in March 2005 he issued two more albums. One is “Carlebach with a Shtimme” (“With the Voice”) which features original carlebach mingunim with a Shazonishe introduction composed by R’ Shlomo. In the same year the Rabbi published “Yosef Gottesman’ s Greatest Hits” which included melodies from all four previous albums.

But Rabbi Gottesman is more than a celebrated singer. He is a religious Jew. He is not just a tenor; he is a cantor, a rabbi and a sofer. What exactly does that mean? How does one become a cantor? Where did this role originate in Judaism? How did it develop through the centuries?

It started when the Cantor was the Chazzan.” The word doesn’t have a thing to do with singing, but with seeing. The root is “hazah” which means “to see.” And this is because the Chazzan is the seer – the teacher who leads students through the text their singing. Cantors have been part of Judaism since the time of the Temple, when they were the caretakers of the earliest Synagogues where the Chazzan was in charge of the building and of the Torah scrolls. After the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) the use of musical instruments was forbidden by the rabbis, and the Chazzan became the voice of the Synagogue. During Middle Ages the Chazzan became the primary Torah reader and singer in the Bet HaKnesset although anyone capable of doing so could then and now lead the service. In common usage the term Chazzan gave way to the Latin, “Cantor.” Chazzan is still the proper Hebrew title.

Rabbi Gottesman is one of a select few professional chazzanim who have gone through the rigorous training to sing in the tonal quality, voice and style which are so similar to that of Opera. But unlike an Opera singer the cantor is there to lead us in prayer and holiness. Rather than admiring the beauty of his voice, it should lead us to a deeper sense of holiness and awe of G-d. In Judaism, prayer is the obligation of each of us. The cantor leads the congregation as each one of us prays [although at times his prayers exempts those who can’t pray on their own].

The story behind this remarkable voice is astonishing. His journey has taken him around the world. Born in Florence, Italy to a survivor of Auschwitz, he was sent to the Gateshead Jewish Boarding School in England when only twelve years old. In Florence there were no opportunity to pursue a Jewish education. He then moved on to the Manchester Jewish Grammar School to complete his basic education.

It was at the Manchester school that Yosef began the dream of becoming a cantor. At eighteen he moved to Israel to study first at Yeshivat Kol-Torah and later at the Mir Yeshiva, both in Jerusalem. Founded nearly 200 years ago, Mir is one of the most famous Yeshiva’s in the Jewish world. Here Rabbi Gottesman studied privately with Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, the great Rosh Yeshiva (head of the school). He then progressed to the Harvard of Haredi Yeshivas, Ponevezh. In these years of intense Talmudic study Rabbi Gottesman immersed himself in learning Talmud , understanding halacha (Jewish law) and mussar (Jewish ethics).

It was then that he cut his first album “Hallelu – a Song is a Prayer,” which he dedicated to his father. While in Israel Cantor Gottesman began his Cantorial Academy of Tel Aviv and the Cantorial Institute of Jerusalem under world famous cantors Naftali Herstik ( Chief Cantor of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue), Eli Jaffe a renowned cantor, conductor and composer, and Moshe Stern (considered by many to be the finest cantor alive today).

Before joining Anshei Emunah in Delray, Florida, Rabbi Gottesman was the cantor for Israel’s second largest Synagogue (located in Acco) for four years. Here he replaced the famous Chazzan, Naftali Herstik, now Chief Cantor of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Gottesan also officiated in Vienna, Austria; Cape Town, South Africa, and NesZiona , Israel. In the Americas, the Cantor officiated in Montreal following Chazaan Ben Yamin Muller and at Young Israel of Chomedey, Quebec , for five years.

Yet, his role as a world renowned cantor is only one aspect of this remarkable man.

For fifteen years Rabbi Gottesman was a sofer. A sofer is one who writes Torahs -- a complex and holy vocation. The first sofer was Moses, who wrote thirteen Torah Scrolls. One of them was given to each of the twelve tribes and one was placed in the Ark of the Covenant. Following in Moses’ footprints soferim are observant Jews who learn the 4000 Laws of writing the Torah scroll. As a sofer, Rabbi Gottesman became a human vessel for Torah, and as he worked he prayed that the Torahs he made with his hands would be filled with the holiness he felt as he wrote them.

To be a sofer demands a more than tremendous skill, it requires vast knowledge of Torah, Judaism and the mitzvot specific to the sofer. The 4000 rules are painstaking and minuscule from how to prepare the special skins of a Torah to of how to write the letters on the parchment (from left to right!). He stitches it together with gidim (threads) and even prepares the ink (dio) and the quill (kulmus) he uses to write it.

Rabbi Gottesman is a sofer of renown, having written ten Torahs. His first Torah resides in the Kotel (Western Wall) in Israel. Sofer, cantor and rabbi – but there is one more aspect to this remarkable man.

Along with his Cantorial role at Anshei Emuna in Delray Beach and the Chabad Shul in Boca Raton and his role as a sofer, he is also rabbi at a Shul for frum visitors to Central Florida. The Shul is part of “Kosher Resorts Orlando” ( which arranges for lodging and kosher meals for visitors to Orlando. The Shul is located at the Lower East Side Restaurant located at 8548 Palm Parkway, Lake Buena Vista, Florida (I-4 Exit 68 near Downtown Disney). Here Rabbi Gottesman leads the religious services for tourists who visit Orlando on vacations. Shabbats are truly memorable, and next time you plan a trip to Orlando be sure to become part of the family, staying at kosher villas, eating at a Glatt kosher restaurant and enjoying the classes and services held by Cantor Gottesman. Residents of Orlando attend numerous courses held by the Rabbi at the Orlando Jewish Community Center, the Synagogue and offices in Longwood, Florida. To contact Rabbi Gottesman please call 407-864-1111 or via email at You may also visit the Rabbi’s website at .