Beneath the Trees
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Olshanetshky’s lullaby Unter beymer (Beneath the Trees) was featured in the 1940 Yiddish film Der vilna shtot khazan (lit., the Vilna Town Cantor, but subtitled in English as Overture to Glory), which was based very loosely on the fragmentary evidence concerning the life of Hazzan Yoel David Lewensohn (1816–50)—the legendary Latvian-born virtuoso cantor who assumed the post of town cantor in Vilna (Vilnius) at the age of fourteen, and whose fame soon spread across Lithuania and Poland as the der vilner balabesl (the young master of Vilna). Eleven years later he left his pulpit and his family for advanced musical studies and a classical career in Warsaw. Little else of his life has been unearthed, other than that he died in an asylum.
In the film, which alters the facts and the story considerably with popular audiences in mind, the cantor is played by Moishe Oysher (1907–58), who had a brilliant, multifaceted, and also short-lived career as a star cantor, actor, entertainer, and composer. The cantor is urged by his teacher, a classical Polish composer, to relocate to Warsaw and pursue an operatic career there—beginning with a role in that teacher’s new opera. As a devoted Jew, the hazzan is torn by inner conflicts over priorities. In his community’s perception, abandoning Vilna and the synagogue for the opera world in cosmopolitan Warsaw, with its host of secular temptations, is tantamount to abandoning Jewish life. It will mean leaving his family, who actually mourn when, unable to resist the operatic opportunity, he does so. He enters his sleeping son’s bedroom late one night and sings this lullaby—for which Oysher also wrote the lyrics—as his farewell. In Warsaw, he becomes enamored of a Polish countess and appears on the opera stage. There is no news from Vilna until his father-in-law arrives one night to tell him that his son has died. The hazzan, crazed with grief, begins singing the Yiddish lullaby onstage in the middle of an opera performance, and then he disappears. He wanders inexplicably on foot all the way back to Vilna, where he arrives exhausted and frail at the synagogue just as the services for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) eve are beginning. He walks into the synagogue, where, taking over from the cantor who has just begun to sing kol nidrei (the signature melody of Yom Kippur eve), he ascends to the pulpit while singing, but then collapses and dies.