How Jewish women worked their way into the field of synagogue music.
Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish women in America had taken on significant roles in the rapidly developing cultural phenomenon of Yiddish American theater. Not only were they performing as stars in a wide range of dramatic productions, but they were singing all sorts of Jewish songs, including the religious hymns and liturgical chants, and newer music of spiritual significance.
For example, Sophie Karp (1861–1906) introduced a Yiddish ballad written especially for her, "Eli, Eli" (My God, My God), with text material derived from Psalm 22 and other Jewish prayers. The song became a favorite solo of many other female performers of that day, including the renowned actor Bertha Kalich (pictured) and opera singers Sophie Braslau and Rosa-Raisa.
In 1918, the popular singer-actor Regina Prager starred in a successful musical production, Di Khazinte (The lady cantor). Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, vaudeville programs featured women who sang Jewish selections, especially Yiddish folk songs and holiday melodies. Special prayers like "Kol Nidrei" (All vows), "El Male Rahamim" (God of mercy), and a variety of well-known Sabbath zemirot (spirituals) were available on player-piano rolls, in published sheet music arrangements, and on commercial recordings, and women were publicly singing such music.
Not only did they perform Jewish spiritual music, but some women also arranged and composed suitable religious songs. For example, Mana-Zucca (Augusta Zuckerman, 1891–1981) wrote a number of such works, including a highly popular anthem, "Rahem" (Have compassion). In 1926, the popular songwriter and performer Solomon Smulewitz (otherwise known as Solomon Small) put a photograph of his young daughter clad in a prayer shawl and cap on the sheet music cover of his published song, "Bar Mitzva." Actor Molly Picon, early in her long career, played comic girl-boy-girl roles, singing characteristic traditional Jewish tunes.