Women Cantors

How Jewish women worked their way into the field of synagogue music.

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.

Challenges for Women Cantors

Increasingly, gifted female musicians were participating in the religious musical expression of American Jewry. This practice soon became a viable challenge to the concept of isolating kol ishah (a woman’s voice) in observant Jewish life. By the 1930s, except at Orthodox synagogues, women sat with men and intoned the prayers in congregational unity. They were featured singers in religious choirs, and often sang the solos.

Women had always sung in their homes, but now they sang at public rituals, and the music they sang was well beyond that of the usual range of Jewish women’s songs. All Jewish music was becoming a domain to be shared with men. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, the tragedy of the Holocaust made each and every Jewish voice much more precious.

Formal Education for the Cantorate

In 1948, the School of Sacred Music was established at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC–JIR) for the formal academic training of cantors and music educators, in order to better serve the Reform branch of Judaism. Soon after, in 1952, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) inaugurated its own Cantors Institute and College of Liturgical Music on behalf of its particular constituency, Conservative Judaism. Yeshiva University also began to add courses in Jewish musical study, and in 1964 formally established its Cantorial Training Institute to serve strictly Orthodox congregations.

Along with these three schools for cantorial studies, three professional cantorial membership groups were also formed: the Reform-based American Conference of Cantors, the Conservative-based Cantors Assembly of America, and the Orthodox-based Cantorial Council of America. Additionally, there remains an American organization of cantors established late in the nineteenth century, the Jewish Cantors Ministers Association. Those members continue to abide by the time-honored European training tradition dating back to the Talmudic era, that of oral transmission from individual cantor to apprentice. Until the 1970s the entire cantorate was still deemed a male profession.

First Women Cantors in the Reform Movement

In 1955, Betty Robbins, who as a child in Poland had persuaded the cantor of her local synagogue to allow her to join the congregational boys’ choir, was appointed as cantor of Temple Avodah, a Reform congregation in Oceanside, New York. The event ranked as a front-page item in the New York Times, which quoted “a spokesman for the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion” as saying that Betty Robbins “might well be the first woman cantor in five thousand years of Jewish history.” The article continued, “The spokesman for the School of Sacred Music, founded in 1947 as the first training school for cantors in this country, said today there was no religious law, merely a tradition, against women becoming cantors.”

In 1968, Sally J. Preisand was accepted for rabbinic training at HUC–JIR, and she was ordained in 1972 as the first female rabbi in America. Until that time, women had enrolled and been accredited at the School of Sacred Music at HUC–JIR for studies in liturgical music in order to serve congregations as music teachers and choral leaders.

Cantor Barbara OstfeldFollowing the ordination of a female rabbi, the Reform Movement of Judaism also began to accredit female music students for formal cantorial studies. In 1975, Barbara Ostfeld-Horowitz (pictured) became the first woman to be ordained as a female cantor, a landmark event. She received immediate pulpit placement following graduation and was promptly inducted into the American Conference of Cantors. 

Early on, Ostfeld-Horowitz had become interested in Jewish music, and she was active as a youngster in Reform temple activities. She admired the ministerial roles of rabbi and cantor, and after high school in Oak Park, Illinois, came to New York. Despite the then daring nature of her ambition, she applied for cantorial training at the School of Sacred Music. Upon her acceptance, she chose to train in both the fully traditional as well as Reform liturgical music services.

During her four-year program of full-time studies, she served at various pulpits. Currently, she serves a Reform congregation in the greater Buffalo area, and enjoys being a cantorial and educational minister to her congregation, an active role model to women, a dedicated Jewish musician, and a wife and mother whose husband shares her pulpit duties as a cantor-educator.

By 1995, when she received a special twenty-year honorary award at HUC–JIR graduation services, ninety-four other women cantors had graduated from that school. Scattered throughout the country, most of them are in full duties, the rest hold part-time positions, but all are cantorially employed. In reflecting upon her chosen profession, Ostfeld-Horowitz writes, “Women cantors have altered the way in which prayer is offered, heard, and received.”

First Women Cantors in the Conservative Movement

JTSIn 1980, the Jewish Theological Seminary (pictured) began admitting women for rabbinic training in the Conservative branch of Judaism. Meanwhile, women had been attending classes at the College of Jewish Music at JTS since the late 1950s, and over the years some had been granted formal degrees in sacred music.

Finally, in 1984, two of those students, Erica Lipitz and Marla Rosenfeld Barugel, applied and were permitted to prepare for ordination as hazzans. They were granted that status by the Cantors Institute of the JTS in 1987. Both were placed at congregations, and since then a number of other women have completed and received cantorial designation.

Currently, admission at the College of Jewish Music is open to both women and men for cantorial training in a five-year, full-time educational study track. However, there remain differences in the status of female cantors in the Conservative Movement, and much depends upon a particular congregation. Moreover, until 1990, the Conservative professional organization, the Cantors Assembly of America, did not formally grant admission to female cantorial graduates. This reflected the abiding, strong reservations that many of its members held concerning acceptance of women functioning in cantorial pulpits.

Albeit in less measure, American Conservative congregational leaders are also divided ideologically regarding the role of female Rabbis. In age-old Judaic tradition, the rabbi was viewed as a religious teacher-scholar and spiritual interpreter-counselor, and only in America has that office assumed a more active ministerial role at the religious services. In contrast, however, the traditional role of the American cantor has remained that of shaliah zibbur, the leader for ritual duties and musical guider-inspirer of congregational prayer.

Therefore, issues are still hotly debated regarding women’s exemption from, or active practice in, mandatory observance of the 613 principles of faith (male injunctions); the counting of women in a minyan for a proper order of service; and of course the matter of kol ishah, woman’s voice in divine worship. No woman has been permitted admission to the Orthodox cantorial training at Yeshiva University, nor is that likely ever to happen.

Organizational Involvement in Women and the Cantorate

Two nonacademic affiliated organizations are presently involved with the roles of women in synagogue music. The American Guild of Organists has a mixed constituency of liturgical musicians, not only men and women, but also Jews and non-Jews. The guild endeavors to offer a wide range of Jewish musical guidance to its membership. The Women Cantors Network is in essence a female counterpart to the still-functioning Jewish Cantors Ministers Association, the traditionally oriented group whose membership remains entirely male.

The Women Cantors Network was founded by Cantor Deborah Katchko-Zimmerman in 1981. It gathered together a group of twelve women then serving as cantors or actively seeking that professional goal. By 1996, the active membership roster had grown to ninety. Katchko-Zimmerman was typical of those who needed such an organization. Granddaughter of an eminent European cantor, most of whose family had perished in the Holocaust, she was trained privately by her cantor father. She then auditioned and secured a fully active position at a Conservative congregation in Connecticut, but felt isolated from the male cantorate.

Soon she was joined in spearheading the network by Doris Cohen, a former liturgical soloist with composer and conductor Sholom Secunda and a privately trained cantor serving at a Reform pulpit in New York City. The core group grew rapidly to function as an outreach support group, with annual study conferences and a regular newsletter. The network also works for the nationwide recognition and employment of properly qualified female cantors, whether from one of the cantorial schools or by private traditional means of instruction.

Though debate continues regarding the female cantorial profession, women’s voices increasingly come forth from pulpits in America, leading congregations in all the year-round calendar and life-cycle observances of the Jewish faith. They train and lead choirs, arrange and compose liturgical works, present special Jewish music programs, and attend to a great many duties as music educators, including the training of girls and boys to assume their religious responsibilities of bat and bar mitzvah.

Reprinted from the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

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