The Dilemma of Jewish Women in Jewish Music

 by Arlene Stolnitz

Twenty-three names of female Jewish musicians; I could have named over a hundred!  Randomly, I picked out a only a few with the idea of showing just how prolific and diverse these women are, and what a fabulous contribution they have made to the Jewish and secular music world in America and elsewhere.

Bonnie Abrams, Chava Albertson, Sara Aroeste, Marsha Bryan Edelman, Benjie Schiller, Debbie Friedman, Joy  Katzen-Guthrie, Nurit Hirsch, Linda Hirschhorn, Flory  Jagoda, Rachel Musleah, Neshama Carlebach, Roberta Peters, Molly  Picon, Pink, Beth Schafer, Naomi Shemer, Dinah Shore, Beverly Sills, Carly Simon, Peri Smilow, Barbra Streisand, Sophie Tucker.

 For centuries, female singers such as balladeers and minstrels were confined to entertaining primarily at family celebrations for holidays and other simchas. The injunction against kol ishah (woman’s  voice) limited the singing of women in religious liturgy from Talmudic times. As a result, Jewish women had their own separate places of song often in their homes and at private celebrations.  However, there is plenty of evidence showing that there WERE women musicians  present in Biblical days.  Many passages from the Bible quote the presence of women as instrumentalists and singers. In ancient Yemenite and other Mid Eastern cultures it was typical for women to provide the “wailing” at funerals.

Much later, in Eastern Europe during the spread of the  Haskalah enlightenment period, when Yiddish culture flourished, the tradition of the troubadours and klezmorim remained largely the avenue of  male  entertainers.  But in the late 1800’s Abraham Goldfaden developed a new genre of musical entertainment.  Called the operetta, actors and singers travelled to Jewish communities in Russia (1), Austria, Romania and Poland with their performances. Young women were featured in roles previously reserved for male singers, paving the way later for women’s roles in America. Goldfaden’s influence is seen as an essential element in the development of Yiddish musical theater in  America.

“American Jewish music has expanded vastly in variety, range, and quality of activities. Jews brought to America their secular-folk and sacred-liturgical musical heritage. There has been a renascence of age-old traditions that have become means of self-expression for Jewish women. Religious freedom in the United States has been nourishing to Jewish women’s creativity as they increasingly make their marks as composers, organists, singers, instrumentalists, educators, and patrons. Indeed, they are integral to what constitutes an extraordinarily rich American musical environment.” 1.

I understand the risk of being overly simplistic in a long and complicated chronology. And I respectfully understand those restrictions in Orthodox and traditional  congregations that do not allow men and women in prayer or otherwise to sing or pray together.  Based on scriptural passages which consider the voice of a woman to be distracting to men in prayer, similar ideas existed in Christian churches when women were also advised to remain silent.  It is also well known that in Catholic churches, choirs were composed exclusively of men and/or boys. And in mainstream Rabbinic Judaism the  voice of women was censored for centuries.

But by the twentieth century, Jewish women in the Reform and Conservative Movements had made inroads that no longer barred them from participation.  The first woman cantor was ordained by the Reform Movement and 11 years later, the Conservative Movement followed suit. Several of the women on my above list were influential in enriching the synagogue repertoire.  Debbie Friedman and Linda Hirschhorn are two names that everyone recognizes. Others are cantors and composers. And of course, many will recognize names of talented Jewish women who have made their mark in secular music circles.

Joshua Jacobson, renowned Professor of Music at Northeastern University and Founder and Artistic Director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston, poses the following questions:

“In a society  in which music is considered to be a feminine pursuit, why are there so few published compositions by women?”

“Why are women still excluded from the domain of some sacred music?”

“Should the female cantor only sing the  repertoire of her male counterpart or will a body of music emerge written specifically for soprano and alto voices?

According to Jacobson, these are questions we will grapple with in years to come.

Interesting questions to ponder, yet we have evolved in more ways than anyone from yesteryear would have ever dreamed.
 (1) Jewish Women and Jewish Music in America; Fried