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  • Singing the Praises of our Mothers: A Tribute to Women Cantors

    Posted on August 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

    Hebrew Union College has been in the forefront of  educating and empowering women to take leadership roles in Jewish life. 36 years ago, the HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor. Their voices have changed prayer for all of us, women and men alike. This week’s guest post by Cantor Erik Contzius describes a tribute to the voices of Jewish women throughout the ages.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    36 years ago, HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music  invested its first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld. Since that time, women have greatly influenced the modern cantorate as well as the musical liturgy of the synagogue. Cantor Ostfeld was a true pioneer, becoming a role model to those women who immediately followed her through the halls of Hebrew Union College to today, where over half of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is comprised of women.

    In honor of this double-khai anniversary, the American Conference of Cantors honored those female cantors in the ACC who joined from 1975-1985 at the American Conference of Cantors-Guild of Temple Musician’s annual convention in Boston in June, 2011. All of these women, each pioneers in her own right, were acknowledged for their contributions as well as their trailblazing at the convention. Presentations were made, a special service was performed, and I was fortunate enough to be included in honoring these well-deserving women.

    I was initially approached by my friend and colleague, Cantor Claire Franco, who asked if I would compose a choral work in honor of the ACC’s “Imahot,” marking the occasion most appropriately with a new song. I was very flattered and honored, but initially felt uncomfortable—as a man, was it right for me to attempt to give musical voice describing the path these women traveled? Upon further reflection, in an age of post-modernism and perhaps post-feminism, I was able to reconcile being asked to write such a work, but under one condition: In lieu of selecting a text from our rabbinic heritage, which would undoubtedly be written by men, I sought to find a text in the female voice, by a female voice.

    Dina Elenbogen

    With the help of another friend and colleague, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, I was introduced to a very talented writer and poet, Dina Elenbogen. I explained to Dina the need for a text which would give acknowledgement to women claiming their own voice and place in the role of a Cantor. I described it as a journey towards empowerment, acceptance, and leadership. Despite having a limited deadline, Dina’s talent came through, and a poem was born which painted a very powerful image, one of female strength and artistry, equal but distinct from men, and as Dina was inspired by my ideas, I was in turn inspired by her words.

    The result of this combined effort was the work, “A Woman’s Voice” (to listen see below) The choral work, written for Soprano and Alto choir and piano, was premiered in Boston by the very women whom were to be honored. They gave life to Dina’s words and my music, and the congregation of cantors and synagogue musicians was very moved by the gesture.

    I’m only 42. It doesn’t seem that young, but in regard to the modern cantorate, it is. But what it means to me is that for most of my life, the cantorate has not been biased towards one gender or the other. In fact, having grown up with a rabbi who filled both the role of rabbi and cantor, I was unaware of the cantor as a profession until I met my first one at a regional NFTY convention: Cantor Pamela Siskin. I recalled this strong memory to the cantors I was conducting for the premiere performance and how that memory paved the way towards my entering the profession myself.

    I anticipate that the influence and uniqueness that women have brought to the modern cantorate, and therefore to Judaism entirely, will only be magnified in the next 36 years to come. And that special voice, a woman’s voice, melded with the men’s voice which already is here, will continue to make beautiful music for the Jewish people. As it is written: “Sing a New Song unto God.” The song has become new and will continually do so as long as we see both men and women for the equals they are.

    To listen to a recording of click on this link: A Woman’s Voice

    A Woman’s Voice

    In the beginning      a whimper

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Whispers of open fists

    Prayer notes in stone


    Pounding of heart-steps

    Chirps of morning songs

    Prayer notes in stone

    The language of angels

     

    Chirps of morning songs

    A girl stands at the threshold

    Hears the language of angels

    Her own music breaking

     

    A girl-woman stands at the threshold

    Chants the first words of Torah

    Her own voice breaking

    Into stones with burning names

     

    When a woman chants the first words

    She finds inside her own voice

    Stones with burning names

    A cry becomes a scream

     

    She finds inside her own voice

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    A cry becomes a scream

    A song of abundance

     

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    When a woman reaches the highest note

    In her abundant song

    Even the stones begin to tremble.

     

    —Dina Elenbogen, March 2011



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    One response to “Singing the Praises of our Mothers: A Tribute to Women Cantors”

    1. Hey Erik:

      Still more talents emerge! Good article. We need more like you.

      We also should be aggressive in singing a Jewish/Yiddish Barbershop song. :)

      Best,

      Ernie Strauss

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