In the Women’s Synagogue

March 30, 2023

Normative ideology about prayer in the Jewish tradition prohibits women’s voices from public spaces, especially as prayer leaders. But in the era of cantorial music’s emergence as a mass mediated pop music phenomenon in the gramophone era, there was a scene of women cantors who boldly grabbed hold of the new possibilities of recording. Working as recording artists, stage performance and radio performers, women singers had careers as performers of khazones, the stylized version of Jewish prayer reconfigured as an emotive and dramatically charged art form. 

Rather than seeing the khazentes as outliers, I understand their work to offer a particularly vivid illustration of the role of non-conformity as a key constitutive element in the performance of Jewish sacred music. As a fellow at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale this year, teaching, composing and researching, I’ve been delving into the history and culture of these khazentes, women cantors of the early 20th century. 

The cantor is a maverick figure in the Jewish community, one whose work says something about the experience of diaspora, loss and desire that cannot be put into words explicitly. The cantor articulates a nuanced message about Jewish life through the metaphorically suggestive and sensually rich realm of sound. The artists who perform this function seem to inevitably do so from an outsider perspective, working as someone who understands the limitations and problems of the community with a keen insight. The khazentes, approaching the sacred from the perspective of outsider, were uniquely positioned to convey the ambiguities of the dialectic between the regulated space of ritual and the exploratory freedom of art.

My piece this year is called “In the Women’s Synagogue” or in Yiddish ”In der vayber shul.” The piece is a series of songs composed for women’s voices, setting texts in Yiddish drawn from ethnographic descriptions of women’s religious practices in small towns in Eastern Europe. While the women spiritual workers described in these texts occupy a very different cultural terrain from the urban music scene of the khazentes, my piece takes a stab at drawing a line of continuity between these different realms of Jewish women’s lives. For me, the depictions of Jewish life in Europe and the sounds of the khazentes are part of a sphere of sound and memory that also include my grandmother and her memories of small town European Jewish life. The piece also invokes the musical world of my friend, composer and liturgical innovator Jewlia Eisenberg. The piece is dedicated to her memory and is inspired by the sounds of her music. I am hopeful that the different strands of my musical life that I have woven together here will come together in a way that does honor to her legacy.

In der vayber shul / In the Women’s Synagogue will premiere this weekend on April 1 in New Haven, presented by Yale Institute of Sacred Music and April 2 in Brooklyn, presented by The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life.

Find more information here:
New Haven info here.  Saturday, April 1, 2023 – 7:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m;
Free; no tickets or registration
Location: Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, Marquand Chapel, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511

Brooklyn info here.  Sunday, April 2 · 7:30 p.m.
Tickets here (Sliding Scale $9-$18)
Location: Brooklyn Conservatory of Music; 58 7th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11217