Julie Rosewald: America's first woman cantor
She wrote a book. She was an actress. She sang opera. She became a professor. She toured the world by herself. She paid her own way. She was a musical superstar. She rode a bike around San Francisco. Any of these things might be common today (well maybe not riding a bicycle around hilly San Francisco), but in 19th-century America, it was unusual for a woman to do even one of these things, not to mention all of them, and unheard of for a woman to become a Jewish cantor.
Julie Eichberg Rosewald (1847-1906), affectionately called “Cantor Soprano” by her congregation, became America’s first woman cantor, serving San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El during the years 1884-1893. She sang the solo parts in all the services, chose and directed the music at the synagogue, directed choir rehearsals, and collaborated with the organist. She performed all the musical functions of a cantor at a time when Jewish worship, like most liturgical functions in western religions, was led by men. However, there always seem to be exceptions to rules, and Julie Rosewald is one of them.
As I describe in my recent article in the American Jewish Archives Journal, “’Cantor Soprano’ Julie Rosewald: The Musical Career of a Jewish American ‘New Woman,’” by any standard, this woman had a remarkable career.
I discovered her when I was searching for Jewish women musicians for my website, The Jewish Music WebCenter. One day, I typed the word “soprano” into the newly digitized 1906 Jewish Encycopedia. Several entries came up but it was the article about Julie Rosewald that caught my eye. For two reasons: It was written by none other than Henrietta Szold, an extremely reliable source, and it said that Julie had been a cantor! A Jewish musicologist, I had no idea that any woman had been a cantor in America as early as the 19th century.
I learned more about her story in an article that appeared in The American Jewess, a journal available on the Jewish Women’s Archive website. But that was only the beginning; the research journey would take years.
In the end, I was able to show that a large, prestigious American Jewish community accepted musical and religious leadership from a woman as early as the 1880s. For this amazing Jewish American woman—a “New Woman” in 19th-century parlance—her religious role was only one aspect of an illustrious career spanning the worlds of opera and concert stage; she was a composer, author, teacher, and full professor of music.
Her life did not follow the path expected of a married woman. She partnered with her husband, Jacob Rosewald, in many of her musical endeavors. She followed her heart and ambitions and used her talents outside of the home.
Discovering Julie was akin to making a new friend. The story of her life came into focus piece by piece. Each new document I found revealed another piece of her life and her astonishingly successful and brilliant musical career. Doing this was thrilling.
It was so exciting to find interviews with her, and read in her own words about her life, career, opinions, decisions, and fears. I realized that some of the interviews were given to get publicity, but we can still see and understand the woman behind the words.
Most of the material was not available in modern sources, but I still wonder why this story has not been told before now. Why has the history of a great singer, let alone a Jewish woman cantor from the 19th century, been lost for such a long time? Was it just too difficult to discover before the advent of digital research? Was it because no one would believe or expect it? Was it part of the general glossing over of women’s accomplishments that still goes on? Was it from a deleting of references to Jews in early 20th century histories in order to “Americanize” the story of the arts in America? Was it turn-of-the-century embarrassment at having a female cantor? Was it a lack of interest in the performing arts in the 19th century on the part of early feminist researchers and writers? Was it simply that fame fades over time? I don’t know. It’s another puzzle.
Whatever the reason, it is a gift to have another story of Jewish women’s contribution to the arts and to America as a land of opportunity for those with talent and ambition. That story is still unfolding.
Judith S. Pinnolis is a Humanities Librarian at Brandeis University and editor of The Jewish Music WebCenter.