The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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Jewish Women and Jewish Music in America

by Adrienne Fried Block

The first American woman to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein (1909 – 1996) later contributed to her culture as a successful composer and musicologist, publishing the first Jewish songbook for children. She is shown here in the early 1930s embarking on a trip with her family.

From left to right: Her sister, Naomi; her mother, Lena; her husband, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein; Judith; her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan; and her sisters Selma and Hadassah.

Institution: The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

In Brief

With the flourishing of Yiddish secular culture during the nineteenth century, Jewish women were allowed opportunities for public singing and instrumental performance previously prevented by both Orthodox Jewish laws and secular society. In 1870s, Yiddish operettas developed in Europe featured women in performances, and they were soon popular in America. Yiddish American musical theater further provided platforms for many Jewish female stars of the time. By the 1920s, Jewish American women had become involved with liturgical music both as performers and as composers, and in the 1970s, women began being ordained as cantors. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, antisemitism limited many job opportunities for Jewish women, leading them to seek out careers in secular music. American Jewish women increasingly make their marks as composers, singers, instrumentalists, educators, and patrons.

Female balladeers and minstrels entertained other women privately and at family celebrations of Lit. "booths." A seven-day festival (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei to commemorate the sukkot in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40-year sojourn in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt; Tabernacles; "Festival of the Harvest."SukkothHoliday held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (on the 15th day in Jerusalem) to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian empire from a plot to eradicate them.Purim, A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.Pesach, and Lit. "weeks." A one-day festival (two days outside Israel) held on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (50 days, or 7 complete weeks, from the first day of Passover) to commemorate the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; Pentecost; "Festival of the First Fruits"; "Festival of the Giving of the Torah"; Azeret (solemn assembly).Shavuot throughout centuries of European Jewish history. Among Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardic Jews and Near Eastern–Mediterranean groups such as the Yemenites, an age-old custom of funeral wailing women [endicheras] continued well into the twentieth century. The injunction concerning kol ishah [woman’s voice], limiting the singing voice of women, prevailed since Talmudic times among all Jewish traditions barring participation in religious rituals and liturgy. Consequently, Jewish women kept to their own separate devotionals, much as did biblical Miriam, who led the women outside the Israelite encampment after crossing the Red Sea, where they intoned what may have been their own version of Moses’ Hymn of Triumph.

In the Eastern European areas of Jewish settlement, spurred by the spread of the Jewish Enlightenment; European movement during the 1770sHaskalah enlightenment movement during the nineteenth century, Yiddish secular culture began to flourish, creating a tradition of folk artistry among traveling badkhonim [bard-troubadours] and klezmorim [instrumental musicians]. Although talented women increasingly sought opportunities for active participation, their route to public performance remained either through male entertainers in their families or by separation from Jewish life.

Women and Yiddish American Music Theater

Beginning in 1876, Abraham Goldfaden (1840–1908) devised and developed a new genre, the operetta, for his performing troupes of singing actors and instrumentalists who traveled to Jewish communities in Russia, Romania, Austria, and Poland. Performances featured women rather than young boys in the female roles and even had special set pieces for female performers. By the 1880s, this Jewish theatrical art and its artists had found its way to America, where the male actors became matinee idols, and the female actors became role models reflecting the diversity of women’s lives and conditions in America.

In America, women from Goldfaden’s theatrical company expanded their repertories to include hymns, and liturgical chants. Sophie Karp (1861–1906), who had been discovered and trained for the stage by Goldfaden, became a starring soubrette in Yiddish revues and plays at the Bowery theaters on the Lower East Side of New York City. In 1896, she introduced a Yiddish ballad written especially for her by Peretz Koppel Sandler. That song, “Eli, Eli,” a dramatic arietta, became an immediate favorite and soon became a featured solo by Bertha Kalich and many other female performers of the day, even some in the general entertainment field. Operatic sopranos Sophie Braslau and Rosa Raissa (1893–1963) sang “Eli, Eli” in their programs at the Metropolitan Opera House and other concert halls. Belle Baker featured it in her touring vaudeville presentations, and her photograph adorns several published editions of the song. Soon, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt was including this song in his concert and recording repertoire, and his photograph in cantorial garb appeared on its sheet music publications. As a result, a song originally presented by women on the Yiddish stage was transformed into a Jewish hymn and consequently considered the musical domain of male singers.

Music was an essential element of the Yiddish musical theater in America, as shaped and given distinctive form by Goldfaden. Songs were the dominating elements in drama as well as comedy, and everyone on the Jewish stage had to sing. The earliest female actor-singer, for whom Goldfaden wrote many operettas featuring heroic women, was Regina Prager (1874–1949). In the course of her long career, she introduced such operetta roles as Shulamith, a sad maiden of the Second Temple Era, and Dinah, warrior consort of Bar Kokhba. Over the years, Prager went from lovely soubrette and romantic lady to formidable matron in the leading role for Boris Tomashefsky’s highly successful musical Di Khazinte [The lady cantor]. For almost two decades, her photograph adorned the song sheet covers of numerous musical selections. By World War I, female performers were regularly featured on theater posters and commercial sheet music, usually in costumes and in scenes from the shows.

Early on, resourceful Yiddish theatrical entrepreneurs were presenting their own versions of the “uptown” American musicals. Bessie Tomashefsky starred as the “Jewish American Beauty” in her husband Boris Tomashefsky’s production of The Yiddish Yankee Doodle. In her later years, she enjoyed a busy theatrical life as a director and producer, as well as performing in her own shows. Although Jacob P. Adler was the abiding theatrical star of his day, the “Adler women” also displayed exceptional talents. His daughters, Celia Adler and Stella Adler, daughter of third wife Sara Adler, both appeared in varied dramatic roles well past their eightieth birthdays.

In its heyday, the Yiddish theatricals mirrored immigrant tenement life, presenting issues and problems faced by audiences. Family matters had particular importance in an era of physical accommodation, economic survival, and social acculturation into American life. The nobility of motherhood was celebrated in legions of stories and songs. How could it be possible, balladeers sang, that one mother could take care of ten children and yet ten children would not take care of one mother? Women’s woes were discussed and often resolved across the footlights. Reality was presented to an extent not paralleled in the general theatrical world of those years. Theatrical treatments might be comic with songs about suffragists and women’s rights, and lyrics jested about women not only as cantors but also as doctors, politicians, even rabbis. Such role reversals were a traditional part of Holiday held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (on the 15th day in Jerusalem) to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian empire from a plot to eradicate them.Purim celebrations, but they may also have reflected a feminist agenda. Many were serious expositions, for example on behalf of legislation to protect women workers, especially following upon the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 when 146 workers lost their lives.

For more than eighty years Molly Picon charmed the public and helped keep the Yiddish theater alive. Best known for her potrayals of "the adorable waif" (often a boy) in Yiddish plays, she also acted, sang and danced her way through English plays, and appeared on film, television and on Broadway.

Institution: American Jewish Historical Society

Actress Jennie Goldstein.
Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Jennie Goldstein was a particular favorite in her dramatic portrayals of women struggling to survive despite adversity. Her songs, while musically varied, had a predominant message: “The sun shines but never for me.” She began her theatrical career as a vulnerable immigrant waif, progressing from wronged maiden who must give away her baby, to the older girl with a checkered past, and then an exhausted working woman pleading, “Take me away from the sewing machine.” Her photographs in those roles appeared on sheet music covers and souvenir programs, and she filled crowded theaters on the Bowery and then Second Avenue with teary women and sympathetic men.

Women played comic as well as pathos-ridden roles. Two popular comic-soubrettes enjoyed long and illustrious careers: Nellie Casman (1896–1984) and Molly Picon. Casman, who wrote her own material and songs, typically played naughty yet wise roles. One of her tunes, “Yosel, Yosel,” and its English version, “Joseph, Make Your Mind Up,” continues to be sung by non-Jewish as well as Jewish performers worldwide. Molly Picon was a beloved performer on the Yiddish stage, in the general entertainment field, and on recordings. Her characterizations were shaped by her petite physical appearance and warm personal charm. Three leading composers of the Yiddish music theater, Joseph Rumshinsky, Sholom Secunda, and Abraham Ellstein, composed songs for her.

By the second half of the twentieth century, the distinctive qualities of Yiddish theater and most of its gifted artists had moved into the mainstream by means of radio, recordings, movies, and then television. However, in the process they sacrificed their earlier role as role models whose kinship with other immigrant women reflected female concerns in adapting to life in di goldene medine [the golden land]. With their unique qualities of communication across the footlights, they had fashioned a night school for women, teaching lessons with songs and stories on how to survive and overcome a multitude of tribulations. In their heyday, the old Yiddish theatricals and their music helped bring women into the forefront of Jewish artistic self-expression.

Women and American Jewish Liturgical Music

Over the three-hundred-year history of Jewish life in America, Jewish sacred music was sung in synagogues and temples throughout the country. In the nineteenth century, Judaic hymnals were published and distributed throughout the United States. Hebrew liturgical texts and their English free translations were set to traditional chant as well as to composed or adapted melodies. Increasingly, Jewish women’s voices joined with those of men in choirs and congregational singing in less traditional synagogues. Women also began to participate in the shaping of American Jewish liturgical customs and preparation of hymnals. Rebecca Gratz started a formal Sunday school for Jewish children and utilized liturgical texts and hymn tunes for the religious lessons. Penina Moïse edited and translated the texts and music of German Jewish Reform hymnals, adapting them for American congregations. Emma Lazarus wrote devotional poetry for the Gottheil-Davis hymnal (1875/1887) adopted by Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Members of the Jewish Women’s Congress, organized in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, commissioned a major American Jewish liturgical publication, A Collection of the Principal Melodies of the Synagogue from the Earliest Time to the Present, compiled and edited by Alois Kaiser and William Sparger. By the turn of the century, Jewish women went beyond traditional familial roles and began to take active roles in their religious communal and cultural life. In 1923, the National Council of Jewish Women published a monograph on Jewish music, An Introduction to Jewish Music, in Eight Illustrated Lectures, by Angie Irma Cohon (1890–1981). Over the next three decades, Cohon’s work was the basic course of Jewish musical study for branches of the council organization and other congregational groups across the country.

In the decades following World War I, Jewish women’s choruses sang Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs and holiday melodies at public functions. Moreover, Jewish liturgical music had come into general American performance. Special prayers like Kol Nidrei [all vows], El Male Rahamim [God of mercy], and familiar Sabbath zemirot [spirituals] had become available on player-piano rolls, in published sheet music arrangements, and on commercial recordings that often featured women singers. Not only did women perform Jewish spiritual music, but some also composed and arranged devotional selections. Mana Zucca (nom de plume of Augusta Zuckerman, 1885–1981) wrote a number of such songs, including two concert-style anthems, Rahem [Have compassion] and Shalom Aleikhem [Peace to you]. Increasingly, women musicians were participating in the spiritual musical expression of American Jewry.

Clearly, this practice constituted a challenge to the concept of isolating kol ishah in an observant Jewish life. By the 1930s, except at Orthodox synagogues, women sat together with men as they intoned the responsive prayers in congregational unity. There were mixed choruses, and sopranos sang solos. Women had always sung at home, but now they sang in public, and the music they sang was progressing well beyond that of the usual range of Jewish women’s songs. Moreover, the ranks of religious school teachers were rapidly filling with women, many of whom taught the liturgical melodies as well as folk tunes to their students. All of Jewish music was becoming their shared domain.

In the period following World War II, three schools of sacred music were instituted. In 1948, the School of Sacred Music was established at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC–JIR) for the academic training of cantors and music educators to serve Reform Judaism. In 1952, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA) inaugurated the Cantors Institute and College of Liturgical Music on behalf of its constituency, Conservative Judaism. At about the same time Yeshiva University began to add courses in Jewish musical study, and in 1964 it formally established the Cantorial Training Institute for Orthodox congregations. Until that time, training of cantors had been by oral transmission from cantor to apprentice.

From its inception, the School of Sacred Music admitted women to Jewish liturgical music studies and offered them accreditation to serve congregations as music educators and choral leaders, but not as cantors. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion began accepting women into its (Debbie Friedman) School of Sacred Music in 1970. In 1975, Barbara Ostfeld was ordained as the first woman cantor. She received pulpit placement following graduation and was inducted into the American Conference of Cantors upon ordination. By 1995, when she received a twenty-year honorary doctor of music degree from HUC–JIR, there had been ninety-four other women cantorial graduates from that school. In accepting her award, Ostfeld said, “Women cantors have altered the way in which prayer is offered, heard, and received.”

In 1984, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America began accepting of women for rabbinical training in the Conservative branch of Judaism. Meanwhile, women had been students at the seminary’s College of Liturgical Music since its establishment, and some had received degrees in sacred music. In 1984, Erica Lipitz and Marla Rosenfeld Barugel applied and were permitted to prepare for ordination as Synagogue cantorhazzan [cantor]. They were granted that status by the Cantors Institute in 1987, and both were placed with congregations. Since then, many other women have completed and received cantorial designation. However, acceptance or rejection of women cantors in the Conservative Movement depended on the particular congregation and its rabbi. Moreover, until 1990, admission was not formally given to women cantorial graduates by the Conservative professional organization, the Cantors Assembly of America. This reflected continued opposition among some constituents to women’s expanded role.

According to age-old Judaic tradition, the rabbi has been the principal religious teacher-scholar and spiritual interpreter-counselor, and only in America has that office assumed a more active ministerial-preacher role at the religious services. In contrast, the traditional role of the American cantor has remained that of shaliah zibbur, or leader in ritual duties and musical guide and inspirer of congregational prayer. The issue of women’s roles as leaders of prayer is still hotly debated. For example, there remain several significant The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic [legal] issues for interpretive consideration: mandatory cantorial observance of the 613 A biblical or rabbinic commandment; also, a good deed.mitzvot (traditional male duties); the counting of a The quorum, traditionally of ten adult males over the age of thirteen, required for public synagogue service and several other religious ceremonies.minyan [ten Jews] as male for a proper order of service; and, of course, the abiding matter of kol ishah in divine worship. Women have not been granted admission to Orthodox cantorial training at Yeshiva University, nor is that likely to happen in the foreseeable future. However, a few newly established Orthodox synagogues follow minority opinion espoused in 2001 that permits women to recite certain prayers and read the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah on behalf of both the men and women of the congregation. This is still a rare phenomenon; on a somewhat wider scale, all-women’s prayer groups provide a forum for women who wish to perform these roles within a setting that has received the approbation of a broader swathe of modern Orthodox rabbis. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox eschew women’s prayer groups, and women in these communities adhere strictly to the principle of kol ishah in both secular and religious venues—including the synagogue, where female congregants do not sing even the group responsive parts of the prayer service. As a consequence of this sex-segregation, women in many An ultra-Orthodox Jewharedicircles have created their own music and performing arts culture, with female singers and all-women bands performing for women-only audiences, and even tapes and CDs clearly labeled “for women only.” In the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association, a traditionally oriented group established in America late in the nineteenth century, membership remains entirely male. However, two unaffiliated organizations are concerned with the roles of women in synagogue music: the American Guild of Jewish Organists, which includes male and female liturgical musicians and offers musical guidance to its membership; and the Women Cantors’ Network, the female counterpart of the Jewish Ministers Cantors group. The network was founded by Cantor Deborah Katchko-Zimmerman in 1981, gathering together a group of twelve women serving as cantors or seeking that professional goal. By 1996, the membership had grown to ninety.

Katchko-Zimmerman typified 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 secured a full-time active position at a Conservative congregation in Connecticut but felt isolated from the male cantorate. Joining her in spearheading the network organization was another privately trained cantor, Doris Cohen, formerly a liturgical soloist with composer and conductor Sholom Secunda, who has served at a Reform pulpit in New York City. The network is a support group with annual study conferences and a regular newsletter.

Though debate continues regarding the female cantorial profession, among all the denominations of Judaism, women’s voices increasingly are heard in America leading congregations in all the year-round calendar and life-cycle observances of the Jewish faith. These women train and lead choirs, arrange and compose liturgical works, and present special Jewish music programs. They attend to a great many duties as music educators in the religious schools, including the training of girls and boys to assume religious responsibilities of bar and Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah.

Jewish women are taking advantage of increasing opportunities in Jewish music itself. As performers, many now include works of Judaic relevance on their programs. At temples and synagogues, they are choir singers and choral leaders, as well as organists and music directors. Some have composed music of Jewish inspiration, often on commission for works with Holocaust themes. Complete services have appeared in the past few years, among them those of Miriam Gideon. The growing roster of younger composers of Jewish works includes Judith Berman, Judith Karzen, Lillian Klass, Shulamit Ran, Elizabeth Swados, and Judith Lang Zaimont.

Singers of Yiddish Folk Music

Ruth Rubin and Eleanor Chana Mlotek led the way over past decades with their achievements as collector-arrangers and performers of Yiddish songs. Among many women devoting their talents to Jewish folk music in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as Ladino and English, are Debbie Friedman and Robyn Helzner, both of whom are also gifted recording artists.

As a pioneer Jewish music educator, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein not only published and composed pedagogical materials for adults as well as children but also taught and inspired a number of women to follow in her footsteps. Tziporah Jochsberger established a music school that focused on the Jewish music education of youngsters. More recently, Leah Abrams, Isabel Ganz, and Judy Caplan Ginsburgh are among a growing number of group music leaders popularizing Jewish music among children and young adults. Significantly for Jewish music in America, most female cantors have also taken on a variety of communal music activities, reaching out to the general public, in addition to fulfilling their usual pastoral and educational duties for their congregations.

Women music educators currently predominate in the Jewish religious schools, and many others who teach at academic institutions and conservatories include Jewish folk music in their curricula. As scholars and writers, they research and publish works treating Jewish music. As supporters and patrons of this music, Jewish women support special programs and musical events offering Jewish music and fill audience seats at such presentations.

Women in Secular Music

American Jewish women in secular music have shared advances and handicaps with the general population of women in the United States. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, native-born Jewish women suffered from the same Victorian limitations that affected the entire middle-class female population, that is, the belief that professional appearances in public were socially degrading. That attitude was compounded by the lack of a tradition of professional artist-musician families such as prevailed in Europe, in which women were trained and introduced into professional circles by family members. But the first feminist movement in the United States, powered in large part by the campaign for suffrage, supported women’s struggle for a more public role in music as well as in other fields. As a result, in the late nineteenth century, women in music began moving into public life and professional endeavors. Indeed, a startling change had taken place: Women were crowding into the fields of music and music teaching. Their involvement increased from thirty-six percent in 1870 to sixty percent in 1910, the latter a historic high.

Another favorable element was the traditional Jewish valuing of culture and learning that many families brought with them from Europe, a value system reinforced in America by the nineteenth-century amateur tradition of musical accomplishment. Training in voice and piano made middle-class unmarried women more valuable on the marriage market.

However, the arts have always been a way up for marginalized people. From the 1880s on, antisemitism was on the upswing, reaching its high point in the 1920s and continuing until the 1960s. Jewish women’s opportunities in other fields were limited during that period, making performance in classical music, musical theater, and popular music an attractive option for the talented.

In music as in other arts, the “aristocracy of talent” has been the criterion for success, not, as in other fields, religion or family credentials or country of origin. Indeed, musicians have benefited from being members of the international musical community. The reasons for this are historical: Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans valued European over native-born performers. Indeed, musicians working in the classical tradition, whether or not native-born, were expected to have European training and experience, while those trained in United States were considered inferior.

Much remains unknown about the population of Jewish women in secular music, for whom religion did not play an obvious part in their musical lives. In an age when assimilation was the aim for many, religious differences were suppressed, even at times denied, and names changed, leaving many unidentified as Jews. The investigator risks thrusting on some women an identity they have rejected. (Of course, the reverse is true as well: A number of musicians of Anglo-Saxon descent changed to Slavic-sounding names, e.g., Stokes to Stokowski, Hickenlooper to Samaroff, Liggins to Leginska, in order to appear not Jewish but Eastern European.) Despite these limitations, a picture of female Jewish participation in music begins to evolve.

Singers predominate. For those with musical gifts, careers in opera and musical theater were the only ones in which women are irreplaceable by men. In the first generation of Jewish American opera singers, most were born in Europe: Lina AbarbanellAlma GluckMaria Winetzkaja. For these women, being reared in the European tradition of multilingualism was (and is) a distinct advantage. In addition, American audiences have been long been exposed to opera, art, and ethnic songs sung in foreign languages.

Gluck, who began in opera, ultimately chose concert singing, making of it a notable success. Estelle Liebling also had a short career in opera. A native-born American, she combined the advantages of fine European training with birth into a professional artist-musician family. Multitalented (she also served as a vocal accompanist), upon her return to the United States in 1902, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Her two-year stint was followed by extensive tours as soprano soloist with John Philip Sousa’s band. Thereafter, although continuing to perform, she concentrated on tea,ching voice.

Two singers born early in the twentieth century who had brief careers in opera but chose to be lieder and concert rather than opera singers were Ruth Kisch-Arendt and Jennie Tourel, the latter possibly the greatest of them all. Tourel maintained her interest in Jewish affairs and became an ardent and musically active supporter of Israel, teaching and performing regularly in that country.

Singers born after World War I who have had notable careers in opera include Regina Resnik, Judith Raskin, Roberta Peters and Beverly Sills. Born Belle Silverman in 1929, Sills was a child prodigy: She appeared on radio beginning at age four, started her long years of study with Estelle Liebling at age seven, and began her professional singing career at sixteen. Her career in opera began in her thirties with the New York City Opera, where she became its star. She faced opposition to joining the Metropolitan Opera under Sir Rudolf Bing but finally overcame that as well. Her long and illustrious career as prima donna and remarkable singing actor was crowned by a directorship of the New York City Opera. Her subsequent appointment as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was another first for a woman. Sills then served as chair of the Metropolitan Opera from 2002 to 2005, when she announced her intention to retire from public life. Popular music offered opportunities to women, initially as singer/entertainers and only later as instrumentalists. The saloon singer and musical theater actor Sylvia Sims, the daughter of an immigrant father, learned her craft by sneaking into saloons to hear jazz greats, overcoming poverty and a minimal education to become one of the outstanding saloon singers of her generation. Among the Jewish women active in the folk music movement was Cass Elliot, famous as a member of the Mamas and the Papas. Eydie Gorme, an outstanding popular singer, became famous as a recording artist and as half of a radio duo with her husband, Steve Lawrence. The daughter of immigrant Turkish Jews, she was fluent in Spanish and recorded and broadcast in that language for the Voice of America. Carole King, middle-class and college-educated, is a much-honored singer and songwriter. Three women have had outstanding careers as lyricists in popular music, theater, and film: Sylvia Fine, Dorothy Fields, and Betty Comden.

Women have had a harder time succeeding as instrumental performers. Among pianists, the earliest Jewish woman to have an international concert career was Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, who also was America’s first international star on the concert circuit.

While the number of distinguished professional solo pianists proliferated, no American Jewish woman has quite matched Zeisler’s stature in the international concert world. Women of all backgrounds faced handicaps that men were spared. Olga Samaroff (born Hickenlooper, as noted above) wrote of the lower fees traditionally paid to female concert artists. Yet women on the road had greater expenses than men because of the need for companions while young and for multiple expensive concert gowns instead of the one standard outfit for men. Finally, while female wunderkinder have strong audience appeal, that appeal often dwindles with increasing age, something that rarely affects men.

Adherence to socially constructed gender roles as a limiting factor is dramatically illustrated in the life of Hephzibah Menuhin, gifted sister of Yehudi. Brother and sister both made their first and brilliantly successful public appearances at age eight; however, their father concentrated on promoting his son’s career, while Hephzibah, who wished the same support and opportunity, was told that her sphere was home and children. Thus her career, though it flourished sporadically, never equaled her promise as a child. A second sister, Yaltah (1921–2001), also musically gifted, had even less of a performing career.

Nadia Reisenberg had an international career as a concert pianist. She first studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in her native Russia, where she made her debut. In 1922, she immigrated to the United States, where she studied at the Curtis Institute with Josef Hoffmann. Her performing career included appearances with major orchestras and ensembles in Europe and the United States. Rosalyn Tureck, who was native born, came from a musical immigrant family who provided her with fine teachers. At sixteen she won entry to the all-scholarship Juilliard School and soon after her debut established her reputation as a Bach specialist with an international career. Others of that generation include Ray Lev, and Lonnie Epstein, and in the next generation, Ruth Meckler Laredo. Laredo began as a child prodigy whose first teacher was her mother. After making her debut with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at age eleven, she studied with Rudolf Serkin, who was a powerful and continuing influence in her musical life.

Whereas piano was the primary instrument for the nineteenth-century female amateur musician, the violin was for American middle-class women a proscribed instrument, one associated with music for dance and thus for accompanying “immodest” movement, and worst of all, one played in sporting houses. Thus the violin was considered an instrument of the devil, not one for the “angel in the house.” However, the example of French violinist Camille Urso, who made her debut as a child prodigy in mid-century, together with the later influence of the women’s movement, finally changed the violin into an instrument that respectable girls and women might play. By the turn of the century, when the seven-year-old Vera Hochstein [Fonaroff] arrived in the United States, American women were making careers as concert violinists and as members of women’s string quartets and orchestras. A prodigy, she made her debut at nine with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, then continued her training in England and the United States. In 1909, she became second violinist in the all-female Olive Mead String Quartet, one of the earliest all-female groups and considered among the finest in the country.

Lillian Fuchs was born into a musical family in 1902. She had first-rate conservatory training as a pianist and then as a violinist, and was able to move into the mainstream of musical life in New York, joining her two gifted brothers in chamber music recitals. She was a member of the Perole String Quartet from 1926 to the 1940s, one of the first American women to break the gender barrier in quartet playing.

Playing in professional orchestras and ensembles of all kinds, in concert halls, theaters, cabarets, for radio and television, has been the main source of musicians’ livelihoods. Yet women were for many years locked out of these positions. Their first reactions to such discrimination took the form of all-women groups, beginning in the late nineteenth century and coming to a high point between 1925 and 1945, when dozens of such orchestras were active from New York to California. Blanche Bloch had the advantage of concertizing with her husband, a violinist, beginning with his debut in 1913. She also taught piano, the only other option open to most pianists. However, in the 1930s, Bloch found a niche as pianist in the New York Women’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antonia Brico. The concert career of Eudice Shapiro (b. 1914), the daughter of a violist and the granddaughter of a cantor, was aided early by a solo engagement with the New York Women’s Symphony Orchestra, with whom she played the Sibelius Violin Concerto in 1938. Some of the women trained in orchestra playing in the all-women groups moved into positions vacated by men during World War II. A few were able to remain after the war was over, beginning the long struggle to integrate community, regional, and in recent years, major American orchestras. This has been one of the most successful and dramatic results of the current women’s movement.

Progress for instrumentalists in the fields of jazz and popular music has been slower. Here women found an opportunity during World War II to form their own groups, most notably the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, in order to work and grow as artists. One recording group included Rose Gottesman, drums; June Rotenberg, bass; Mary Lou Williams, piano; Mary Osborne, guitar; and Margie Hyams, vibraharp. Rotenberg was an early crossover artist who later became a member of the New York City Opera Orchestra. On radio, Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra featured “Evelyn [Klein] and her Magic Violin.” Klein had graduated from the Institute of Musical Art in New York in 1931.

American composers have had an even longer struggle than performers for recognition, whatever their religious background. Composers who enter the professional music field first as performers have a distinct advantage. Mana Zucca (born Augusta Zuckerman in 1885) was a composer as well as a pianist and singer with an extensive performance record, including appearances with major orchestras. She created a large oeuvre that mixed lighter compositions such as the song “Big Brown Bear” with more serious works including concerti for piano and violin. Her songs with Yiddish texts are discussed above. Jeanne Behrend, trained at the Curtis Institute of Music, also combined composition with piano performance, and had early recognition of her creative gifts. However, she stopped composing in the 1940s because of neglect of her music by others, almost as much a problem for Americans as for women.

Not all composers were also performers. Marion Bauer, whose earlier works were considered modern, continued composing almost until her death. Born in Walla Walla, Washington, to immigrant French-Jewish parents, Bauer was especially important for her championing of modern music in books, lectures, and teaching, and through her considerable support of organizations such as the League of Composers.

In recent years, the number of women composers has increased exponentially and includes such outstanding women as Vienna-born Vally Weigl (1889–1982) and the American Miriam Gideon. Born in Greeley, Colorado, in 1906, Gideon earned an M.A. in musicology from Columbia University and a Doctor of Sacred Music degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She wrote orchestral and instrumental works, but compositions with texts predominate in her oeuvre. Gideon taught for many years at the City College of New York, the Manhattan College of Music, and the Cantors Institute of the JTSA. Vivian Fine (b. 1913), composer and pianist, wrote for modern dancers Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Charles Weidman, and José Limón. Other works include opera, chamber, solo instrumental, and vocal genres. Her style has ranged from contrapuntal dissonance to a more lyrical, occasionally humourous style. Ruth Schonthal and Ursula Mamlok, both born in the 1920s in Germany, made their ways by circuitous routes to the United States in the 1940s. Schonthal’s style, while modern, reflects her European background, while Mamlok’s was early influenced by the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Recently she has combined serial techniques with more lyrical and eloquent writing.

In a traditional nurturant female role in support of the avant garde movement in music beginning in 1921, Minna Lederman (1896–1995) and Claire Raphael Reis (1888–1978), working with Marion Bauer, were publicists for the International Composers Guild, then in 1923 for the League of Composers. Lederman edited its journal, Modern Music, and in the process taught a group of modern composers, Aaron Copland among them, how to write about music. Another patron, Minnie Guggenheimer (1882–1966), was famous for her support of the summer concerts at Lewisohn Stadium in New York and her cheery welcome to audiences during intermissions.

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.


Block, Adrienne Fried, and Carol Neuls-Bates. Women in American Music: A Bibliography of Music and Literature (1979).

Heskes, Irene. The Music of Abraham Goldfaden: Father of the Yiddish Theater (1990), and Passport to Jewish Music: Its History, Traditions, and Culture (1994), and Yiddish American Popular Songs, 1895 to 1950 (1992).

Pendle, Karin, ed. Women and Music: A History (1991).

Rosenfeld, Lulla Adler. Bright Star of Exile: Jacob Adler and the Yiddish Theatre (1988).

Rotem, Tamar. “Morality Plays.” Haaretz, January 7, 2005.

Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977).

Slobin, Mark. Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (1982).

Tick, Judith. “Women in Music.” In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. 4, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie (1986).

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How to cite this page

Fried, Adrienne Block. "Jewish Women and Jewish Music in America." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 31, 2021) <>.