Julie Rosewald becomes the first woman to lead services in an American synagogue
As the solemn First Day of Rosh Hashanah (5645) got underway on a Sabbath morning in 1884, congregants at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El experienced something entirely new. A woman soprano soloist led the music for the service, chanted portions of the worship normally reserved for a cantor, and directed the choir.
Cantor Max Wolff (1839-1884) had died three weeks earlier, after serving the congregation for 10 years. The congregants turned to Julie Eichberg Rosewald, an internationally renowned Jewish opera singer and vocal instructor, who had recently settled in San Francisco with her husband. They asked her to be the shaliach tzibbur, “messenger of the congregation” who leads prayer, and she agreed. This made September 20, 1884, the first recorded time a Jewish woman led services in an American synagogue.
On her first day as “Cantor Soprano,” as the congregation came to call her, Julie Rosewald relied on her prodigious musical memory of the southern German nusach (melody used for prayers in the service) learned many years before from her father tutelage in Stuttgart, Germany. She and her husband, Jacob Rosewald were both familiar with the contemporary synagogue music from years of service to the Baltimore Jewish community. They quickly prepared the music for the service and rehearsed the choir for the High Holidays. Julie served throughout the Days of Awe in 1884; she not only performed as a choral soloist but led all the cantorial portions and responses, providing aid to the temple’s ailing rabbi.
This momentous occasion was widely noted. The Jewish Progress reported on September 26, 1884: “The services of the various synagogues on Rosh Hashanah were thoroughly in accord with the solemnity of the occasion…. The singing was a feature of the service, Mrs. Rosewald at the Temple Emanu-El filling her arduous position with great credit.”
The time was right. An open California spirit and a late 19th century’s growing appreciation of the capabilities of women among the Reform Jews of San Francisco made it not only possible but acceptable to choose Julie Rosewald as a cantor. She could provide the high-quality classical-style music, which the congregation desired. Her status as an international “superstar” of opera, her knowledge of Hebrew and traditional chant, and her readiness to perform in a religious setting were a winning combination.
So delighted was the congregation with her singing, with the new music that she brought to the temple, and with the excellent quality of choral preparation that she continued in her position of “Cantor Soprano” for nearly ten years.
Source: Judith S. Pinnolis, “ ‘Cantor Soprano’ Julie Rosewald: The Musical Career of a Jewish American ‘New Woman’,” American Jewish Archives Journal, Vol. 62, No. 2 (December 2010), pp. 1-53.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Julie Rosewald becomes the first woman to lead services in an American synagogue." (Viewed on October 28, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/sep/20/1884/julie-rosewald>.