What would they think if they saw me? I was only ten years old, extremely scrawny, and . . . a girl. The year was 1956 and I was embarking on a new career: assistant bar mitzvah teacher of the Shaarei Shomayim synagogue, the largest Orthodox shul in Toronto. My father, who was the bar mitzvah teacher, needed me to act as “his voice.” He had just had a growth removed surgically from his vocal chords and he could not sing or even speak; he could only whisper.
During the day, my father worked as a sewing machine operator in a coat factory, a job for which he was painfully ill-suited. What he really was professionally was a talmid hokhem—a scholar. He was so knowledgeable in Torah that he could recite any passage in the Five Books of Moses by heart. He also knew how to chant the entire Tanakh [Hebrew scriptures] with the proper trop [musical cantillation]. He had learned all of this as a young student of the Gerer Rebbe in Serock, a small shtetl in Poland. My parents were Holocaust survivors and I was born in a refugee camp in post-war Germany. I spoke only Yiddish until I was 5.
I remember, at 5, sitting and listening to my father as he taught his bar mitzvah students at our home on Montrose Avenue, when we first arrived in Toronto from Europe. Like Yentl in the I. B. Singer story, I would cringe when the student sang the wrong notes. My father, a perfectionist, made all of his “boys” repeat each phrase until they got is exactly right. He would often call me over, “Feygele, Feygele, come here! Sing it for him.” He must have been tired of singing the same phrase over and over. My father did not have a tape recorder to do singing for him, nor could we afford a piano.
In those days, my father was the Torah reader at the Shaw Street shul, and he routinely strained his vocal chords to project his voice in that canyon with its high ceiling and its women’s balcony above the men’s section. Although my father’s voice was beautiful and sweet, it was not strong. Over time he developed nodes on his vocal chords as a result of the years of straining; the nodes became worse until finally he had to have them surgically removed.
The surgery coincided with my father’s acquisition of a brand-new job: bar mitzvah teacher at Shaarei Shomayim. My father didn’t want to lose this new job (our family needed the extra money), and the doctor was adamant that the surgery could not be delayed or my father might lose his voice altogether. What could he do? He decided that I, the eldest of his three daughters, would be his “voice.” I already knew trop, had a keen ear, and could read Hebrew well. It would be easy to train me. I would be the interpreter or liaison between my Orthodox father and his Orthodox male students.
My first day on the job was difficult. When I walked into that room at the top of the stairs accompanied by my father, the boys stared at me queerly, and when my father whispered hoarsely to them, “This is my daughter. She will be doing the singing for me,” I understood their jabs and snickering: “A girl? What does a girl know?” But I was the same perfectionist as my father, and I turned out to be a really good teacher. I was more patient than my father, and over time the boys looked forward to being taken out of their regular Hebrew class so that they could study with me. My father would put the notes of the trop on the blackboard and, as he pointed, I would sing the melody. After the first session, the boys saw that I knew what I was doing. I corrected every mistake in their reading and chanting. I was my father’s “voice” for almost an entire year.
The message I got from this experience was a strange, double one. I could teach the boys, but not go up to the bimah myself. At the time I held two things in my heart simultaneously: I never questioned the rules, but I also felt keenly the desire to be called up to the Torah on my own behalf, knowing that I could perform a Torah or Haftorah reading better than any of my charges. In a sense, my father spoke through me to the boys, and I spoke through the boys to the shul. I loved that my father kvelled whenever Mr. Burke, the principal of the Hebrew school, tested me on the meaning of a passage and I came through intelligently and thoughtfully, but I also accepted that I could never perform in circles more public than Mr. Burke, my father and the “boys.” My father delighted in marching me down the hall to Mr. Burke’s office in order to challenge the principal to try to stump me—I could quote the commentaries on the Talmud and answer any question correctly.
Forty years later, I became the first paid female Torah reader in Toronto. At Darchei Noam, my Reconstructionist congregation, I was hired to read every Shabbat, and at Beit Haminyan, a more traditional shul, I was hired, along with my younger sister Bella, to teach the congregation’s women how to chant all five of the megillot—Ruth, the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther (though women are still not allowed to read from the Torah at traditional synagogues).
At Beit Haminyan it’s become a tradition for women to chant all the megillot in their appointed cycle in the liturgical calendar. When I attend services on Purim at Beit Haminyan and hear women chant with so much confidence, I’m always astonished at how deeply moved I am. Bella and I taught the original group of women, and they taught other women, and they taught other women. It never ceases to amaze me and make me cry. For my children, on the other hand (two boys and a girl), it’s not an emotional moment at all—it’s just the way things are.
Thirty-five years after my father’s and my bar mitzvah “arrangement,” my father continues to read Torah at Shaarei Shomayim. As for me, my life’s commitment has been to be a Jewish singer, teacher and musical historian. When I give workshops in Yiddish music, I hear myself incorporating cantorial inflections that I remember learning from my father as a small child. I can sing “Chazzndl Oyf Shabbos” [“A Cantor For the Sabbath”] in ways that few women can.
My father still cannot overtly support me. I know also that my extraordinary privilege—to learn so much cantillation, Talmud and Torah as an Orthodox female—was a cosmic fluke; it would never have happened had I simply had a brother.
Being my father’s “tape recorder” as a child has ended up somehow making me uniquely tolerant. I never turn my nose up at any synagogue service, and I feel comfortable in all congregational settings. Though I bristle at females being treated as second class, I have wrestled something singular and enduring and rich out of my childhood Jewish experience of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion.
Sometimes when I’m in synagogue and I hear a reader who doesn’t know how to phrase the Hebrew words because he/she doesn’t understand them, I hear a voice that takes me back almost 50 years to Montrose Avenue, to those moments when my father was tired of singing the same phrase again and again.
“Feygele, Feygele, come here! Sing it for him.”
Quietly in my seat, I do.
Faye Kellerstein is a singer and musical historian. Her CD, A Feygele Zingt, is available from (800) 535-3595.