Singing Jewish Women’s Music

Conductor Elayne Robinson Grossman recently celebrated her 18th anniversary with New York’s Rottenberg Chorale, a 45-voice choir of men and women, by presenting a program of 20 musical selections called “Music by and About Jewish Women.” Grossman, a skilled and expressive conductor, brought forth a polished and richly communicative sound. Featuring the work of 19 living composers (five of them in the audience), Grossman recently explained to a reporter that when she, “dug around for material for the conceit, I found treasures that far surpassed my expectations. Although women are relatively new to the scene of conducting and composing Jewish music, I discovered a good number of female composers, and they truly express their Jewish souls.”

Premiering at the anniversary concert were works by composers Helen Greenberg of Toronto, Caroll Goldberg and Benjie Ellen Schiller of New York, and Elaine Broad of Interlochen, Michigan. A conte fable (story accompanied by music) by storyteller Peninnah Schram and conductor Grossman also had its first staging.

The evening began with a new musical setting of “Eirz Chayim Hee” (“A Tree of Life is She,” Grossman points out), and then continued with female-oriented texts that included a medieval Ladino folk song about a dark little girl named Morenica; a Hebrew poem by Leah Goldberg translated as “The Girl Sings to the Stream”; the biblical words of Ruth to her mother-in law; Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” in Hebrew (says Grossman, “Jerusalem is likened to a woman—loving peace; the wish of all women is peace”); the Yiddish “Sheyn Vi Di Levoneh” (“Beautiful Like the Moon”); and a haunting solo for voice and keyboard adapted from the Song of Songs and the Jewish wedding contract.

“The Leah Goldberg poem was especially important to me because it’s about a girl coming of age, entering the turmoil of adolescence,” says Grossman. “In all the repertoire, we see plenty about men—work songs, study songs. Women have lullabies, songs about fixing and washing clothes. But here’s a text about a young girl wondering, ‘What’s out there in the world for me?’ This text is not about marriage; it’s about a girl’s fleeting innocence and the polyphonic call of her future.”

A particularly rich piece, “Hannah,” by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, answered a long-term quest of the conductor’s. “For years I would sit in shul during this text on Rosh Hashanah and wonder, ‘Why why why are we speaking about a woman’s infertility at the beginning of the Jewish year?” Benjie’s choral setting finally brought me an understanding. Hannah goes up to the mountain of God, and there she teaches us what it means to be speechless, to communicate without words. This text is not about petitioning; it’s about how humans don’t understand God’s plan, but how we must go on in life anyway, finding joy.

“For Benjie’s part, she’s been on a professional quest to define what a woman cantor should sound like. We know it’s different from a male, but what exactly is it? ‘Hannah’ turned out to be a perfect vehicle for both Benjie and me.”

The Rottenberg Chorale in 1995 seems incontrovertibly Jewish in its orientation, but this was not always the case. “For the first few years, the Chorale did not have any Jewish content,” remembers Grossman. “When Tzipora Jochsberger, the founder of the Hebrew Arts School, first phoned me in 1977, she said, “I have a choir of 5 people and would like you to build it into one of the major Jewish choirs in the United States.” At the time I was like any other Jewish musician, learning my trade at secular schools— Juilliard, N.Y.U., Brooklyn College. I followed around conductors. I have always been enchanted by the human singing voice, but didn’t want to face the audience and sing.

“My goal was to conduct the Masses—Mozart, Haydn, Verdi, Britten. But when Tzipora called I remembered the Jewish music I had heard here and in Israel. Tzipora had taught me halil [recorder] when I was 7. I started to get excited. But it was really hard to find Jewish choral music. So by 1978 I was doing a doctoral dissertation that was a massive search for Jewish choral music. I was returning to my Jewish self. As a child, I had gone to Crown Heights Yeshiva; my dad was a kosher butcher. I began to feel that it was essential for me not only to express myself through beautiful music, but through beautiful Jewish music.”

And 18 years later—how does it all feel?

“My greatest satisfaction is stepping back and saying, ‘We’re celebrating Jewish diversity by bringing all of this together. We’re celebrating the voices of Jewish women as characters, singers, composers and conductors. We’re relating back to that tree of life that we all stem from and grow from.’

“I’ve learned that a pretty voice alone doesn’t reach the soul—it’s the texts that really let us soar spiritually. And always, always, the music must be the highest quality possible.”