The Cantors Assembly Convention: A Spy Story

I attended my first Cantors Assembly convention in the Cat-skills this May with some trepidation. 1 knew that the group would be primarily composed of men; I also knew that the Assembly (composed mainly of Conservative cantors) does not admit women as members, though women are free to attend meetings. Aware that a vote was to be taken on the issue during the convention, I wanted to know more about the reasoning behind this exclusion.

The atmosphere of this cantors’ gathering was beautiful, and often overwhelming. Walking to and from my room several times a day, past the rows of doors with their white plastic mezuzot, I enjoyed the muffled cantors’ voices warbling in their own rooms. It was like a continual dose of nostalgia for me, having been raised on those mournful, melismatic sounds.

Some of the finest voices heard at the conference were women’s, yet there was nothing “hazzonish” [cantor-like] about their sound. The only music women were allowed to sing at the conference was concert music, which of course allows opponents of women cantors to point out that women cannot sound like cantors! Not all of the concert music was modern, but it was all set and composed, not improvised. Traditional cantorial music encourages self-expression through long improvised passages; after a day of such wonderful music, the concert music — sung by women — came across as cold and rigid.

An undercurrent of suspense built towards the second day, when the executive council was to vote on the admission of women to the Assembly. This was listed as a closed session, for “members and wives only!’ The fact that women non-members can only be admitted if they are married to a member says volumes about the traditional, almost biblical, attitudes of the assembly.

The upcoming vote was the hot topic at breakfast that day. I sat at a table consisting entirely of the older generation, women and men. The man next to me was upset that women had been voted down the previous two years; he felt it was time for a change and was angry at men who resisted it. He told me to question a man sitting across from me, who was a vocal opponent of women. So I engaged in the following “argument for the sake of heaven:”

“Why do you object to women being cantors?”

“Women since after biblical times have been kept down, you see…!”

“So does this mean they should continue to be kept down?”

“Well, when I came to this country and started to be a hazzan, I felt inadequate. I remember my teacher, back in the Old Country, in his peos (sideburns) and long coat. I wasn’t fntm (strictly observant), and it didn’t feel right…”

“But times change, and you did become a hazzan!”

“Well, yes, but I’m saying it just didn’t feel right. Just as it doesn’t feel right for women!’ (His wife nodded in assent, adding that if she could vote, she would abstain.)

I was very curious to hear what sort of arguments would be brought against admission of women. I could not get past the guard at the door, who assured me that no non-members were being admitted. I did not give up that easily. I quietly entered the room adjacent to the meeting, from another side, where I could hear the proceedings through the speaker. I scrunched into a corner and smugly set myself up with a note pad.

But soon after, someone entered the room and informed me that it was “not available!’ I moved to a chair outside in the sun, near an open door, where I could still hear some of the proceedings. The minute one of the “guards” saw me there, he shut the door. I then moved to the hallway outside the roller skating rink, by another door, from where I could once again hear something. As soon as I was seen, that door was also shut.

By the end of this game, I was reduced to hiding out in the equipment room and scribbling notes in the dark. When I heard two men go by looking for me, I decided not to give them the satisfaction of their own importance, and I walked up the hill behind the hotel, enjoying my first sunlight in two days and the spring blossoms.

This year, for the third time the vote once again was against admitting women. Though 68 out of 100 members voted in favor of admitting women, this fell 12 votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

I had been able to hear the assembly president, Robert Kieval of Roekville, Maryland, who has been a tireless supporter of admitting women, make his introductory plea. Kieval begged his colleagues to resolve this issue, because too much time and energy are being spent on it. He tried to make it as palatable as possible; only women graduates of the institute would be admitted, and they would not be able to lead any services at the conventions until at least 1994, when a vote would be .taken on that issue.

Apparently no arguments were heard on either side, since a majority voted against hearing arguments. The assumption was that the resolution to admit women would automatically pass this year. There is now talk of a vote-by-mail, since many members were absent and some conservative areas of the US and Canada were disproportionately represented. Based on several conversations I had with hazzanim at the convention, I believe most hazzanim are embarrassed at their colleagues’ backward attitudes, and would fully welcome women in the assembly.

To allow women to attend the Cantors Institute, the cantorial training program of the Jewish Theological Seminary, for five years, be invested as hazzanim, and serve Conservative congregations, but not to admit them as members of the professional organization of hazzanim is as absurd as it is discriminatory. With attitudes so rooted in the past, including those towards women, no wonder the institute has trouble attracting young students!