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Woman Cantor Breaks Tradition in Yugoslavia

This is the story of the first woman to stand on a bima (synagogue podium) in Yugoslavia. Not only did this woman stand on the bima; she also sang. An American cantor visiting Sarajevo as a tourist, she was unexpectedly invited to participate from the bima in Friday evening services. I was that woman; and I made history that night in Sarajevo, in the summer of 1989.

We had timed our Friday visit to the Sephardic synagogue to coincide with Shabbat. Not knowing what degree of “frumness” (religious orthodoxy) to expect, we dressed appropriately in skirts for our tour of the synagogue Friday morning. Imagine our surprise when the synagogue secretary, whom we had visualized as a conservative, middle-aged woman in a long skirt, was a young, bubbly redhead named Rosita, dressed like a 60’s hippie. She showed us the synagogue.

The sanctuary is upstairs and was formerly the women’s gallery. But the entire downstairs area had been converted to a Jewish community center. In this center, we saw old men sitting around drinking Turkish coffee, smoking, playing cards — like a community center anywhere. A sign on the outside gate indicates services held regularly on Fridays and Saturdays. But services now are irregular and never held Saturday morning. Rosita seemed intrigued with the notion of my being a female cantor and told us Sarajevo has its own cantor, a twenty-year-old law student named Ranco Jajcania. She called him and asked him to lead services together with me that evening.

Ranco, a slight, wiry, wild-eyed intellectual full of stories and jokes, appeared at shul wearing a jeans suit, the most popular outfit of young Yugoslavians. I questioned Ranco about his training and was surprised to hear that he learned everything from tapes that the rabbi in Belgrade sent him.

At least 30 people were already at the synagogue when we arrived. Ranco handed me a siddur (prayerbook) and asked if I wished to do the whole service. I was hesitant, having never looked closely at a Sephardic prayer-book. So we agreed to divide it up. I mentioned that I would like a kippah (skullcap) and tallit (prayer shawl).

With the tallit wrapped around me, and with a certain sense of awe, I approached the beautiful bima, which faced the ark and not the congregation. Before turning around, I noticed that all the older men sat together on one side of the sanctuary, while younger men and women sat together on the other. I opened the service with the hymn “Lecha Dodi” It was strange to hear the sound of my own voice echoing in that cavernous, Turkish-inspired place. Without knowing it at the time, I sensed no woman’s voice had been heard there before that night. After “Lecha Dodi” Ranco chanted a few prayers in an ancient-sounding, Sephardic, singsong chant.

I started the “Chatzi Kaddish” prayer, and then got tripped up midway through by unfamiliar words. I had never properly studied a Sephardic prayer-book at Hebrew Union College or elsewhere, I’m ashamed to say. Wishing to respect local traditions, I deferred and let Ranco continue. Now and then, I jumped back in. After the “Kiddush” (blessing over wine), a single cup of wine was passed to all the congregants.

When we were done, less than an hour later, Ranco congratulated me, and said I was the first woman to sing from a bima in Yugoslavia. My friend, who had attended the service, told me how frustrating it had been not to be able to signal me. Apparently only one person in that sanctuary was even holding a siddur, the others could not read Hebrew, and obviously I could have sung any version of the prayers I wanted to! When I expressed surprise that I had been allowed to participate as a cantor at all, the congregants said they are like Reform Jews, open to the new and to change. Yet Rosita had been sure no Yugoslavian woman would stand on the bima in her lifetime!

Rosita and a few notables from the community invited us to join them for their customary dinner. They took us to a new Jewish restaurant where one long table had been set for Shabbat, with challah and candles.

The president of the synagogue understood a historic event had taken place and asked me to write about it in their pinkas (archives). The original Sephardic pinkas, which had dated back several centuries, was lost during the war; but this pinkas, the Ashkenazic record, goes back at least 100 years and records visits and events of historical interest.

I wrote my few lines in the pinkas of this ancient Jewish community, and they wrote a few lines about me. They wrote of the unusual experience of hearing a woman cantor; they could not say more than this because my voice, my melodies, my very presence was so totally strange for them.

I left Sarajevo thinking of the ties that connect us to Jews of every time and place. The willingness to embrace strangeness rather than reject it keeps these ties strong. As long as we continue to evolve, the ties will not fray; and we may each have our chance to make history instead of merely studying it.