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Women Cantors Celebrate Scholarship and Song

The Women Cantors Network (WCN) was founded in 1982 by Debbie Katchko-Zimmerman to provide a support group for what was then a small minority of women cantors working in the Conservative movement. This group recently presented an exceptionally varied three-day conference at Gratz College in Philadelphia, in which I participated. Over 40 women attended, from as far as Texas. The sound of 40 trained women’s voices chanting Birkat HaMazon together is probably as close as one can get in this life to the sound of angels.

At this conference, it was not only the voices that blended; it was the spirits and the minds. This group is unfortunately too often regarded as a poor stepchild by full members of the ACC (American Conference of Cantors) or CA (Cantors Assembly). Yet many members of WCN are themselves full or associate members of those “official” organizations who choose to support the WCN because bonding and networking in a small, intimate group like this does not exist at larger and more impersonal conferences.

Historically, cantors learned their trade by growing up with a role model (a male cantor, in the past) and apprenticing to that role model. Schools for both the Reform and Conservative movements were first established only in the 1940’s. Therefore they are a very recent innovation, and the division they have created between “official” and “unofficial” cantors is largely artificial. Many WCN members learned their skills the traditional way, from cantors who served as their mentors. Many work in the Conservative movement and have gained respect in their communities for their knowledge and professionalism.

Yet support for the WCN even among women cantors is not universal. A friend of mine asked a woman cantor if she was a member of the WCN; the cantor responded “No— most of their members are not certified.” Such a caste system does exist within the cantorate.

This “fringe group”‘s most recent conference included Rabbis Linda Holtzman and Marcia Prager, Dr. Ellen Frankel, Dr. Herb Levine, and Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman. Along with tremendous diversity in subject matter and approach, a high level of technical knowledge and total professionalism was evident in all of their presentations.

Rabbi Holtzman, the first presenter, is a 1979 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she is currently the Director of Practical Rabbinics. Rabbi Holtzman has a long-time involvement with Beth Ahavah, Philadelphia’s gay and lesbian outreach congregation. Her topic was “Inclusiveness throughout the Life Cycle,” and dealt with ways of including the gay and lesbian community in a synagogue’s life-cycle celebrations. The hope was that we as cantors could bring back fresh ideas to our rabbis and congregations that might move them in new directions.

Participants asked numerous questions about Rabbi Holtzman’s personal situation; how do she and her partner parent their two children? What do the children call them? Cantors mentioned cases of being asked to officiate at commitment ceremonies where their rabbis would or would not cooperate. One woman said she didn’t understand why couldn’t gay or lesbian couples simply join a synagogue and keep quiet about it? Rabbi Holtzman explained that in her own situation, she and her partner simply wanted to join a synagogue, with their two sons, as a family. They never wanted to “make a big deal.” But the rabbi had to take their request to a board, which had to decide whether to accept them as a family unit.

In this as in any women’s group, a certain percentage of members are lesbians. There had not been any open dialogue between the lesbian and straight women of WCN in the past; in fact, there has been some friction and paranoia, keeping most lesbian members in the closet. But as this session progressed, some of the women began to speak more openly of their lives than they had previously.

Several cantors mentioned that their congregations have formed a gay Havurah, which is not restricted to gay members but is at least a place they can feel safe while still belonging to the larger synagogue community. Maybe this will become popular as a solution to the sense of isolation now suffered by many gay and lesbian Jews.

Rabbi Holtzman also proposed that a book similar in concept to Heather Has Two Mommies needs to be written for the Jewish community. Children in Hebrew school are bombarded with messages and pictures of “traditional” Jewish families. Much has been done to make texts more egalitarian; few texts now show Abba walking in the door with a briefcase while lma is baking Challah. Yet Hebrew books with references to gay and lesbian families do not exist; there are no texts featuring lma and lma, for example. Thus children in these families feel completely alienated while sitting in their Hebrew school classrooms.

In the evening, well-known composer and cantor of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park (Pennsylvania), Dr. Charles Davidson, held a music-sharing session. He surprised us with a new piece, a congregational Sim Shalom, dedicated to the WCN on the occasion of this conference.

There is much interest among WCN members in certification programs. Though members never ask one another “Did you graduate from a cantorial school?” or “Where did you get your certification?” nonetheless all are aware of the value of that piece of paper in the wider synagogue community.

There was some grumbling from the group when it was explained that certification involves taking a lengthy exam and a fee of $300 is required to obtain the syllabus ahead of time and for the exam itself. Debbie Katchko-Zimmerman jumped to her feet and proclaimed that the time is ripe for women to enter the Conservative Cantors Assembly. She and fellow member Beth Weiner went on to tell us how the two of them passed the certification test this past spring.

Debbie Katchko-Zimmerman learned hazzanut from her father. Cantor Theodore Katchko, who in his turn had studied with his father, renowned Cantor Adolph Katchko, whose liturgical compositions form the backbone of the cantorial school curriculum. At the 1993 CA Convention, a workshop featuring Katchko’s compositions was scheduled. Debbie asked permission to sing some of those compositions, since she had literally learned them from the source. The organizers told her “Sorry, you’re not a member so you can’t sing.” Exasperated at running up against this wall every year, Debbie decided on the spot to become a member, by taking the exam that can be requested at any CA Convention (in marked contrast to the Reform movement’s more formal procedure). Beth agreed to study and prepare together with Debbie, and to attempt the exam herself.

This WCN conference highlighted the tremendous resources we as professional Jewish women possess in our ranks. We are not only liturgically skilled, but we reflect a tremendous musical diversity. We value pluralism and we’re united by our mutual supportiveness and common purpose.

The next Women’s Cantors Network Conference will be held on Sunday, May 22 thru Tuesday, May 24, 1994 in Mount Vernon, NY. For more information call Cantor Doris Cohen at (718) 291-3089.