Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
Jean Gornish knew she was cut out to be a cantor. Jewish law kept her out of the pulpit, but that didn't stop her from singing

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In 1918, when Yiddish theater impresario Boris Thomashevsky produced Di Chazante, a full-scale musical based on the story of a cantor’s wife, he billed it as a comedy. Six years later, Sophie Kurtzer upped the ante by cutting two records of cantorial music for the French label Pathé. With her deep voice, she brought to mind her better-known male counterparts such as Gershon Sirota and Mordechai Hershmann. The prospect of a woman making traditional religious music was no longer a laughing matter.

That’s not to say it was roundly welcomed by the religious world. Women were still supposed to be seen and not heard — or in some cases, not even seen. So it was that some years later, when a young Philadelphian named Jean Gornish wanted to sing classical liturgical songs, she came up against her share of obstacles. Traditional Jewish law bars women from assuming any position of formal ritual leadership; even the relatively progressive Reform movement did not train female cantors until the early 1970s.

Not one to be put off, Gornish became a leading “lady cantor,” as they were called at the time. This sisterhood included Betty Simonoff, Liviya Taychil, Sabina Kurtzweil, Sophie Kurtzer, Perele Feyg, and Freydele Oysher (legendary cantor Moyshe Oysher’s kid sister). Each of these women adapted the title chazante, a feminized version of chazan, the Yiddish word for cantor. Most of the chazantes followed the tradition of their male counterparts and played up their European pedigrees by adopting nicknames like “Di Odesser chazante” or “Di Ungarishe chazante.”

Talented, clever, and with pipes like a temple organ, Gornish appeared on stage, radio, and records, singing sacred music under the name “Sheindele di Chazante.” An irrepressible entertainer born to Orthodox parents, Sheindele approached her performances with the utmost attention to tradition and detail. It was her life-long dream to sing to a congregation, and she held fast to this fantasy. Onstage, she was intense — devotional, even — interrupting her songs only to teach or direct her audience about the sources and meanings of her material. Not nearly as bombastic as her male counterparts, Sheindele’s subdued, practically modest voice won over audiences, and she had no trouble packing theaters across North America.

Dressed in a satin robe and skullcap, her onyx eyes focused and dark hair swept back, she cut a ravishing figure. With creamy skin and bow lips, she called to mind a softer Greta Garbo. One reviewer from the Reader News observed that “she wore [her] costume becomingly,” while another called her a “slender, stately, and earnest young woman.”

Sheindele’s shtick was that she was a good Jewish girl who was simply meant to sing. Her promotional material described how, as a little girl, she was the last one to get up from singing around the Friday night dinner table, and how she became known as “Sheindele di Chazante” to her high school classmates.

As a young woman, Sheindele had a brief career as a nightclub singer in the northeast, where she played small, smoky lounges like Springfield, Penn.’s Lam Tavern. Her life as “Julia Cornish” or “Jean Walker ‘The Slick Songbird’” was short-lived; by 1936 she had committed herself exclusively to cantorial music, likely because her parents objected to her singing popular music in public. It was one thing to be singing Jewish music, but popular music? Oy.

Both spiritual and savvy, Sheindele must have seen an opportunity for lady cantors. Her male counterparts had been using the secular stage to supplement their synagogue incomes since the nineteenth century, and since there was no prohibition against women performing sacred music in secular settings, she figured she could hop on the bandwagon.

And she found favor with the audiences. Keenly aware of the fact that her gender was enough of an attraction, she aimed toward more conservative interpretations of synagogue favorites. Yet, as a woman respectful of religious tradition, she understood that her mere presence pushed her audience up against the limits of Jewish law.

A concert review in the Chicago Daily News noted, “She offered no apology in either word or manner, for what she was doing. She gave the impression that she had as much right as a man to appeal to the God of her fathers.” The review continued, “The reception of each of her numbers was proof positive that anything freakish there might have been in her invasion of a man’s world was overwhelmingly offset by her artistry.” She was too good to dismiss as a novelty act, and too novel to simply blend with the pack.

By the early 1940s, Sheindele’s popularity had reached such a height that she secured an exclusive contract with the Planters Peanut Company, which helped her set up a rigorous touring schedule and land radio programs in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago. In each city, fan clubs threw lavish parties and helped fill theaters such as the 3,000-seat Orchestra Hall in Chicago or the equally sizable Milwaukee Auditorium.

When performing, Sheindele always appeared in a satin robe and skullcap, either in basic black or High Holiday white. She had an air of divinity; she approached the stage as if it were a pulpit and her audience as if it were a congregation. Her versions of classic liturgical pieces were the bread and butter of her routine, and they moved one reviewer for the Chicago American to observe with operatic devotion, “La Chazente elicited tears from those familiar with the literature heard in synagogues and even reached the hearts of those who never stepped into a Jewish temple. In her field she has no competitor and must be termed the ‘Heifetz’ among cantors.”

While she sprinkled her performances with Yiddish folk songs, sing-alongs, and brief sermonettes explaining the meaning and context of each number, she also understood that audiences expected their schmaltz, and regularly closed concerts with a showstopping, if earnestly delivered, medley called “Shtetlakh.” This number featured a selection of romantic songs about Eastern European shtetls (including Zlatopol, Moliev, and Belz) before concluding with “God Bless America.”

Though Sheindele was stylistically conservative, there remained a handful of critics who objected to her approach to piety. The Idisher Kuryer, a Chicago Yiddish newspaper, objected to calling her a cantor and dismissed her as little more than a “folk singer.” “She is really not a chazente,” wrote the reviewer. “She does not doven at a podium, and she fills no other functions like a chazen.”

Despite these objections and the formal prohibition on women in roles of ritual leadership, Sheindele did take on some ritual responsibilities, conducting the High Holiday choir at Manhattan’s Hotel Astor, leading Passover seders at a number of resorts along the eastern seaboard, and even leading High Holiday services in Philadelphia on more than one occasion. Whether on stage or in the pulpit, she approached her craft with a clerical seriousness, and therein lies the great paradox of Sheindele: her unorthodox commitment to tradition kept her both on its margins and in front of audiences.

Neither the mother of the modern female cantorate nor a trailblazer for gender equality, Sheindele left a legacy of something more subtle. She saw herself as less than a leader and more than an entertainer and found opportunities to exceed the limitations of both labels in ways that would have escaped other performers. Once, later in life, ailing of cancer and in the hospital, Sheindele
insisted on performing “Kol Nidre” for the other patients.

Sheindele never married and never had any children. She lived with a female companion for many years while continuing to perform on the radio and in live performance. Although illness slowed her down during her later years, Sheindele enjoyed a long-running career, strains of which can be heard on the only recording she ever cut, the late 1950s LP Sheindele Sings the Songs of Her People.

Listening to her faithful recordings of Hershman’s “Av Harakhamim” or the quasi-liturgical Yiddish plaint “Eli, Eli,” it is hard not to hear her vocal skills straining against the limits of her own religious beliefs. In her direct, unostentatious voice, you can hear the tensions between this woman cantor and the tradition that made her. Her modest approach probes the fraught relationship between the song and the singer. Her love of Judaism served as both her biggest challenger and her driving force.

An untraditional practitioner of the most traditional Jewish music, she led a life shaped by contradictions. And it is in these contradictions that her legacy can be heard the loudest. &