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The Soprano’s KOL NIDRE: Re-Embodying Prayer in Jewish Worship

Sun, December 13, 3:45 to 5:00pm


In 1995, twenty years after Barbara Ostfeld became the first officially ordained female cantor, journalist Nina Salkin asked, “Could a soprano’s rendition of Kol Nidre move people to tears?” Salkin’s question still resonates today, even as the number of women in the progressive Jewish cantorate has increased dramatically. One of the roles of the cantor is to serve as SHELIACH TZIBBUR, the representative of the congregation before the Divine. Traditionally, that representative is male, leading to the assumption of a male body as representing the “default Jew.” However, with the increasing presence of women in the progressive cantorate, the “default Jew,” the physical and embodied representative of the congregation is as likely to have a female body as a male body.

This seemingly simple re-gendering of the visible praying body presents congregations with new challenges. Congregants confront not only their assumptions about the relative public roles of male and female bodies, but also the social meanings of voices gendered either female or male. When the male body is no longer the single default representative of the congregation, communities must re-evaluate their relationship to the physicality of sounded prayer.

In this presentation, I draw on extensive fieldwork as well as Richard Leppert’s work on music and the body and Nina Eidsheim’s theories of the socialized embodied voice to explore how congregants and cantors have revisited their conceptions of the relatively fluid role of this Jewish religious officiant. I examine how women’s embodiment of prayer has given gender and sexuality a presence in the progressive synagogue that is both visible and audible. This re-voicing and re-embodying of prayer has challenged Jewish ideas of who can be counted as a full member of the community and has forced Jewish communities to revisit their assumptions about the physical and social presence of their sacred singers.