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    Mixed choirs in Jewish worship

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared as a chapter in, Eshkolot: Essays in memory of Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky, published by Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, 2002.

    The mixed choir of the St Kilda Synagogue, Melbourne, in the 1970s

    “Every land,” wrote Lord Jakobovits, “has its makkat ha-medinah, its peculiar ‘local scourge’ (cf. Bava Kamma 116b).

    In Germany the symbol of synagogue reform was the organ. In England the fight between the traditionalists and their opponents was joined over mixed choirs; in America, over mixed seating. In Hungary the original casus belli was the removal of the bimah (Torah reader’s platform) from the centre of the synagogue” (“Jewish Law Faces Modern Problems”, in Studies in Torah Judaism, ed. LD Stitskin, 1969, p. 357).

    The phrase, “the symbol of synagogue reform”, is somewhat misleading. It gives the impression that the author is speaking of the conflict between Orthodoxy and the emergent Reform movement. In fact that particular conflict centred around deeper, mostly theological issues, and its symbols were more complex. But when one positions the issues of the organ, mixed choirs, mixed seating and the removal of the central bimah in their correct context, it is clear that what Lord Jakobovits was describing was an internal conflict within Orthodoxy, between two schools of Orthodox thought, “the traditionalists and their opponents” – those who stood for the status quo in everything, and those who advocated some, even merely cosmetic, accommodation with modernity.

    The aspect of that conflict which this paper addresses is mixed choirs. Since this was a peculiarly English problem – an English makkat ha-medinah, at least in the eyes of those who opposed it – it was fought out by reference and appeal to that peculiarly English institution, the chief rabbinate. Other communities had and have their chief rabbinates, but only in England did the office of chief rabbi stand for and insist upon a firm policy of centralised religious government. Only in England, and for a long period in the widespread British Empire, were Jewish religious questions handled not in terms of what Jewish law stood for, but what the chief rabbi said. Where the chief rabbi’s writ ran, there his word was law. No one could be appointed to a ministerial post without the chief rabbi’s certificate. No one could conduct a service without the chief rabbi’s approval. No one could call himself rabbi without the chief rabbi’s authority. No marriage could place without the chief rabbi’s authorisation. No alteration could be made to the liturgy without the chief rabbi’s agreement. Nothing was kosher unless the chief rabbi said so. There were, of course, grumbles from the right and the left; for some, the chief rabbi was too strict and for others too lenient. But probably only in the mixed choir issue did several of the chief rabbis allow themselves to do two things at once – both to disapprove and to condone – until eventually a stronger stand, coinciding with greater traditionalist trends in the establishment Orthodox community as a whole, eliminated mixed choirs altogether, with one exception. This is the story which now follows.

    Choirs have a long lineage in the history of Jewish worship. In the Temple in Jerusalem there was instrumental and choral music, directed and provided by the Levites. There was a limit on the number of instruments in the Temple orchestra, but the number of singers was not restricted – there was a minim of twelve, but no maximum (Arach. 1la, 13b; Sukk. 50b-51a). The singing was considered more crucial than the instrumental music – choristers, like the other Levites, commenced training at the age of twenty-five, entered active service at thirty and retired at fifty (Num. 4:3, 8:24-25; Chull. 24a). It is unlikely that there were women in the Temple choir; instead, boys were recruited “to add flavour to the music”. They were known as “assistants to the Levites”, though by a play on words, their critics called them “tormentors of the Levites”, since they had high, unbroken voices, and the other choristers could not reach such high notes (Arach. 13b).

    Outside the Temple, there were “singing men and singing women” (e.g. II Sam. 19:36, Eccl. 2:8, Ezra 2:65, Neh. 7:67). But they probably did not sing together as mixed choirs but separately, such as at the crossing of the Red Sea where men sang first, and then the women (Ex. 15:20).

    After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis discouraged the use of music as a mark of mourning, and the special exemption whereby instruments could be played in the Temple on the Sabbath fell away. Now, until the modern period, choral singing was almost unknown and such choirs as did exist were usually merely small groups of male vocal assistants to the cantor.

    With the coming of the emancipation, congregations in various European countries increasingly demanded synagogues with decorum, dignity, vernacular sermons and musical sophistication. Despite the occasional grumbles about choirs turning congregants into almost passive spectators, it was generally found that a synagogue choir with an organised repertoire made important contributions to the service. It provided variety. The voice of the cantor, no matter how beautiful, could become monotonous or at least lose its impact when heard alone unaccompanied, over the course of a major service. A choir, with its rich variety of vocal and harmonic colours, refreshed the ear. It helped to renew interest in the liturgy and enhanced the emotional experience of the congregation. And when the cantor resumed chanting, even he benefited from the contrast.

    The Reform movement not only emphasised choral music but introduced female choristers (as well as gentile singers and organ music) into the synagogue. The use of female singers aroused bitter antagonism from Orthodox rabbis, who opposed it on the basis of two halachic prohibitions – the first, against hearing women singing during prayer; the second, against the combination of male and female voices.

    The first principle is found in a discussion of things which must be avoided because they cause sensual excitement. In this context, Samuel said kol b’ishah ervah, “a woman’s voice is seductive” (ervah literally means “nakedness” or “shame”; Jastrow’s Dictionary, vol. 2, p. 114, translates the Talmudical phrase: “hearing a woman’s voice is indecency”) (Ber. 24a; Kidd. 70a). Upon this principle the halachic codes based a prohibition against hearing a woman sing during the reading of the Shema, i.e. during prayer (Maimonides, Issurei Bi’ah 21:2; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 75:3 and Even HaEzer 21:1; cf. Ganzfried, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 5:16, 152:8).

    The second principle is built upon the first. “Rabbi Joseph said: ‘When men sing and women join in, it is licentiousness; when women sing and men join in, it is like a fire in tow, i.e. flax (or hemp), (Sotah 48a). Rashi explained that when men sang and women joined in, it was licentious because kol b’ishah ervah: when women sang and men joined in, it was even worse, as the men made a conscious effort to listen to the female voices. If the two evils could not be abolished at once, the second should be abolished first.

    When the Reformers introduced female choristers, many leading Orthodox rabbis – including westernised rabbis known for their wide general culture – ruled that the innovation was not permitted. The Chatam Sofer (Moses Schreiber, 1763-1839, rabbi in Pressburg) answered an enquiry from Vienna by declaring that not even when a State occasion was celebrated in synagogue could female singers be permitted to join in with the men. The combination of voices, he wrote, would arouse impure thoughts and affect concentration on prayer, and such an act of worship would not find favour before God (Chatam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat, responsum 190). Zvi Hirsch Chayes (1805-1855, rabbi in Zolkiew) was one of the builders of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism. He wrote that when a mixed choir took part in Jewish worship, a person who attended the service transgressed against the Torah and did not fulfil the duty of prayer (Minchat Kena’ot, 7b note). Dr Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-99, rabbi in Berlin and founder of the Hildesheimer seminary) says that of the various kinds of choir the mixed choir is hamechu’ar shebahem, ‘the most revolting of them’. He adds: ‘God forbid that one should enter such a building’ (Der Israelit, vol. 7, 1866, p. 648).

    A further aspect is that in a mixed choir, men and women sit together or close to each other, which is unacceptable to halachic tradition. Though the two issues – mixed singing and mixed seating – are not specifically linked by Lamm in his essay on “Separate Pews in the Synagogue”, his observations concerning the separation of the sexes are also relevant to the question of mixed singing:

    For kavvanah (concentration) to be present in prayer, it is necessary to eliminate every source of distraction. When the mind is distracted, kavvanah is impossible, for then we cannot concentrate on and understand and mean the words our lips pronounce. And as long as men will be men and women will be women, there is nothing more distracting in prayer than mixed company… It is too much to expect of a man, sitting in feminine company, to concentrate upon the sacred words of the Siddur and submit completely to God…

    If a synagogue is to retain its character as a holy place, it must possess kedushah, or holiness … By separating oneself from sensual thoughts and wants, one achieves the state of holiness … The very fact of mixed company, makes holiness impossible.

    A Treasury of Tradition, ed. N Lamm & W S Wurzburger, 1967, pp. 256-9.

    From early in the nineteenth century, choirs and sermons were advocated in English synagogues as part of a campaign for more attractive and decorous services. The first synagogue choir was introduced into the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Bevis Marks in the 1830s. The Ashkenazim, centred upon the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, followed suit. In neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi synagogues were female singers contemplated. Cathedral choirs were male, and, like other aspects of Christian liturgy, this influenced a Jewish community in process of anglicisation. The controversies between the Orthodox community and the Reform congregation established in 1841 ruled out anything as untraditional as women in Orthodox choirs. For all his western attitudes, Nathan Marcus Adler, chief rabbi from 1845-90, constantly insisted on traditional observance and would not have allowed female choristers. He also introduced in 1847 a series of regulations for synagogue government, which bound congregations under his jurisdiction to accept his rulings. However, his son and successor, Hermann Adler, seemed to some to be more amenable to liturgical change, and it was in his term of office that in 1892 the community was wracked by contention over mixed choirs.

    The controversy centred upon the emergent Hampstead Synagogue, though somewhat tentative steps to allow female singers appear to have been made a year or so earlier in the East London Synagogue. The founders of the Hampstead Synagogue had a vision of something more than a suburban house of worship. Beginning in the late 1880s, while Nathan Marcus Adler as still alive, they formulated an ideological platform that became known as the Hampstead movement. Liturgical reform within Orthodoxy was their aim. They wanted to dispense with public prayers for the restoration of sacrifices. They wished to abandon or modify other parts of the liturgy. They wanted their services to have an accomplished musical quality, towards which a mixture of male and female voices would contribute. They proposed to appoint a minister with unconventional views, Rev. Morris Joseph. Hermann Adler, though personally on good terms with Joseph, vetoed the proposed appointment. He made some concessions on the liturgy, but did not accede to all of the committee’s requests. He did not favour the introduction of a mixed choir, but though he refused to allow mixed choral singing at the laying of the foundation stone of the synagogue and the consecration of the building, condoned it thereafter. (In an editorial dated 26 August 1892, the Jewish Chronicle remarked caustically, “Women’s voices are… tabooed, though they may lose their objectionable character when the Chief Rabbi is not within ear-shot”.)

    Adler’s ambivalent attitude remained to haunt the chief rabbinate for many decades. Congregations elsewhere decided that if the chief rabbi could tacitly accept a mixed choir at Hampstead, they could allow themselves the same dispensation. It was the example of Hampstead that was quoted by the advocates of mixed choirs, and Adler’s name that was invoked as raising no strong objections. It is true that Adler did not fight mixed choirs too strongly, and he even congratulated the wife of an Orthodox minister, Rev. (later Rabbi) Francis Lyon Cohen when she sang liturgical items on the concert platform.

    Adler’s policy was presumably motivated by the fear that Hampstead might move into the Reform camp, and the condonation of a mixed choir was a price worth paying. This point is borne out by remarks made by Dayan Moses Hyamson of the London Beth Din in his evidence to a committee of enquiry set up by the New West End Synagogue, London, to consider the introduction of a triennial cycle of reading the Torah; the accepted tradition is to follow an annual cycle. Mr E Lesser had asked Dayan Hyamson, “There is another point and that is the introduction of female voices into the choir; that is forbidden in the Shulchan Aruch. That was sanctioned by the late Chief Rabbi.” Dr Hyamson replied: “It was not sanctioned by the late Chief Rabbi. He was not consulted by synagogues which introduced the innovation, and for the sake of the peace of the Community, he did not explicitly forbid it” (Transcript of evidence, Elkan Adler collection at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, p. 112).

    Adler’s teacher, S J Rappaport of Prague, had held the view that as long as it was only in matters of liturgy and ritual that the Reformers introduced changes, the door was still open for them to return to the observance of the Torah, but any interference with the laws of marriage and divorce could not be tolerated (Tochachat Megulah, Frankfort, 1846, no. 21, pp. 26-7). In similar fashion Adler himself may have felt it better to turn a blind eye to mixed choirs and similar innovations than to risk losing congregations to non-Orthodox movements which rejected much wider principles of halachah.

    A United Synagogue lay leader, Arnold Hertzberg, has argued that Adler “took the view that kol b’ishah ervah applied only to secular music”, but this is unlikely. Adler could not have been unaware of the explicit terms in which Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch, cited above, apply the rule to religious worship. Israel Zangwill was nearer to the mark when he wrote, “The Rabbinate, whose grave difficulties in reconciling all parties to its rule … pronounced it heinous to introduce English excerpts into the liturgy; it however, they were not read from the central platform, they were legitimate; … an organisation of mixed voices was allowable, but not a mixed choir … Poor Rabbinate! What with rabid zealots yearning for the piety of the good old times, radicals dropping out, moderates clamouring for quiet, and schismatics organising new and tiresome movements, the Rabbinate could scarcely do aught else than emit sonorous platitudes and remain in office” (Children of the Ghetto, 1892, book 2, chapter 9).

    By the time JH Hertz became chief rabbi in 1913, mixed choirs had begun to proliferate, and Hertz followed Adler’s line. In a cable to a congregation in Cape Town on 2 July 1934, he declared, “Mixed choirs introduced into some constituent bodies 40 years ago. Dr Adler though not approving did not veto. I have followed same course.” Israel Brodie, chief rabbi from 1948-65, had officiated with a mixed choir – not only as rabbi but as chazan – in Melbourne from 1923-37, and in the early years of his chief rabbinate he attended services at which mixed choirs sang, though later he took up a stricter position. By the time Immanuel Jakobovits became chief rabbi in 1967, the official line was uncompromising, and only one mixed choir, at Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool, remained in an English Orthodox synagogue by the end of his term of office. Some congregations, such as the New West End in London, justified the unmixing of their choirs on musical grounds, but this may have been a subterfuge to prevent open rebellion on the part of their less Orthodox members. On the whole, however, the replacement of mixed by male choirs was admitted to be because of pressure from the authorities or the recognition of growing traditionalism in the community, or both. Even Hampstead finally admitted that it would find it difficult to secure the services of a minister if it retained its mixed choir. (It should be noted that a number of London synagogues with mixed choirs have now closed down, but not specifically because of their choirs. In each case membership numbers had declined because of demographic changes, and the new centres of Jewish population grew up in a more traditionalist era in which any choir would automatically be a male-only preserve.)

    What motivated London synagogues to follow Hampstead’s lead introducing mixed choirs? There are two aspects to the answer. Some congregations had what might be called mildly ideological reasons – not the religious emancipation of women as such, but the then modernist view – supported by their ministers – that impressive musical services required soprano and alto voices in the choir in addition to tenors and basses. They argued that much of nineteenth century Jewish choral music composed in central Europe by Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski had mixed choirs in mind. This appears to have been the view of the Borough Synagogue in south London where Francis Lyon Cohen was the minister, but not without opposition amongst the congregation; in 1899 A May wrote voicing the objections of the more Orthodox members to “a most undesirable and injudicious proceeding”. The mixed choir at the East London Synagogue, which continued long into the twentieth century, commenced during the long ministry of Rev. Joseph F Stern, who was known for his liberalising tendencies; it is possible that the choir symbolised the cultural struggle of an anglicised establishment congregation fearing that it would be swamped by the influx of eastern European Jews from Orthodox backgrounds. The prestigious New West End Synagogue, served by highly regarded modern-thinking ministers such as Rev. Simeon Singer and Rev. Ephraim Levine, continued with its mixed choir until 1963, when a change was made for ostensibly musical, not halachic reasons (the chazan, Rev. Raphael H Levy, complained of kvitchedikke nekayvos, “screeching females”). The Central Synagogue in the West End also maintained its mixed choir until 1961 when Rev. Simon Hass was the renowned chazan; traditionalist trends played a large part in the decision to make a change, although the choir was also said to have deteriorated musically. The North London Synagogue had a mixed choir for many years. Even the historic Hambro Synagogue in the City of London allowed itself a mixed choir, but only for the children’s services on Sabbath afternoons. The neighbouring Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place (transferred elsewhere in the East End after enemy bombing destroyed its historic sanctuary) had highly impressive choral services which attracted large crowds, especially on Friday evenings, but it refused to compromise its Orthodoxy by allowing female singers. Other congregations which debated but rejected the idea of mixed choirs included Brondesbury and Golders Green.

    The second reason for the introduction of mixed choirs was the lack of male choristers, especially during wartime. Hammersmith and Bayswater did not have mixed choirs until 1914 and 1915 respectively, when they could not find enough male singers. Bayswater eventually turned the mixed choir into a mark of pride. There were grumbles when in 1963 Chief Rabbi Brodie would not attend the centenary service unless a male choir sang for the occasion; eventually Chief Rabbi Jakobovits succeeded in persuading the board of management not to have a mixed choir in the new synagogue opened in 1972 in Maida Vale. Hammersmith maintained its choir until 1984. By that stage it had dwindled to two ladies and an elderly male choirmaster and was disbanded because of non-viability, to be replaced by congregational singing. The independent Orthodox congregation, the Western Synagogue, introduced a mixed choir in 1915 for lack of enough male singers, but reverted to a male choir some years after World War II.

    The London story began with Hampstead and must conclude with it. The mixed choir there was generally of such a high musical standard that the Jewish Chronicle journalist Chaim Bermant, who lived nearby for some years, called it “the best in the country”. Not until the late 1960s would anyone dare broach the issue of changing to a male choir, and members sprang to the defence of the status quo by arguing, in the words of Clive Cohen, that the choir was “loved and cherished passionately and with reverence”. On Yom Kippur, 1972, when the question was broached from the pulpit, some of the congregation actually booed the rabbi. At times in the 1970s and 1980s, when the congregation was without a minister, it was reluctantly recognised that there would be few if any candidates while the mixed choir persisted, and in 1986 the change to a male choir was finally made. Choirmaster and choir at once moved down the road to St John’s Wood to the New London Synagogue, where the minister was Rabbi Louis Jacobs, whose theological views were not approved of by the establishment. It should be added that during the Hampstead debates, some members blamed Chief Rabbi Jakobovits for expecting the congregation to solve the problem itself and not giving them a firm halachic ruling.

    Outside London a few but not many establishment congregations had mixed choirs. Probably the most noteworthy were Birmingham and Liverpool. In both cases the introduction of female choristers was a wartime measure. In the Singer’s Hill Synagogue in Birmingham, the change to a mixed choir occurred in the 1940s because the choirboys had been evacuated; a male choir was reinstated in about 1956. The Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool, accepted female choristers from 1941 because numbers in the male choir were so depleted. They still (2001) have a mixed choir, the last to survive in any British Orthodox congregation.

    In South Africa, mixed choirs were a bone of contention early in the twentieth century between the two rival rabbis in Johannesburg, JH Hertz and JL Landau. Landau attacked Hertz for allowing “choirs of women”, though Hertz had found a mixed choir in his synagogue in 1898 and had urged that “the ladies’ voices be removed from the choir”. Eventually the mixed choir went. Hertz also left, first for New York and later to become chief rabbi in London. Mixed choirs do not appear to have been widespread in South Africa, though Cape Town must have been thinking of it at one stage: witness Hertz’s 1934 cable, mentioned above. The Cape Town Hebrew Congregation has had a male choir since 1912, generally with a large segment of boy sopranos. Choral renditions were part of major celebrations such as the opening of the original synagogue in 1863 and consecration of the present synagogue in 1905, but it does not appear that there were female singers.

    The mixed choir of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, in the 1950s

    In Australia mixed choirs were a major issue, reflecting the London situation. Indeed female singers were accepted in synagogues in Australia long before the advent of mixed choirs in England. These were among a number of local liberalisations introduced into synagogue services in Australia with authorisation from London. There must have been an advantage in having a chief rabbi who was so far away. However, when eventually the continuance of mixed choirs was debated, defenders of the status quo often asked, as they did in England also, “But if mixed choirs are not kosher, how could the chief rabbis and other men of obvious Orthodoxy allow them?” … or, when anyone, rabbis layman, proposed a change, “Why do you have to be more froom (pious) than the chief rabbi?”

    The predecessor congregation of the Great Synagogue in Sydney emphasised the musical dimension of worship from at least as early as the consecration its synagogue in York Street in 1844, when Isaac Nathan, known as the father of Australian music, had charge of the musical program. The composition of the choir changed to and from a mixed choir several times – in 1862, when Rev. Alexander B Davis was inducted, it comprised “numerous amateurs and professional ladies and gentlemen of the Jewish faith” – until it settled down as a mixed choir in 1875 when the foundation stone of the present majestic synagogue was laid. The building was consecrated in 1878 in a ceremony with a mixed choir of 49 voices and a 22-member orchestra. The music was under the direction of Sydney Moss. Francis Lyon Cohen, rabbi from 1905-34, took a great interest in the choral music and some of his own arrangements entered the repertoire. Until the 1970s no rabbi or minister raised strong objections to the choir, relying on the English status quo. When I took office I asked for a male choir to be reinstituted and made a rabbinic ruling requiring this. There mutterings that the synagogue would lose members to the Liberal congregations, but this did not eventuate. The change required the reorganization of the choral music; at first there was an attempt to recruit boy singers to replace the sopranos, but later it stabilized as an adult make choir.

    There were brief periods when the Central Synagogue, Sydney, had a mixed choir. At times it used the services of the mixed choir of the Great Synagogue for special non-Sabbath occasions, and though the Central attempted to limit its own choir to men and boys, the lack of choirboys meant that in 1937 it was decided to form a mixed choir. In the early 1940s the choirmaster was Louis Shifreen, previously at the Great Synagogue, who had women singers in his choir, though some of the more Orthodox members objected. When Rabbi Elchanan Blumenthal was released from an internment camp to become rabbi of the Central Synagogue, he refused to take up office because of the mixed choir. After World War II the congregation recast the choir with male singers only. The North Shore Synagogue had a mixed choir during much of the ministry of Rev. William Katz. Many of the congregation, accustomed to the German Liberal tradition, were comfortable with this. Rev. Katz saw the choir as an important element in creating a congregational spirit and with his family devoted much effort to the musical arrangements. Cantor Andre Winkler was responsible for a change to a male choir, partly because the female choristers were being criticised for inappropriate dress. The Kingsford-Maroubra Synagogue had a lady conductor, Rosie Hersch, but the singers were male. Outside Sydney, a choir was established by Rabbi Dr Benjamin Gotshall at the Newcastle Synagogue in 1950; apart from men, there was one lady singer, but two members of the congregation raised objections and the choir stopped functioning after a few years.

    The two leading establishment congregations in Melbourne, the Melbourne and St Kilda Hebrew Congregations, both had mixed choirs for many years. In fact, there were times when the two choirs combined for special services, and other times when there were suspicions that one congregation was poaching choristers from the other. In St Kilda a mixed choir was formed in 1874 “to enhance the services”. Adrian Bartak, who joined the choir at the age of four in 1953 when his mother was chief contralto, admitted to “a slight feeling in my childish mind that we were not quite kosher. Other Shules were mildly critical of us and the choir did not sing on a Shabbat when a visiting rabbi attended”. Rabbi Jacob Danglow, who held office for fifty-two years from 1905, had no problems with the choir, though it bothered his successor, Rabbi Dr Simon Herman, who asked the choirmaster if the pitch of the music could be lowered. There were few men in the choir and Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky, who assumed office in 1963, was critical of the musical standards and wanted to change to a male choir. For a while there were two choirs – male on some Friday evenings and all eves of festivals and mixed on Shabbat and festival mornings. After some unpleasantness, the choir became totally unmixed in 1984.

    The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1841. Within a few years the question of a choir was raised; there was choral participation at the consecration of the first synagogue in 1848, but no permanent choir resulted. From time to time choirs (of men and/or boys) were started but were constantly reorganised. In 1881 a move to establish a mixed choir was defeated, though its proponents believed it would be an improvement on the previous “inharmonious vocal accompaniment of a troop of rusty hobadhoys”. By 1894 it was accepted as “desirable to have male and female voices in the choir” and Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams let the proposal go through. Thereafter the congregation had a mixed choir with female soloists, and the rabbi praised “the excellence of its musical qualities”. For a while in the late 1930s the ladies were retired from the choir but they were soon back. A decade later there were discussions about a male choir to accommodate the views of recently arrived Holocaust survivors, but not until 1952 was there “a clean break from a mixed choir”.

    At times the Perth Hebrew Congregation had a mixed choir. Early in his career, Rabbi David Isaac Freedman established a choir of young men and women. In the 1930s a member of the congregation, Fishel Hertz, entered the choir loft, sat himself down and refused to move unless the women left the choir. His victory was only partial; in the 1940s, Rabbi Louis Rubin-Zacks introduced a mixed choir once a month for a late Friday evening service, though women were no longer allowed in the main synagogue choir.

    At times Adelaide Synagogue had a mixed choir. The Brisbane Hebrew Congregation, despite its long history, has not always had a choir. In the 1930s, Rev. Nathan Levine had a mixed choir for weddings national anniversaries, etc., but not for Sabbaths and festivals. Rabbi Dr Alfred Fabian had a boys’ choir for a time. Rabbi Dr Benjamin Gottshall had a male choir in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the (mixed) Shir-Li choir took part in a few anniversary services. Recently there has been a Friday evening choir in two sections – males on the bimah, women in the ladies’ gallery. This makes Brisbane the only Orthodox synagogue in Australia that now has even occasional female choristers. Outside Brisbane, the only other Queensland congregation that ever had a mixed choir was Toowoomba.

    In New Zealand, choirs waxed and waned. Wellington never had a mixed choir, but occasionally assembled a choir of men and boys. A noteworthy event was the High Holydays of about 1937 when there was a boys’ choir, trained by the director of the Royal Wellington Choral Union. Auckland had a mixed choir for a short period in the 1940s, but usually when a choir existed it was composed of boys trained by Rabbi Alexander Astor, whose enthusiasm often suffered a setback when the boy sopranos lost their sweet tones as their voices broke.

    At times there were choirs in Christchurch and Dunedin. The Dunedin choir in the late nineteenth century had 23 members, male and female, who formed the basis of the Dunedin Jewish Choral Society. When there was no choir the congregation, at least for a time, were instructed “not to read or sing aloud with the minister”.

    Mixed choirs – apart from Princes Road, Liverpool – are a thing of the past in Orthodox congregations. When such choirs were disbanded, tribute was always rightly paid to the devotion of the female choristers, though they often remained bemused at their fate. In more recent years, however, different avenues of participation in religious life have opened up for Jewish women, and whilst Orthodoxy will, for halachic reasons, not see women cantors or choristers in the future, there is increasing acknowledgment of women’s spirituality in many communities.


    – Raymond Apple, Francis Lyon Cohen: The Passionate Patriot, Sydney, 1995.
    – Raymond Apple, The Hampstead Synagogue, 1892-1967, London, 1967.
    – Joseph Aron and Judy Arndt, The Enduring Remnant: The First 150 Years of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Melbourne, 1992.
    – AZ Idelsohn, Jewish Music in its Historical Development, New York, 1948.
    – Melinda Jones and Ilana Lutman, Orach Chaim: A Way of Life, Sydney, 2000.
    – William Katz, And the Ark Rested, Sydney, n.d.
    – Salmond S Levin (ed.), A Century of Anglo-Jewish Life, 1870-1970, London, n.d.
    – Aubrey Newman, The United Synagogue, 1870-1970, London, 1976.
    – Macy Nulman, Concise Encyclopedia of Jewish Music, New York, 1975.
    – Israel Porush, The House of Israel, Melbourne, 1977.
    The Jewish Chronicle, London.
    Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society.
    Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England.

    Information from Adrian Bartak (Melbourne), Canon Lawrence Bartlett (Sydney), Solly Berger (Cape Town), Jeffrey Brand (London), Dr Ivan Cher (Sydney), Rabbi Dr Shalom Coleman (Perth), Rabbi and Mrs Simon Harris (Cape Town), Jana Gottshall (Sydney), Arnold Hertzberg (London), Rabbi Chaim Ingram (Sydney), Rabbi Casriel D Kaplin (London), Phineas L May (London), Morris Ochert (Brisbane), Professor Howard Phillips (Cape Town), Ruth Raisman (Liverpool, UK), Eva Setton (Sydney), Mr & Mrs Gerald Shapiro (Melbourne), Hyman A Simons (London), Lionel Singer (Birmingham), Miriam Solomon (Sydney), Rabbi Dr HJ Zimmels (London).

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