The evidence was always there.
But until Judith Pinnolis found it, nobody remembered that there had been a female cantor leading services at San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El for nine years between 1884 and 1893.
Now, with the publication of Pinnolis’ article on Julie Eichberg Rosewald in the latest edition of the American Jewish Archives Journal, her status as the country’s first woman cantor can be properly assessed and saluted.
Rosewald was a highly successful opera singer whose repertoire was vast and whose reputation spread from Europe across the United States. Not coincidentally, she came from a long line of cantors, including her father Moritz Eichberg who was the obercantor at a major Stuttgart synagogue.
In 1884, Julie and her husband (and conductor) Jacob Rosewald had settled in San Francisco, in large part for his health, which required a mild climate. She had essentially retired as an opera singer after a 20-year career, and was planning to teach.
San Francisco was a perfect setting for the Rosewalds. Then as now it had a lively opera and concert scene. It was the second-largest Jewish community in America at the time. Both Julie and Jacob had always been active in Jewish institutions in their previous home in Baltimore.
When Cantor Max Wolff, who had served for a decade on the bima of Temple Emanu-El, the city’s largest synagogue, died on Aug. 30, 1884, it was essential that his replacement be someone who was familiar with Jewish liturgy, Hebrew and music, and was enough of a quick study to be ready to conduct High Holy Day services in three weeks. Someone, whose identity is lost to time, contacted Julie Rosewald.
Contemporary accounts say that she acquitted herself brilliantly on Rosh HaShanah and again on Yom Kippur. Certainly the congregants were satisfied; she ended up staying on the Emanu-El bima for nine years.
Hence, although she had not been ordained, she served as “Cantor Soprano,” her official title; the relatively young Jewish community commonly tolerated such informality.
But a woman on the bima? That certainly was uncommon.
How is it possible that Rosewald’s milestone was completely forgotten?
“The information has been there in standard Jewish reference sources,” Pinnolis said in a telephone interview last week. “People just didn’t seem to pick up on it.”
Pinnolis came across the story by chance. As the RIS Humanities Librarian at Brandeis University, and creator and editor of The Jewish Music WebCenter (www.jmwc.org), she is constantly seeking new information about the role of women in Jewish music. When the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia went online, she did a search for “soprano” and up popped an article about Rosewald written by Henrietta Szold.
Subsequent sources omit Rosewald, who even disappears from opera reference books over the course of the 20th century.
“The 1927 edition of the Grove Encyclopedia has her, but it’s a very small article and doesn’t even mention that she was Jewish,” Pinnolis said. “She is one of those people who was famous in her day but just fell by the wayside as time went on.”
The fact that there are no recordings of her singing probably contributed to her disappearance. The loss of Temple Emanu-El’s records in the 1906 earthquake and fire didn’t help. But the availability of older reference materials and huge archives of local and ethnic newspapers, made it possible to recreate at least some of Rosewald’s story.
“Rosewald’s ‘rediscovery’ never would have been possible without the digital resources available on line,” Pinnolis said. “It’s a testament to the way that we have changed the teaching and performance of library research. This story gives you an insight into the power of digital research to change the way we look at history.”
Judith Pinnolis’ article on Julie Eichberg Rosewald is available at http://americanjewisharchives.org.