Woman lends her voice to cantor's role Spiritual adventure begins at synagogue

August 04, 1991|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

For Beth Weiner, who left her native Baltimore 18 years ago, yesterday morning's religious service at the Beth Am Synagogue on Eutaw Place was the start of a spiritual adventure and a homecoming.

Was she a little nervous as she prepared for her appearance as the synagogue's first full-time female cantor?

Befitting a musician with theater experience, her reply was pantomime. Her hands fluttered before her throat in imitation of butterflies. But her smile was confident.

She believes strongly that a woman as cantor, a synagogue's liturgical leader, is an important step in the evolution of the

millennia-old tradition of male domination in Jewish worship. Although she is not the first woman to officiate as cantor in Baltimore, she is believed to be the only one doing so in the area currently.

Last year, the national Cantors' Assembly voted to admit its first women. "A terrible shortage of male cantors" is improving the prospects for women in the field, she said.

A cantor's function in the synagogue has long been more than singing and chanting the prayers. At Beth Am, Cantor Weiner's duties will include directing a volunteer choir, giving young people religious instruction, preparing candidates for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, planning and conducting weddings and funerals, even visiting the sick.

The 36-year-old mother of two daughters comes to Beth Am after years as the first female cantor of West End Synagogue in Nashville, Tenn. Both West End and Beth Am synagogues have a congregation of about 500 families.

She said she wants to have the same impact here as there.

"I hope to make women more active in the congregation," she said. "In Nashville, women never really felt empowered -- they didn't really have an active role -- before I got there."

One aspect of her job at Beth Am is simply put. "Girls and women now have a role model," she said.

She is tolerant, however, of Jewish traditionalists who find it jarring to see a woman in what has always been for them a male position. She does not take lightly the concerns of those who believe women are barred from certain religious functions by Jewish law.

"I remember the first time I saw a woman on the bimah" -- the platform in a synagogue from which the scriptures are read or sung -- "and it just didn't look right," she said. That was in the mid-1970s.

"Part of the religious experience is emotional," she explained. "It's a visual experience, and I can understand that seeing a woman on the bimah just might not be comfortable for some people."

It pleases her to know she has changed such reactions.

One of her most satisfying moments in Nashville came near the end of her stay. After a male leader had conducted a service from Cantor Weiner's accustomed position on the bimah, a man in the congregation whispered in her ear: "You know, Cantor, it just doesn't look right to see a man up there."

She did not always feel destined to be a precedent-breaker.

Cantor Weiner, who recently moved to Mount Washington, said she reached her profession by a circuitous route. Her father, now retired in Florida, owned three Baltimore grocery stores. She grew up in the Lochearn and Randallstown areas of Baltimore County. She attended the Beth Tfiloh day school in Pikesville, graduated from Randallstown Senior High School and, like so many Jewish teen-agers, took a summer trip to Israel.

In August of 1973, she returned to Israel for what was to be a long period of study and training, marriage and motherhood. Music was not her primary interest.

She met her husband, David, at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she graduated in 1977 with a degree in international relations. Then she worked for an organization called American Professors for Peace in the Middle East, arranging political seminars for visiting academics.

But she also discovered the quality of her singing voice. "My voice comes from my daddy, that's for sure," the mezzo soprano said. "My mother can't carry a tune."

She "knocked around" in musical theater and began five years of study at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. It was not until the 1980s that a voice teacher steered her in a new direction.

He was Dov Kaplan, an accomplished cantor. "After six months," Beth Weiner recalled, "he told me my voice was very suited to cantorial music."

She was skeptical about the value of cantorial training. "I asked him, 'What would I ever do with that in Israel?" No woman had performed as cantor anywhere in the Jewish state, at least in public, she said.

Cantor Kaplan replied with a question: "What are you doing with Mozart?"

Not long afterward, she and another woman from the United States became the first two female cantors for the High Holy Days at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. "There was no stir," she said. "Probably, not enough people heard about it.

"The next year, though, after I left Israel, they did it again, and there were protests."

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