Another example of the change in attitudes was in the use of women’s voices. Rabbi Shrock’s synagogue in Yeoville had a mixed choir until the mid-1930s when a more conservative committee was voted in.[i] The minutes 24.2.1944 state that “Cantor Katzin has got together a mixed choir of ladies and gentlemen and would continue training them for the synagogue if it were sanctioned by the congregation. After reading letters from the Chief Rabbi in London and the Cape Town Beth Din, they agreed that “a Mixed Choir cannot be allowed in our synagogue unless we have the authority of the Cape Town Beth Din and a delegation was sent to speak to them.”
Cantor Katzin’s suggestion of a mixed choir was not as controversial as it became in the 21st century after there had been a marked turn to the right in the Johannesburg Beth Din. At that time most of the English synagogues had mixed choirs and with Britain ruling most of Southern Africa, it had not taken long for the Anglo-German Jews and then the Eastern European Jews to adapt British synagogue practices including sermons, clerical dress, choral services, even the siddurim. The Claremont synagogue[ii] has a photo of its 1919 choir showing four young ladies and three young gentlemen, with the choir master in the middle. This was acceptable in British synagogues until the 1960s, but not in Eastern Europe. When Cantor Yehuda Leib Schrire[iii]went to Johannesburg in 1893 to take up a position at the Park Synagogue, he was horrified to find women in the choir. He wrote of the President Street Synagogue that “The rabbi[iv] who was also the cantor picked for himself a choir of beautiful girls, who sang on the High Holy Days and with their pleasant voices gladdened the heart of the people.” As for his synagogue “They had not yet paid for the building, so they thought to make a choir of beautiful girls and then they would be saved. The choir was ready and their eyes were looking forward to salvation through the girls, only to their disappointment [they found that] most of the worshippers in the new synagogue had foreign wives.” Needless to say, he did not last long in Johannesburg.
Ian Sacks, later the much respected and long serving Director of the Jewish Board of Deputies recalled that when the choir was first formed some girls were incorporated “to harmonise and sweeten the sound of the choir (not to talk of the contribution they made by reason of their beauty and femininity”). Sacks said that the choir boys, “not yet having reached the age of discretion”, and resenting the competition, demanded that the girls be discharged. When the choirmaster refused to do so, the boys walked out and staged a strike. The boys won – but Sacks said it was a pyrrhic victory because most of them were sorry, after it happened.
When it came to the induction of their new rabbi, Rabbi Dr Shrock, in April 1944, Cantor Katzin told them that, despite the letters from the Cape Town Beth Din and the British Chief Rabbi, he could only manage to get together a suitable choir if ladies were added. Instead they asked the Gardens Synagogue for its choir. This again is an indication, as seen earlier with Cantor Rosenberg and Chairman AM Jackson that the congregation was willing to consider adapting their traditions to modernity.
Six months later Cantor Katzin told the committee “it was utterly impossible to form a male choir in Sea Point and that females should be admitted.” After a lengthy discussion it was agreed to await further information from the sub-committee (26.10.1944). Women would not want to play rugby on a Saturday nor were they away fighting Hitler. Even ten years later the same request was being made.
Cantor Katzin is very keen on a mixed choir but in view of the Beth Din’s decision the chairman was compelled to call this meeting. A letter from the Beth Din dated 7.3.1944 was read that stated that a mixed choir is forbidden by Jewish law and is contrary to Jewish traditional practice and that the Beth Din wished that the project of a mixed choir would be firmly and finally abandoned by our congregation. After a lengthy discussion it was agreed that they again interviewed the Beth Din on the subject in view of the awkward position this congregation finds itself in (11.9.1944)
The Beth Din protested and, once again, looked to England, not to South Africa, for an opinion and contacted Chief Rabbi Hertz in London who cabled that it was forbidden to have lady Choristers. Yet in England at that time mixed choirs were acceptable in Orthodox synagogues and the last mixed choir in London was only disbanded in 1986. In an article on the mixed choir controversy in England, Benjamin Elton[v] argues that the laws on mixed singing contain flexibility that can and have been used when rabbis felt the situation demanded it. When the British Chief Rabbi in what was considered a turn to the right, changed that tradition and banished the voices of the female majority, the South African rabbis as usual followed suit.
Even as late as 1953 the shul president received a letter from a congregant suggesting a mixed choir. The rabbi said it was against the Beth Din and consequently could not be considered (24.2.1953). However in 1979 the synagogue was selling tapes of Zmirot for Shabbat recorded by Rabbi David Rosen, his wife Sharon and others for shul funds, priced at R4.25. The G&SPHC also published a booklet of Songs for Sabbath and Festivals compiled by Rabbi Rosen in 1977 and sponsored in the name of the late Esther Kretzmer.
Much time and debate was expended to the choir in the committee minutes over the years. President J Philip at their 1945-1946 AGM remarked that their choir of 15 boys and two adults had given extreme pleasure. For wealthier communities like this one a choir was a necessary feature in their synagogue services - they could afford more celebrated cantors and more effective rabbis and although these drew the members to the synagogue there certainly was room for improvement!
That room for improvement in a choir of fifteen boys was to take many hours of discussion at the committee meetings over the following decades as boys will be boys and to most sport was more important than singing. The committee naively suggested that their parents be asked to influence them (23.4.1945). There were debates about the cantor’s wishes to employ additional paid choristers, to ask for salary increases, to ask for permission to perform at a simchah at another synagogue, about the inadequacies in the choir. The following extracts from the minutes are self-explanatory.
- To have an efficient choir for the festivals we need a first-class choir master with a full-time choir which will be a source of pleasure and satisfaction to the congregation. This part time appointment is a total failure and it should be abolished entirely (AGM 26.3.1944).
- Agreed to establish a choir and advertise for a choirmaster in the Jewish Times, the Zionist Record and the Jewish Chronicle (27.4.1944).
- Complaints were made that the choir is hopeless and the decorum deplorable. Cantor Katzin suggested that a committee member sit in the choir room during services to supervise their behaviour, alternately a double quartet of men be appointed – without children. Mr Koorland, who had been appointed choirmaster, stated that most of the old boys had left the choir, the present choir could not sing and did not behave (6.6.1950).
- Unless the choir improves in the next month with regard to quality of performance, decorum in the choir room and the manner of their dress, the matter of the choir would have to be reviewed. There had also been a report that Cantor Katzin had been punishing the boys during the service (12.5.1951).
It was at last agreed in the absence of lady choristers to advertise for men tenors and basses for a permanent choir and to contact the parents of the best boys.
[i] Manoim, op cit, 28
[ii] The photo included the father and aunt of Dr Selma Browde, anti-apartheid activist and Johannesburg city councillor. Schrire, Gwynne, The First 100 years 1904-2004: The Story of the Claremont Hebrew Congregation, Claremont Hebrew Congregation, 2004, Frontispiece and 22.
[iii] Schrire, Carmel & Schrire, Gwynne, The Reb and the Rebel; Jewish Narratives in South Africa 1892-1913, UCT press, Claremont, Cape Town, 2016, 75-76
[iv] Rev Mark Harris
[v] Elton, Benjamin, Did the Chief Rabbinate move to the right? A case study of the mixed-choir controversies 1880-1986, 121-152, Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Vol 39, 2004