As in other cultures, music and singing have an important place in Jewish spiritual traditions. To run a proper Jewish service, you need two people. One is a rabbi; the other is a cantor (“hazzan” in Hebrew), or musician trained in vocal arts who leads the congregation in songful prayer.
Saturday is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the Year 5770 (although I know I’m probably going to keep writing 5769 on my checks.) That's a lot of years. And for almost all of them, the rabbi and cantor have been male.
That all changed in 1955. On September 15, 1955, Betty Robbins served as cantor of evening Rosh Hashana services at Temple Avodah in Oceanside, NY. Ms. Robbins thus became the world’s first female cantor. The story was so big that it actually made the front page of The New York Times.
Even more remarkably, Ms. Robbins had no formal training as a cantor. Born in Greece, she spent her childhood in Poland singing in the boys’ choir of her synagogue. She was only allowed to join after agreeing to cut her hair short. But while her coiffure blended in, her talents stood out and soon Ms. Robbins was singing solos.
She came to the U.S. and landed the job of cantor at Temple Avodah after the previous cantor left and the board of trustees found itself without a cantor for the high holy days. Ms. Robbins was pressed into service.
Today, female cantors and rabbis are commonplace. But Betty Robbins was the trailblazer.