Breaking the sound barrier

Four years before the first woman was officially invested as a cantor, a local woman began to blaze that trail.

Though never invested, Hilda Abrevaya, newly of San Francisco, began working as a cantor in 1971. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary, invested its first woman cantor in 1975.

It started when Abrevaya — whose daughter, Helena McMahon is the new manager of Interfaith Connection — was hired to be part of a vocal quartet at a New York synagogue. When the cantor quit suddenly, the congregation spent a full year auditioning candidates for the job. All of them were men, but no one was good enough.

“Intellectually, I realized that I was more qualified than most of the guys, but I never thought of auditioning to become a cantor because it just wasn’t done in those days,” Abrevaya said.

Finally, the synagogue settled on a cantor who promptly fired the quartet to hire his own singers. Abrevaya was out of a job, and her husband suggested she place an advertisement in The New York Times. At that time, “help wanted” ads were segregated by gender.

“I was going to put it under ‘female,’ but the ad-taker said no one will ever see it because there are no female cantors, and talked me into taking another one under ‘male,'” she said.

So in the “male” section, she wrote that she was a qualified cantor, and to please look for her ad in the “female” section, which said “Female cantor looking for a forward-looking congregation.”

Temple Beth Sholom in Flushing, N.Y., had been auditioning cantors for over a year, and the leaders hadn’t found anyone they liked. Their rabbi called Abrevaya. She sang in front of 300 people for her audition and was hired for the next six months. The synagogue became the first congregation in the country to hire a woman as its cantor. Though not without some opposition.

Although Abrevaya stayed there for 32 years, she was never given a lifetime contract. Her tenure was always doled out in three-year increments.

It wasn’t long after Abrevaya took the job that word leaked out. The New York Times did a profile of her, with the headline: “A First in the States, a Woman Cantor.”

That year, HUC began admitting women, this time, to become invested.

“They knew that it would come about anyway, but this speeded it up a little,” she said. “The time-honored way was to learn from other cantors anyhow.”

Though Abrevaya spent her early years in El Paso, Texas, she was raised mostly in Boston. She was the product of a “mixed marriage,” which, in those days, meant she had a Sephardic father and an Ashkenazi mother — both with parents who did not approve of their marriage.

Abrevaya’s musical talents were nurtured early, as she began playing violin at age 5. With her strong Jewish background, she also studied Hebrew and Jewish liturgy. By the age of 15, she was singing as a soloist, and she later married Lee Fowler, a cantor whom she met singing with the Grand Opera in Boston.

The couple moved to New York, where her husband got a job as a cantor.

Interestingly, Abrevaya was allowed to take courses at Hebrew Union College, but under the proviso that she sign an agreement that she not seek employment as a cantor.

Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan who was the first girl bat mitzvah, became a well-known musicologist who studied at HUC, but she too, was not allowed to study officially as a cantorial candidate.

Even though Abrevaya was able to enjoy a 32-year-long tenure at the Flushing synagogue, it wasn’t always so easy being a trailblazer. She once fielded a call from an angry male cantor; in fact, he was the head of one of the professional cantors’ associations.

“He told me I was taking bread out of the mouth of a man and his family,” said Abrevaya. “I took it calmly, and said, ‘Look, I’m just putting bread on my family’s table.'”

Then she was sometimes invited to speak, only to be baited by people telling her that women were not allowed to touch the Torah.

Abrevaya and her husband moved to San Francisco last year to be near their daughter and her family. But she is not yet ready for retirement. In addition to doing all lifecycle events, she does interfaith weddings, officiating at her own daughter’s. She has developed her own ceremony for a girl’s baby-naming, believing that girls get slighted since they don’t have a brit milah.

“I was very aware of being a trailblazer,” Abrevaya concluded. “I knew I had to do everything more than 100 percent right. It just meant I had to work very hard and do everything as hard as I could.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."