Songs from the Soul

Soul Songs: Inspiring Women of Klezmer1 under the artistic direction of Susan Watts, was a 2018 Philadelphia Folklore Project initiative designed to bring together eleven extraordinary female klezmer instrumentalists from across North America and across generations for a concert and community master class. Watts states: “I wanted to focus on women because women don’t get the same kind of applause that men get from the institution of music. I wanted to feature these amazing women that I know, women who are writing music, who are doing amazing things behind men. Men are the frontline and they [the women] are kind of schlepping behind. But they’re like this huge force.”

Susan Watts, Photo by Alan Lankin
Zoe Christiansen

The older players in Soul Songs are veterans of the 1970s and 1980s klezmer revival, and remember when they were the sole women in a band. Younger players are in awe of the trailblazing work of their foremothers. Zoe Christiansen says about Elaine Hoffman Watts: “I can’t understand what it must have been like…what she went through…the difficulty that she must have had her whole life.”2 There is an almost forty-five-year span between the youngest and oldest musicians in the project. Soul Songs is a joining of their individual and generational experiences.

Women in Klezmer History

So what is the history of women in klezmer? With klezmer, as with so much else, women were excluded; the accomplished ones denied recognition and, as a result, they are absent from the historical record. Women were barred from musical performance by religious dictate and notions of modesty. The woman’s voice (kol isha) was deemed a distraction to the male at prayer. Although we had the prophet Miriam and her timbrels and mentions of female secular performers in the Bible, the history of women in Jewish music reads like a series of mounting injunctions and blocked pathways sanctioned by authority and not necessarily improving with time.

In the Pale of Settlement3, the greater perceived threats to community survival were the close encounters of the Jews of Eastern Europe with their co-territorial neighbors. Music (as intangible touch) was perhaps the easiest context for the peaceable sharing of creative traditions across cultures. We can trace klezmer’s roots to this confluence in Europe during the Middle Ages. Traveling Jewish wedding musicians—while of low social status- served as culture brokers, mingling with musicians from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires and from Romania. A variety of sounds, genres and instrumentation associated with weddings, festivals, social dance and theater enriched the Jewish repertoire.

Women were part of this musical world – although to a dramatically lesser extent. In addition to the practice of female musicians entertaining exclusively female audiences, there is documentation of some all-female Jewish musical groups forming in 15th Century Europe.4 Yizker Bikher, memorial books written by survivors that chronicled shtetl life prior to the Holocaust, also mention female klezmer musicians, usually members of family kapelyes5, in small Polish and Russian communities.6 Female musicians were often branded as lascivious, described as prostitutes, and prevented from joining musicians’ guilds. In extreme cases, local authorities forced them to convert to Christianity on pain of death.7

Against strident protest by Christian members, the musicians’ guild of Prague had allowed Jewish women to join by 1651. And it is speculated that these female Jewish members performed as Juden-Madel for local nobles and protectors of the Prague Jewish community in 1737.8

In the 19th century, as innovators like Abraham Goldfaden pioneered the world of secular Yiddish theater, women began to appear on stage, but “their presence in the orchestra pit was still years away.”9

Musical culture was flourishing at the turn of the 20th century in western Ukraine with positive consequences for women. “One of the most striking innovations in the Jewish musical life of Lemberg [Lviv] was the froyen kapelyes (women’s ensembles).” Composed primarily of the female relatives of established musicians, these women performed in public in restaurants, although Jewish life-cycle celebrations were “still the exclusive domain of their male relatives.” Notable among these all-female ensembles was a flute orchestra, founded by Shloyme Kosch in 1912.10

Alicia Svigals and Lauren Brody

As Jews left their homelands, their music traveled with them. The earliest klezmer in America arrived during the heaviest period of Eastern European migration (1880-1924). For Mark Slobin, today’s klezmer is a “distinctly American form with distant European origins.”11 Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggests that the essentially non-ideological nature of the Jewish party music that we now call klezmer, free as it was from political and religious engagements, constitutes its very appeal: “[P]rofessional musicians worked for a market, not a movement.” Klezmer could thereby be appreciated in “purely aesthetic terms.”12 Violinist and project member Alicia Svigals endorses this vision, defining klezmer as “textless” instrumental music, “as close as we can get to secular Jewish music, along with Yiddish folk, theater and art song,” which are also part of the “staunchly secular” klezmer revival repertoire.13

Women in klezmer’s first American generation were typically the younger female relatives of male klezmer performers. They were taught to play at home but discouraged from playing in public. The piano, in particular, was marketed to immigrant families as a symbol of refinement, thus when women entered the performing world, it was typically on this instrument. Abe Schwartz’ daughter Sylvia Schwartz (1908-1985) began recording with her fiddling father at age 12. Beverly Musiker, the sister of klezmer virtuosi Sam and Ray Musiker also played piano, as did Dora (Lara) Cherniavsky, wife of cellist and band leader Joseph Cherniavsky. Yet, despite New World attitudes, taboos against public appearances by women were still strong. There were, for example, amateur all-female ensembles, notably mandolin orchestras. But as nonprofessional musicians they were never recorded and so left little record of their work.

The Klezmer Revival

The end of mass migration from Europe to America in the second quarter of the 20th century, followed by the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, cut the New World off from the Old. Klezmer would experience a decline. Assimilationist trends at home, the scattering from dense urban neighborhoods to suburbia, the embrace of Israel and the accompanying promotion of the Hebrew language and Sephardic temple nusach14 all contributed to pushing klezmer and Yiddish to the sidelines. But by the 1970s, fueled by bicentennial celebrations of America’s cultural pluralism and “roots,” and the folk revival, klezmer was rediscovered (or some might say, reinvented). A new generation of Jewish musicians – many of whom had already explored a range of other ethnic musics – went looking for their own. They sorted through old 78rpm recordings and interviewed musicians from klezmer’s first American generation.

Klezmer revival groups began to form: The Klezmorim (1975), Andy Statman and Zev Feldman (1979), Kapelye (1979), The Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB) (1979), The Klezmatics (1986), and Brave Old World (1989). There were major efforts at community building. KlezKamp, an intensive annual workshop for teaching and jamming was founded (1985) by Henry Sapoznik, followed by other Yiddish arts retreats like KlezKanada, KlezCalifornia, Yiddish Summer Weimar, and a dozen other annual festivals that networked people who loved this music. Soviet Jewish immigrants to the US enriched the scene. Institutions for archival research like YIVO and the National Yiddish Book Center became cultural centers.

Throughout the early klezmer revival, and with some notable exceptions, the women were most often in vocalist roles or the sole female instrumentalist in a band. The KCB, founded by Hankus Netsky and affiliated with the New England Conservatory, was way out in front with as many as seven female band members in its first decade. In the mid-80s the Klezmeydlekh became the first all-female klezmer revival band. Other bands followed in this tradition. Mikveh was founded in 1998 when playwright Eve Ensler asked a group of female musicians to play for her celebrated theater piece, The Vagina Monologues. In Philadelphia, Susan Watts founded KlezMs and The Fabulous Shpielkehs. The Isle of Klezbos, and newer groups like Tsibele and Brivele have joined their ranks. These new froyen ensembles are committed to gender justice and exploring women’s repertoire, guided by the ethnographic fieldwork of groundbreaking female song collectors of the 20th century: Khaye Fayn, Sofia Magid, Ruth Rubin and Chane Mlotek with others still to be discovered.

Soul Songs Project

Soul Songs is a super group of outstanding instrumentalists many of whom have already collaborated extensively with each other on stages and in recording studios. Most are also composers who have directed their own musical projects. Some are accomplished vocalists or are expanding into vocal performance. Through my interviews with each, some interesting patterns have emerged.

Rachel Lemisch

About half of the women come from cities with large Jewish populations, notably New York and Philadelphia, and these women are from klezmer family dynasties: Susan Watts (Hoffman family), Rachel Lemisch, Joanna Sternberg (Oysher family), and Alicia Svigals (Svigals/Rogers). Most grew up in musical families and had a passive knowledge of klezmer music (or Jewish music in general) that was reawakened in adulthood. The majority inherited their love of music from their fathers.

Joanna Sternberg

Half of the women also consider themselves classical musicians and a third see themselves aligned with jazz. Only one considers herself a specialist in Jewish liturgical music. Half have studied ethnomusicology. Balkan and Turkish music dominate the list of influential non-Jewish musical forms, although all the women are proficient in other musical idioms and many have traveled extensively on personal musical odysseys. Musical training varies, but the majority have advanced degrees either from conservatories or colleges.

Many women spoke of an instant connection to klezmer on first hearing, and a yearning to return to this music as a link to past generations. Svigals states, “You know those sounds got under my skin and I wanted to make them. They haunted me and I wanted to reproduce them.” Deborah Strauss says: “Playing Yiddish and klezmer music felt like this incredible, weirdly natural fit for me. I felt like I was channeling. I know that’s kind of an ooey-gooey thing to say, but I really did.” For Ilene Stahl, hearing the KCB’s Yiddishe Renaissance as a student “really was without exaggeration the closest thing I can ever imagine to the experience of a religious calling.” Once she heard the music, it became “the only thing [she] cared about.” When Susan Watts discovered her dad’s trumpet she had the same experience: “… one day I took it out. And I started playing it and I was like ‘my God, this is my voice. This is me, this is what I want.’” For Cookie Segelstein, her re-connection to klezmer was a revelation. After playing a niggun15 for Hankus Netsky that her father had made her play as a child, he said, “What! You’ve had this all along and you’re not tapping into it?” And she realized she needed to explore her musical roots.

Some discovered klezmer through a camp or special program at an academic institution run by a Yiddish cultural organization. Others came via an interest in folk dance. All have participated in the institutions of the klezmer world: over half the women in the project have taught at KlezKamp – many for multiple years. All but one has taught at KlezKanada. Several teach and perform regularly at international klezmer festivals and workshops.

Deborah Strauss
Ilene Stahl

All of the women in the project are multi-instrumentalists. Three quarters of them began their training with classical piano; but early school-based music education or the availability of other instruments in the home led to other specializations. Using an analysis of instrument choice and gender in classical performance as a guide, a cursory review suggests that the older women in Soul Songs play instruments that are typically played by women (violin, flute), or equally played by men and women (keyboards) and that the younger players skew toward instruments more typically played by men (trumpet, trombone, clarinet, bass).16

For percussionist Elaine Hoffman Watts, project foremother who sadly did not live to see this collaboration come into fruition, a non-traditional instrument choice flowed naturally. In her daughter’s words: “My mother never thought it was weird that she played the drums. She thought it was just normal and natural. She couldn’t figure out why people were all bent out of shape. She figured it out later – but generally she’s just like ‘I just went and did it.’” Susan Watts was always the only girl in the trumpet section “from the time I was a baby.” Rachel Lemisch, who plays the trombone, another instrument not traditionally played by women, says: “At every single wedding I play somebody comes up to me and says ‘…um, do you play anything else or is that the only thing you know?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Isn’t this enough?!’ It happens every single time.”

Cookie Segelstein

For many of these musicians, playing music is like speaking: having a voice and being heard. Growing up, performing was a way of being recognized, and having a function in their school and local community. But being in the spotlight was a double-edged sword since exhibiting special skills often invited bullying from peers and fears of isolation.

Gaining recognition as mature musicians was not easy. Women who came from the classical world mentioned that the introduction of “blind” auditions created a huge influx of female classical players. In the jazz world there are fewer female players, but at least the genre has formats for being heard: taking solos, trading fours and eights, etc. There is no such structure in klezmer. Women talked about having to learn to “elbow” or “shove” in to take a solo or be highlighted in mostly male-led combos. Lauren Brody reflects: “Is the Klezmer scene accepting of women? It is accepting of women as vocalists. I still don’t feel that it’s that accepting of women as instrumentalists, with very few exceptions. I still feel that women have to play twice as well as men in order to get any recognition.” Recalling Adrienne Cooper’s description of women in klezmer performance, Svigals remembers: “One of the guys would get up and play a set and the band would be rocking behind him. Then when a woman would take the mic, the guys would take a break and she would be left with just a couple of musicians. Or they wouldn’t play as energetically or they just lost interest.” A young woman on the project put it simply: “I’m sure if I was a boy I’d work more in the klezmer scene…That’s just how it is…boys like to hang out with boys.”

Marilyn Lerner

For Marilyn Lerner, it is education and exposure that will bring gender equity to musical performance. “If a little girl sees a lot of women playing, they’re not going to think twice about it…I didn’t see a bunch of women playing when I was a kid. It was men. And that’s what I internalized as the norm. I think it’s very different now. This kid sees women play and they don’t think twice about it. They don’t have to think that there will be a wall full of men that they’re going to have to penetrate somehow.”

Adrianne Greenbaum and Emily Socolov

These musicians go beyond musical proficiency to be innovators and advocates for their instruments. This is even true for the “lady instruments” they might be expected to play. Adrianne Greenbaum recalls apologizing to Henry Sapoznik the first year she attended KlezKamp for playing the flute, rather than the violin or the clarinet, more conventional klezmer instruments, feeling that she might be doing something outside of the tradition. Sapoznik showed her pictures of early klezmer ensembles with prominent flute players. Now she is an advocate for the klezmer flute. When people say: “‘Klezmer flute. Let’s face it; it’s kind of new’, I say, ‘New?’ I’m here to educate. So yeah, I’m still fighting that [assumption], absolutely.”

Svigals talked about her instrument: “The violin played second fiddle in the klezmer revival to clarinet. So it worked nicely as the woman’s instrument ‘cause the guy was going to play the clarinet. Unconsciously, the violin looks like a woman so there could be something there. Its voice is in a high register. It’s not as aggressive as the trumpet with that stream of air blowing straight ahead. It’s a quiet instrument compared to brass.” So Svigals took something conventional and revolutionized it by adapting Jewish ornamentation for the contemporary klezmer fiddle.

A woman playing an instrument draws attention to her own physicality: she very publically has a body: a body that might appear to some as awkward or suggestive in engrossed moments. The unseemly volume (of both sound and mass) of many instruments does not square with the presumption of a helpless, weak femininity. A project musician who plays with a mixed-gender combo reported: “The other thing that happens to me at every event now is that someone comes up to me and says: ‘How come you’re the smallest person and you have the biggest instrument?’ And I think ‘cause I’m the strongest!’”

For some women, comfort in performing is linked to a sense of physical safety. “I think there’s a lot of difficulty that comes with being a female instrumentalist…You’re forced to connect the most vulnerable, deepest parts of your emotional and physical being with the external parts of yourself. A couple of summers ago I started wearing a really big, heavy, shapeless suit to all my gigs. And for the first time I felt like I was being appreciated for my ideas and what existed apart from my body. And it was the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

A younger Soul Songs musician spoke of the negative expectations of male musicians, who assume that women aren’t going to be good instrument technicians or knowledgeable about music theory. She reported being infantilized by an established man in the music industry. “He pinched my cheek and made baby noises after a performance. And the person I was performing with, a male, got a handshake and, ‘Great job’…And I was told to just be happy that he was paying attention to me and complementing me by grabbing my cheek.” Other women who run their own combos which are gender-mixed report that sound technicians will repeatedly ask a male musician in the combo for details on the set list, sound plot or technical needs – even after repeatedly being informed that the woman is the group’s musical director. Older, established women have less reserve and patience for this type of behavior: “I’m older, I have authority, life experience, and gray hair…So I ended up doing what I think women often do in a lot of fields. I ended up making my own party.”

Yet succeeding economically as a musician is a struggle for all participants: only one out of the eleven musicians is able to support herself exclusively through her music. A woman’s civil and religious statuses: to have a partner, to be queer, to be a mother, to be observant, etc., all have professional consequences for women in the klezmer world. There are still biases about women appearing on stage in religious communities even though they may have no clear basis in halacha, the collective body of Jewish law and jurisprudence.


Unquestionably, the Soul Songs project bodes well for the future of women in klezmer. And some of this luminosity comes from the Yiddish language. Klezmer is bound up with Yiddish and this endows it with an inherently feminist disposition and a lyrical sensibility. Yiddish has traditionally been the language for female literary creativity and religious practice. Women, denied literacy in Hebrew, prayed with the Tsene-Rene, a late-sixteenth century Yiddish translation of the Torah and other holy writings. The modernist poetry of Kadya Molodowsky threaded through the evening’s concert like a fugue. Soul Song’s set designer Jenny Romaine’s inspired landscapes opened the gates of the women’s balcony to liberate an array of colors, textures and emotions. Tine Kindermann’s expressive black and white portraits of the musicians were timeless tintypes, linking their artistry to the legacy of past generations.

Soul Songs was truly a jubilant celebration of the creativity of Jewish women, and a rollicking success. An iterative process from inception to conclusion, it incorporated innovation and tradition, unexpected creative detours and good solid musicianship. What’s different about working in a community of women? For klezmer, the answer is emerging through collaboration and performance. The prospects are exciting!

  1. Soul Songs was produced by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, with Selina Morales and Toni Shapiro-Phim as project directors. The undertaking included repertoire development, a community master class and a 2018 performance with set design by Jenny Romaine & Great Small Works. Major support for this initiative was provided by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. []
  2. Elaine Hoffman Watts (1932-2017) was a renowned percussionist, the first woman to ever graduate with a major in percussion from the Curtis lnstitute of Music in Philadelphia. A third-generation klezmer musician, she was the mother of Susan Watts and an inspiration for the Soul Songs project. She was the recipient of both a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. []
  3. The Pale of Settlement was a western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish residency, permanent or temporary, was mostly forbidden. []
  4. Albert von Wolf, Mitteilungen zur Judishe Volkskunde, vol.27 (Leipzig, 1908-09), 92-93. []
  5. Kapelye means ensemble or orchestra of klezmer musicians. []
  6. Yale Strom, “Klezmer Zikhroynes in di Yizker Bikher,” in The Book of Klezmer (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2002), 267-307, passim. []
  7. Wolf, op. cit. []
  8. Walter Salmen, “denn die Fiedel Macht das Fest.” Judische Musikanten und Tanzer vom 13. bis 20. Jahrhundert (Innsbruck: Edition Helbling, 1991), 37. []
  9. Henry Sapoznik, Klezmer: Jewish Music from Old World to Our World (New York: Schirmer, 2006), 24. []
  10. Joachim Stutchewsky, Haklezmerim: toledoteihem, orah hayeihem veyetsivoteihem (Jerusalem: 1959), 142-3. Quoted in Walter Zev Feldman, “Klezmer Musicians of Galicia”, Polin: Studies of Polish Jewry 16 (2003): 33. []
  11. Mark Slobin, introduction to Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, ed. Mark Slobin, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 1. []
  12. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Sound and Sensibility,” in Slobin, Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, 140. []
  13. Alicia Svigals, “Why We Do This Anyway: Klezmer as Jewish Youth Subculture,” in Slobin, Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, 215. []
  14. Nusach here refers to the customary melodies and musical style used in chanting prayers of a particular Jewish community. Nusach varies based on geographical region, level of orthodoxy and historical time period, among other factors. []
  15. A niggun is a form of Jewish religious song sung by groups. It is vocal music, often with repetitive sounds such as “bim-bim-bam”, “lai-lai-lai”, “yai-yai-yai” or “ai-ai-ai!” instead of formal lyrics. []
  16. Suby Raman, “Graphing Gender in America’s Top Orchestras,” accessed November 18, 2014: []