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Faculty of Music


Wednesday, 15 February 2017
5.00pm, Recital Room. Faculty of Music

Rachel Adelstein

University of Cambridge

Avot v’imahot: Women, Voice, and Music in British Synagogues
Ethnomusicologists and sociologists have studied the relationship between music and a sense of social modernity for many years.  Scholars have attempted to map changing cultural ideas of the modern and to discern both the impact that modernity has had on musical tastes and the ways in which music can express a culture’s sense of the modern.  Scholars of Jewish music, especially Philip Bohlman, Klára Móricz, Jonathan Friedman, and Benjie-Ellen Schiller, offer insights on the contributions that Jewish composers have made to modern music, both art and popular.  This talk examines the other half of this equation.

Beginning with the establishment of the West London Synagogue of British Jews in 1840, Anglo-Jewish congregations began an extensive exploration of how to integrate the two ideas of being Jewish and being modern British citizens.  One of the most striking and most contested sites of this exploration was the role that the female voice should play in the sonic space of worship.  While a look at the gendered sound of worship in contemporary British synagogues might suggest that the presence or absence of women’s voices represents a sharp line dividing progressive from Orthodox Jewish practice, the historical reality is in fact much more complicated and nuanced.

I suggest that the primary issue beneath the role of women in Anglo-Jewish worship is the degree to which a congregation wishes to engage with contemporary concepts of modernity, rather than a debate about the merits of feminist values.  >From the birth of British Reform Judaism through the present day, I explore congregational experiments with the performance of liturgical music and the official pronouncements of movements and Chief Rabbis.  I examine the shifts in the relationships between Orthodoxy, Masorti, Reform, and Liberal Judaism, the four movements of Anglo-Jewry, and I show the waves of debate and demonstrate the negotiation that British synagogues have made, and continue to make, with modernity through the medium of the female voice.


The Colloquium series is the main opportunity for members of the Faculty of Music, researchers from other departments, and the general public to come together and hear papers on all aspects of music research, given by distinguished speakers from the UK and abroad. Colloquia are held on Wednesday evenings in the Recital Room of the Faculty of Music, West Road. Admission is free and all are welcome. Please arrive at 4.50pm for a 5.00pm start. Papers are followed by a discussion and a drinks reception with the speaker.

Wednesday, 15 February, 2017 - 17:00 to 18:30
Event location: 
5.00pm, Recital Room at the Facuty of Music