This Day in Jewish History

1884: First Female U.S. Cantor Leads High Holy Day Service

Even though Julie Rosewald was an acclaimed opera star in her day, and held the job of cantor for nine years, she was forgotten to history until more than a century after her death.

On September 19, 1884, Julie Rosewald began her tenure as cantor of Temple Emanu-El, in San Francisco, California, making her the first female cantor in American history. Giving an extra twist to her story is the fact that even though Rosewald was an internationally acclaimed opera star in her day, and held the job of cantor at Emanu-El for nine years, she was forgotten to history until more than a century after her death. It was in 2011 that music historian Judith Pinnolis rediscovered Rosewald and wrote a long article about her for the American Jewish Archives Journal.

Until then, it was accepted wisdom that the first woman cantor in the United States was Betty Robbins, who appeared on the bimah at Reform Temple Avodah in Oceanside, New York on the High Holy Days in 1955, and following that served as both a Jewish educator and cantor at several other synagogues. But Robbins, pioneer that she was, followed Rosewald by more than 70 years.

Julie Eichberg Rosewald was born in Stuttgart, Germany on March 7, 1847, the daughter of Moritz Eichberg and the former Eleanor Seligsberg. Moritz was a synagogue cantor in Stuggart, and was himself a cantor’s son.

Julie studied at the Stuttgart Conservatorium and at the Royal Theater School. In 1865, her mother sent her to the United States to “break her connection with the German stage,” as the daughter recalled some years later.

There she joined her sister, a pianist, who had settled some years earlier in Baltimore. Within a year of her arrival Julie, who began performing locally in tandem with her sister, met Jacob Rosewald, a conductor, composer and violinist, and the two were married in 1866.

Over the next 18 years, Julie Rosewald built herself a successful career as an opera singer, performing around the United States and also in Europe with the Kellogg Opera Company, and later with the Emma Abbott Grand Opera Co. In her article Pinnolis quoted numerous reviews from major newspapers, over a period of years, that praised Rosewald’s artistry.

Open up that 
Golden Gate

In 1884, Julie and Jacob settled down in San Francisco. His health was failing, and he was advised to move to a city with a temperate climate. At the time, San Francisco had the second largest Jewish community in America, with 8 percent of that California city’s population identifying as Jews.

Julie’s plan was to open a musical conservatory and devote herself to teaching. On August 30, 1884, however, Cantor Max Wolff died, after a decade of service at Temple Emanu-El, the city’s flagship Reform synagogue. Rosh Hashanah was less than three weeks away.

Just who approached Rosewald to offer her the job is no longer known, but on the eve of the New Year, September 19, she was at the shul, “filling her arduous position with great credit,” as the weekly newspaper The Jewish Progress reported the following week.

‘Cantor Soprano’

Rosewald was no mere emergency stand-in; she remained at Emanu-El for the next nine years, serving as cantor, leading services, and directing the choir. Congregants addressed her affectionately as “Cantor Soprano.”

Jacob Rosewald died in 1895; his wife lived until July 16, 1906, three months after an earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed much of San Francisco (including the records of Temple Emanu-El). That same year, the Jewish Encyclopedia appeared, and included an article about Julie Rosewald written by Henrietta Szold. Similarly, the 1927 edition of the Grove Encyclopedia had an entry on her.

Not quite sure just why history forgot Rosewald, Judith Pinnolis, the Brandeis University librarian who rediscovered her several years ago, told the New York Jewish Week in 2011, “She is one of those people who was famous in her day but just fell by the wayside as time went on.”