Feminist cantor retires from long-term post

In 1980, five years into her cantorate, Aviva Rosenbloom, then in her early 30s, stood before her Reform congregation at Temple Israel of Hollywood and stretched the boundaries of her role as singer and teacher to ask her congregation a difficult question: “Are women in Judaism equal?”

It was an appropriate setting for the query — the first “feminist Shabbat” at the synagogue, a service Rosenbloom not only helped create, but nurtured into the spotlight. The groundbreaking event marked the first time a group of women stood on the temple’s bimah together to lead the congregation in prayer — and the only time Rosenbloom publicly used her voice to deliver a sermon. She had sketched out her thoughts on 19 pages of handwritten notes, protesting the inequality of women in Judaism and calling it a “patriarchal religion.” That radical address still resonated 28 years later, when part of it was played during a musical celebration honoring her retirement at TIOH last May, titled, “Erev Aviva.”

“Women feel like second-class citizens in Jewish life,” Rosenbloom said in the speech. “We don’t feel like we’re really Jews, and I think that attitude should change.”

Rosenbloom’s voice, with all its mellifluous harmony, became a harbinger of change. Yet almost three decades later, her message was no less poignant; it was a reminder of how much her early vision has changed the status of women in Judaism.

The culmination of her career-long effort took place when hundreds of Rosenbloom’s fans gathered in the TIOH sanctuary at “Erev Aviva” to celebrate an artistic voice with a political impact. Friends, colleagues and fellow clergy praised her as a “champion of women,” a “trailblazer” and someone of “grace, humor, wit and passion”; the choir sang songs she had written; TIOH Senior Rabbi John L. Rosove dedicated a Torah in her honor, and Rosenbloom sat quietly in the front row as the community celebrated her 32-year legacy.

A few weeks later, Rosenbloom, 60, now Cantor emerita, reflected on her career from her new office in the temple’s former choir loft. (Chazzan Danny Maseng is now the temple’s cantor and music director, making him the temple’s third full-time cantor in its 82-year history.) When asked about the evolution of Jewish life in Los Angeles, Rosenbloom struggled for the right words; she pondered for a moment, then covered her eyes trying to focus.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin to say how Jewish L.A. has changed. There’s just too much, and it’s too huge,” she said.

If words don’t come easily to Rosenbloom, it’s because she has spent most of her life singing. As early as age 4, she jumped up on a coffee table at home and sang an Israeli folk song for her mother and father. It was the ultimate gesture from young Rosenbloom, who identified with both parents — her mother both sang and taught Hebrew and her father was a cantor — though her mother’s unexpected death when she was 10 forced her to look to her father as a mentor.

“I didn’t grow up with the advice and companionship and modeling of a mother,” Rosenbloom said. “My parental role model was my father, and my vision was more like what my father did. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an opera singer on the moon.”

Nevertheless, after majoring in sociology at Brandeis University and becoming active in the ’60s counterculture, the anti-war activist and civil rights proponent had no idea what she wanted to do with her life — so she went to Israel.

“I felt more American in Israel than I felt Jewish, because what differentiated me from everybody else wasn’t that I was Jewish, but that I was an American Jew,” Rosenbloom said. The trip changed her life. “Israel wound up showing me who I was other than the Jewish component — mainly, that I was a singer; that my calling was music.”

“Everywhere I went they were asking me to sing,” she said.

Rosenbloom never dared to dream she could become a cantor, a role that at that time was held only by men. But Rabbi Haskell Bernat, whom she met first when she was at Brandeis and then worked with at a synagogue in Massachusetts, believed in her talent, and when he became Temple Israel’s rabbi he invited her — despite her lack of formal training — to come to Hollywood as a cantor.

“I knew I had a lot of work to do to step up to this, but somehow I knew that I could do it,” she said. “I had this sense that I belonged on the bimah.”

Rosenbloom delved into her studies and soon became the first female cantor in Los Angeles to gain full-time employment.

“There were people who were horrified,” she recalled. “I didn’t so much feel people were opposed to the fact that I wasn’t invested; they were opposed to the fact that I was young, I was a woman and I was playing the guitar.”

The move toward a more participatory worship service led by a woman was a significant shift in the style and culture of the synagogue. When she first arrived, Rosenbloom was not allowed to lead High Holy Day services in the main sanctuary because it was thought she might upset the older, more prominent members of the synagogue. And it wasn’t until that seminal feminist service in 1980 that other women began appearing on the bimah.

Since then, Rosenbloom says women’s contributions at Temple Israel and elsewhere have made worship more personal and creative and have integrated new ritual practices that reflect a woman’s experience, including annual feminist Passover seders. Part of that change also meant acknowledging that along with her demanding professional life, Rosenbloom and husband, Ben, would raise their son, Eitan, in the midst of synagogue life.

“It was difficult because whenever I was here, I wished I was with my son, and whenever I was with my son, I wished I was at the temple.”

With her retirement, she leaves behind an adoring community, as well as what she sees as a changing era in the cantorate, in which the role of a cantor as soloist is diminishing. Although she helped usher in the change to a more participatory service — or what some feel is a return to more traditional modes of davening — she regrets that it means many cantors are now doing less of the artistic performance they love.

Fortunately for her, she will now have the time and space to return to her art.

“I need to see who I am when I am not cantor of Temple Israel of Hollywood,” she said. “I need to refocus on what feeds my soul — singing and music.”

Community Briefs

Even for an international film producer and inveterate traveler, Arthur Cohn has covered a lot of territory recently.

During the last week in October, the winner of a record five Oscars and producer of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Central Station” was feted in Shanghai at his very own “Arthur Cohn Day” by the Chinese government and film industry.

He used the occasion of a retrospective of his works at the Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere his latest documentary, “Children of the Night.”

Conceived as a cinematic memorial to the 1.3 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust — and their rescue from the anonymity of statistics — the film resurrects the faces of its subjects, sometimes at play, more often ragged and starving.

Although the film is only 18-minutes long, Cohn spent three years scouring archives across the world for material, of which only six yielded scraps of usable footage.

For the feature film to follow the documentary at the Shanghai festival, Cohn had originally selected his 1995 movie “Two Bits” with Al Pacino. However, government officials in Beijing insisted on “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the 1971 classic about an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family that is ultimately destroyed by the fascists.

Cohn says that he took the Beijing fiat as a signal that “the theme of the Holocaust has been openly recognized by the Chinese government for the first time.”

His reception in Shanghai was remarkable, as press and public mobbed him like some rock star. More than 130 journalists covered his press conference, during which a giant banner above his head proclaimed “World Famous Producer Arthur Cohn” in Chinese and English.

For the screening itself, Chinese fans fought for tickets to the 2,000-seat theater. When the two films ended, the audience sat, as if stunned, for three-minutes, before quietly leaving.

For most Chinese, it was their initial introduction to a Holocaust theme. Said a young hotel manager, “Six million dead … that’s as if they murdered every bicyclist in this city.”

A reporter for the Shanghai Star perceived that “Cohn seems to cherish a special feeling for the Jews.” Indeed, the producer’s next release will be “One Day in September,” referring to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

The production will be a “thriller with documentary footage,” says Cohn, with Michael Douglas in the central role of the commentator.

“One Day in September” will have its world premiere on Jan. 18 in Los Angeles, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

A couple of days later Cohn arrived in Hollywood to report on his Shanghai triumph and participate in the first annual International Jewish Film Festival here.

He officiated at the American premiere of “Children of the Night” and presented an award to veteran actor Gregory Peck.

Cohn, who stands a rangy six-foot, three inches, is a third generation Swiss citizen and resident of Basel.

His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped to write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney general until his death in 1953.

The family’s Zionist roots go even deeper. The producer’s grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, was the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.

It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel, rather than one of Europe’s more glittering capitals, as the site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Of the filmmaker’s three children, two sons have served in the Israeli army and studied at Israeli universities.