Jewish women and hymnody

Thank you, Kerry Hollander, for helping me.

Jewish women have not been as active in writing hymns as their Christian counterparts, perhaps because until recently, ordained cantors were all men.  Sacred song was more traditional, primarily from the Orthodox point of view, and generally in Hebrew.  However, in the past century and a half, there has been what seems to me a blossoming of Jewish song from women.

Before 1800, most writings of Jewish women were private letters and prayers for home use.    By the mid nineteenth century, published poetry by Jewish women began appearing.  One of the better known of American Jewish poets was Penina Moise (1797-1880) from Charleston South Carolina.   She began her work with embroidery and lace making to help support her family.  Later, she was known for her poetry.  Her biggest claim to fame was as the main author of the first American Jewish hymnal, Hymns Written for the Use of Hebrew Congregations, published in 1842 for Congregation Beth Elohim, to which she belonged.  Her hymns, like those of most Christian women of the era, were written as poems and later adapted into song.   She wrote over 190 hymns.  The Union Hymnal, published in 1897 and still used after several revisions, has more of her hymns than of any other author.

Another poet who was familiar to me as the author of “The New Colossus” now inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, was Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).  She was a Sephardic Jew from a wealthy family with long American roots.   Though her identity as a Jew was strong even in childhood, it intensified after 1881 when thousands of Russian Jews fled to America from the pogroms.  Thus, we see the inspiration of her poem, later set to music by a Russian Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin.

In the twentieth century, before and especially after 1948, Jewish women in Israel, as well as elsewhere, did write hymns and poems.  After 1948, the influx of thousands of Jews into Israel also brought an influx of various cultural and spiritual heritages.    Yemenite women, in particular, wrote and sang songs in the vernacular that were adopted generally as part of Israeli culture.

I, though, am most interested in Jewish women who write in English.  Debbie Lynn Friedman (1951-2011) and Julie Silver, who still writes, have penned lovely hymns and inspirational songs in both English and Hebrew.  They are just two examples of the now increasing visibility of Jewish women hymn writers.


Umansky, Ellen and Ashton, Diane, eds.  Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality.  Boston:  Beacon Press.  1992.

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