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  • Writer's pictureHenry Sapoznik

Goldye, Di Shvartze Khaznte/the Black woman Cantor

To fully appreciate the enormity of the brief meteoric career of Goldye, the Shvartze Khaznte, it is critical to understand the numerous impediments she was forced to overcome in order to become Goldye, the Shvartze Khaznte.

On the one hand, she had to contend with the same racial and social restrictions which the male Black cantors were forced to endure.

But being a woman who chose to sing khazones also exposed Goldye to issues within Orthodox Jewry. The phrase "Kol Isha" ("Voice of a woman"), is the historical term which denotes that a woman's singing voice is an inappropriate expression ("ervah") for men to whom she is not related. This led to the tradition of separate synagogue seating for women where their voices/prayers could not be heard by men.

Had Goldye even wanted to pursue a career/life in the synagogue it would not have been possible with the first ordination of women in the Reform and Conservative synagogue not occuring until the 1970s.

It was the birth of the Yiddish theater in the 1880s which liberated women from the strictures of kol isha creating a secular performance place for them alongside men. The Yiddish theater and the subsequent outlets of vaudeville, recording, and radio led to a phalanx of women cantors singing in the traditional male style starting in 1920 with Madame Sophie Kurtzer. So with Goldye's 1924 debut, she would seem to be only the second-known woman cantor. (Why women would take on a music form which they could not realize in its true context will be addressed in a forthcoming blog series on these forgotten pioneering women cantors.)

The Jewish Criterion in Pittsburgh, (right and below) gave in-depth promotion to a series concerts Goldye gave during the week of March 9, 1925.

" GOLDYE, COLORED CANTOR's life reads like a story from a thousand and one nights. Goldye, the colored cantor, one of the most beautiful women in Africa, was born in Abyssinia, Africa, twenty-eight years ago. Once a tribal chief met her at the mines, and after hearing her sing his interest was so great that he sent her to Milan, Italy, to cultivate her voice.

"Goldye is a member of the Jewish tribe known as 'Sheba of Gza.' They are a tribe of colored Jews in Africa. When Goldye returned from her studies in Italy she sang on a concert stage in Africa, as well as in the synagogue of her own people. Goldye sings in six languages—Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, French and English. Goldye is a linguist, a poet and a composer. She is now visiting America for the first time in concerts that were never heard. [sic]"

As one of the earliest known promotional articles about her, Goldye's press offers a similar biographical arc to another Black cantor David Kolskritta (elevated Abyssinian birth, European religious training, polylingual, etc.)

To date, no genealogical evidence has emerged, so this remains a mystery—but the assertion that she was "the sensation of the New York Yiddish stage," unlike Thomas LaRue, is not supported by any documentation.

The Morning Call (Allentown, PA) April 10, 1925

In 1925, "Mme. Goldye" toured the Northeast and Midwest in a split bill with one of the great Yiddish theater weepies "Vi Iz Mayn Mame?" It is unclear who "Rosetta Yager" is as she appears in no other newspaper articles and is not mentioned in Zalmen Zylbercweig's magisterial seven-volume anthology "Di Lexikon Fun der Yiddishn Teyater" with its biographies of over 6,000 Yiddish theater performers.

The New York Times, February 21, 1926

In a startling transition in late February, 1926, she appears as "Goldye M. Steiner" (her apparent actual surname though never used in any of her Jewish appearances,) in the controversial David Belsaco Broadway production of "Lulu Belle."

A mixed race "Carmen in Harlem," the play was built around white actress Lenore Ulric, famous for playing "exotics" (i.e. non-whites), and as with all the play's white actors, she appeared in "carefully darkened faces" portraying "tragically black" characters.

One part of the controversy is made clear by an abashed anonymous scribe in Variety who pointed out that even a not so "...careful watching of the mixed-race cast reveals that at no time do those of the opposite color mix on stage." Sylvester Russell of African-American The Pittsburgh Courier was even more blunt in his February 13th review "... the questionable atmosphere of a lot of colored people in a white playwright's blaspheming and slandering a weaker minority race for the glory of an ignorant, prejudiced white majority."

Another part of the controversy was the play's salacious staging in what another reviewer singled out as "...a brazen cabaret scene of howling sex and saxophones," and was no doubt responsible for Lulu Belle running over a year for 429 performances.

When the the show closed, Goldye returned to the regional Yiddish touring circuit.

Goldye Steiner again turns up on Broadway on April 8, 1928 in a play called "him," by poet e.e. cummings. The modernist experimental play was met with devastatingly bad reviews ("weird, unusual drama" one paper snorted), and struggled through 27 performances. The reviewer for The Daily News (who walked out "after the second chukker," a loan word from polo denoting a "segment"). Nonetheless, like other reviewers who panned the show, she celebrated Goldye Steiner's featured performance of the murder ballad "Frankie and Johnny" in Act 2 Scene 5.

The great singing reviews which Goldye garnered for her appearance in "him" may call into question her claimed Abyssinian birth/European upbringing given the critical American vernacular nature of "Frankie and Johnny" given her late quinary adoption of English with its prominent foreign accent.

John French Sloan, one of the founders of the so-called "Ashcan School" of painting, attended one of the 27 performances of "him" and rendered an etching of Goldye's "Frankie and Johnny" performance surrounded by "a masked corps of assistants who sing and dance." (below)

Goldye was back on the regional Jewish circuit as Di Shvartze Khaznte by the fall of 1928 with "The Daughter Of A Lost Tribe" a musical supposedly based on her life. According to extant reports, Goldy seems to have interspersed the stage play with straight concerts while her publicity still contained the by-then years-old assertion that she had only recently arrived in the United States.

Nothing is then heard for five years.

In late April of 1933, a local human interest story posted by the wire services caught on with many newspapers around the country who reprinted it in its entirety.

"The Day In New York," describes the Easter services of Bowery hooligan turned colorful Christian evangelical preacher Tom Noonan (the self-proclaimed "Bishop of Chinatown"), at his rescue mission "Cathedral of the Underworld" in a former Doyers Street opium den.

The article describes the colorful scene:

"Behind Tom Noonan on the stage they saw a jazz orchestra, a volunteer choir, a portly Negress, a Japanese, a Jew, three cornet players and a song leader and stooge."

It went on:

"The Negress turned out to be Goldye Mae Steiner, student of Hebrew and the only colored woman cantor in America. She sang the great Jewish lament then sat down and joined lustily in 'Onward Christian Soldiers.'"

Starting in 1933 until the show went off the air in 1938, Goldie Mae Steiner was the Jewish music regular on Noonan's Sunday afternoon "Cathedral of the Underworld" WMCA program. (The show would lose its slot in late 1938 to syndicated programs of Nazi provocateur, Father Charles Coughlin.) Despite the Christian context of "Cathedral of the Underworld," Noonan regularly featured Jewish holiday segments and guests and explains why it was included in the broadcast listings of Yiddish newspapers.

Thanks to a tip from Cantor Chaim Motzen, we know about a May, 1938 benefit at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the African-American Civil Rights organization The Urban League which featured Goldye — advertised as "Millie" (a misread of her earlier billing of "Mlle" an abbreviation for "Mademoiselle") along with Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. But, outside of a 1942 New York phone listing putting Goldye M. Steiner on Morningside Avenue in Harlem, she slips away.

Yet, unlike the promotional ballyhoo around Thomas LaRue and the other male African-American cantors who were billed as "the only colored cantor America," that was not true then or now. But, the assertion that Goldye M. Steiner was "the only colored woman cantor in America" was true then and, even with the first American synagogue ordination of a woman cantor in 1975 and with the current robust outpouring of women cantors, is still true today.

The St. Louis Star and Times, November 16, 1932

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