Barbara Ostfeld, who, in the ‘70s, became the first ordained woman cantor in Jewish history is coming to Bedford Sunday morning, September 15. She will speak at 10 am in the historic sanctuary at First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, on Bedford Common.
“We now have rock star cantors as far as social justice, liturgy, and all kinds of ways. There has been a sea change in the past generation and a half,” Ostfeld said. She served for almost 30 years as a cantor, eventually rising to the position heading placement of cantors. Now there are more women cantors than men.
The Citizen caught up with Barbara Ostfeld by phone at her home in Buffalo earlier this week to talk about her upcoming talk, “Slippery Lessons and Sticky Lessons as the High Holidays Approach.”
Ostfeld said her talk will cover several bases. She’ll tell about her decades preparing for and serving as a cantor – she’s been retired six years. She’ll also talk about the holidays coming up this month, Rosh Hashanah (New Year) the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. “Looking back, and at the same time ahead — [asking] is breast-beating the best way to atone?” she asks.
The anticipation of coming to Bedford Sunday is “very cool, getting in touch with First John [First Parish minister Gibbons],” according to Ostfeld. They were high school classmates.
“Till now I haven’t seen him since our 10–year high school reunion, but even in high school he was so hilarious, so outrageous then, that I couldn’t bring myself to get off the phone with him,” she said, laughing.
We hope she reads from, or at least mentions, her book, Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, that came out in March. In it, she talks of her years growing up in suburban Chicago and later Connecticut. Though less than confident about many aspects of her early life – familial relationships, anxiety, friendships, math, her hair! – of one thing she was sure: this girl could sing. And she wanted to develop and use that strength in her life’s work.
“I was a rabble-rousing left-winger as a teenager in the 60s,” she said. “In high school, my nickname was Class Arguer!”
Ostfeld started her studies at Hebrew Union College in New York right out of high school. As a cantorial studies candidate, she knew the position involved singing, chanting prayers and scripture, and officiating at services and events public and private throughout the year. She was admitted on the strength of her singing voice and her knowledge of and attitude toward the faith, though all along the way as a woman she was questioned about her career choice.
Though never told directly she could not become a cantor, she faced obstacles in a role that had been held by men throughout history. She lived through strong skepticism about her decision, including being asked if she was there to marry a rabbi. (“I [already] have a boyfriend!” she responded.)
As the first of her gender in cantorial school, Ostfeld said she was at times lonely in the sea of men. “As it was, I was a younger sister, a babysitter, a sidekick.”
After graduating, she chronicles her journey through internships and placements at various temples, her marriages, motherhood, and coming of age in her profession as well as her life. It’s a complicated story, hilarious and at times poignant. And bold.
Her book, Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, is a memoir, written over three years but taken from journals she kept off and on over many years. The title “catbird” comes from a couple of sources, one is James Thurber’s protagonist in his short story, The Catbird Seat, in which the main character defines being in the “catbird seat” as sitting back and watching the action, seeing the pieces fall into place, “sitting pretty like a batter with three balls and no strikes.”
Ostfeld’s book, her first, refers to her days as a cantor being in the catbird’s seat in the temple above the congregation and facing it. The cantor is on what is called the bema, the raised platform on the same level as the rabbi.
“It is the best seat in the house, being able to see the minute interactions between people: tears coming to eyes, or one person examining a neighbor’s shoes, adult children with their aging parents.
“The catbird imitates other sounds, not just cats or other birds, but even motors, and eventually comes to identify its own song. I initially imitated the singing around me, and stumbled upon my own voice, my own song and learned not to be cowed by society’s conventions.”
“People don’t want change [meaning in their religious life, personal life or surroundings],” she said. But the advent of women cantors over the years has brought changes.”
In the interview, she mentioned organist friends who are pastoral, are not ordained but have the hearts and minds to do the work.
There has been a sea change, not just in the number of women cantors, but in Ostfeld’s own life as well.
As she writes at the very end of her memoir, “Barbi has become my favorite term of endearment for myself, and Prim means ‘self-styled.” Who I am is on the tip of my tongue. Listen to me sing, here in my catbird seat, unafraid.”