Reviving the Memory of the First Black Female Cantor, One Century Later

Shahanna McKinney-Baldon is "rematriating" the story of Madame Goldye Steiner.

Jews all over the world will soon head into their various places of worship to repent for their sins. With ongoing global climate catastrophe, a still raging pandemic and homegrown fascism gnawing at the foundations of American democracy, I can’t be the only one who is more interested in having a quick chat with God about his culpability in recent events.

As legend has it, in the late 18th century, Levi Yitzchok, the Berdichever Rebbe, stood up and said what (I imagine) everyone else was thinking. During Rosh Hashanah, while the doors of the ark were open, he laid charges against God, in Yiddish, which he performed as a spontaneous song called “A Din Toyre Mit Got” (“A Trial With God”).

“Here am I before thee
With a grave and earnest plea for this my people
What hast thou done to this thy people
Why hast thou so oppressed this thy people.”

Even as Levi Yitzchok accused God, he also affirmed his faith in him as eternal, greater than any earthly ruler. As such, he made his demand:

“From my place I will not move,
I will not move from my place
And an end let there be,
to all the sorrow and suffering.”

He closes with the first words of the Kaddish: yisgadal v’yiskadash sh’mey rabah (may his great name become exalted and sanctified).

More than two centuries later, an unusual version of this song, sometimes known as the Berdichever Kaddish, will be performed, one that speaks to American oppression and injustice, as well as honoring the memory of one very specific individual. Shahanna McKinney-Baldon will sing the Berdichever Kaddish as a vocal soloist at “Hidden Melodies Revealed 15,” a Rosh Hashanah concert-service-spectacle taking place in Brooklyn (and available for live stream) on September 25.

Like African American singer and activist Paul Robeson before her, who recorded perhaps the most famous version of the song in 1958 (I dare you to listen to this and not get chills) McKinney-Baldon is no newcomer to speaking out against injustice. She is a longtime educator, director of the Edot Midwest Regional Jewish Diversity Collaborative, co-founder and co-director of Tiyuv, a Jews of Color-led evaluation hub, and, as an African American Jewish thought leader on American Jewish diversity, she helped coin the term “Jews of Color” over 20 years ago. But this Rosh Hashanah, she’ll be performing in the voice, so to say, of Madame Goldye Steiner, an African American woman who made history when she toured the East and upper Midwest as a khazente (female cantor) in the 1920s and ‘30s, but faded into anonymity soon after.

McKinney-Baldon describes the project as a “rematriation” of Madame Goldye’s story. McKinney-Baldon grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as did Steiner, and she is excited to reconnect Madame Goldye’s story to the broader story of Black Milwaukee. She is building something that is part performance, part historical reenactment and part playful social media campaign (she is on Instagram and Twitter as Madame Goldye Steiner).

McKinney-Baldon first learned about Madame Goldye in 2020, when the legendary klezmer pioneer Henry Sapoznik published his groundbreaking research on her. According to Sapoznik, Steiner worked the Yiddish theater circuit as a “khazente,” as well as making occasional appearances on Broadway. Publicity of the day proclaimed her as African born, of the lost Jewish “Sheba of Gza” tribe. Sapoznik believes her to be the second female cantor we know of and the first Black female cantor.

Madame Goldye
Graphic via Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion

Sheba of Gza sounds pretty far from Milwaukee, though. McKinney-Baldon told Hey Alma that she believes Madame Goldye was born in the Midwest, taking the stage name of “Goldye” when she moved to New York. She also said she’s connected with Madame Goldye’s family and located her unmarked grave in Milwaukee.

One of the big mysteries of Madame Goldye’s life still remains. What did her repertoire sound like? We simply don’t know. Jeremiah Lockwood, frontman for the genre-bending band The Sway Machinery and mastermind of the “Hidden Melodies Revealed 15” High Holiday spectacular, was the one who suggested McKinney-Baldon bring her historical interpretation of Madame Goldye to perform the Berdichever Kaddish during the concert. As he told Hey Alma, “I met Shahanna when she wrote me out of the blue asking if I would approve of her doing a cover of a song based on a Celia Dropkin poem, composed by me and Jewlia Eisenberg, my deeply missed and dearly departed friend.” That request led to ongoing conversation between the two.

When McKinney-Baldon sent Lockwood video of her brother, a cantor as well as an operatically trained bass-baritone, singing his own stunning interpretation of the Berdichever Kaddish, Lockwood invited her to be part of the Rosh Hashanah event and sing her own version. The setting he created for her owes less to Robeson, and more to Jewlia Eisenberg’s performance of the song, given in 2018 to honor the victims of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life shooting by a right-wing extremist. A singer and cantor herself, Eisenberg passed away in 2021 from a rare immune disorder.  As Lockwood put it, “I felt that this could be a wonderful vehicle for Shahanna that would also allow us to pay tribute to Jewlia’s memory, and acknowledge the role she played from beyond this world in continuing to connect artists and communities.”

Shahanna McKinney-Baldon says that next up for her and Madame Goldye will be partnering on historical reenactments and presentations with the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum in Milwaukee, and doing so in a way that bridges communities. And as we head into these Days of Awe, a time when we traditionally ask the dead to intervene on our behalf, McKinney-Baldon is raising funds for a proper headstone for Madame Goldye Steiner, member of the mythical tribe of Sheba of Gza, daughter of Milwaukee, and African American female pioneer of Jewish liturgical music.

Donate to the fund for Madame Goldye’s headstone through Wisconsin Black Historical Society and Museum. And make sure to keep an eye on her social media to get involved.

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