by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience
In a recent interview, Cantor Jacob Mendelson offers personal testimony about the life and music of an unsung heroine of Jewish liturgical music.
Perele Feig (1910-1987) was among the great voices of the mid-twentieth century singing khazones. Khazones is the Yiddish term for the cantorial art music style that attained the status of pop culture among Jewish immigrants of Eastern European descent. Born in Hungary and having immigrated to the United States as a small child, Feig lived in a period when the professional cantorate was completely gender-segregated and open only to men. However, the mass popularity of cantorial music as a technologically mediated style outside of synagogues created opportunities for women performers to work as cantors, usually in the context of recordings, radio and stage performance. Women liturgical artists were referred to as khazentes, a Yiddish term for the wife of a cantor that was repurposed to describe female cantors. 
Feig occupied an important place in the cantorial scene of the 1950s and 60s. She had a regular weekly show on WEVD, the Yiddish language radio station in New York, alongside star cantors such as Moshe Ganchoff. Feig regularly concertized in New York and in other cities in the Northeast, often billed as the “Hungarian Khazente,” referencing her connections to the Jewish European heritage. Her unusually powerful chest voice resonated at full volume in the men’s register. She performed pieces associated with the classic gramophone era cantorial recording stars of the pre-Holocaust era in their original keys, as sung by men, but adapted skillfully to her own skills as an interpreter. As a masterful performer of coloratura singing and idiomatic cantorial ornamentation, Feig was an outstanding exemplar of the khazente phenomenon. 
Feig’s name came up in a recent interview I conducted with Gaina Kieval and Bianca Bergman, who knew Feig through their father, Cantor William Sauler (1903-1973) and his community of friends and colleagues in Brooklyn in the 1950s ande 60s. The Sauler sisters suggested that I get in touch with their old friend Cantor Jackie Mendelson for more information about this legendary figure in Jewish music. Cantor Mendelson is the emeritus cantor of Temple Israel of White Plains, New York and is a longtime instructor at the Hebrew Union College Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music and at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In his concerts, public lectures and documentary films, Mendelson has cultivated an image as a preserver of early 20th century cantorial sounds and repertoires. His personal connections to famed cantors such as Moshe Koussevitzky and Israel Alter, among others, are central to his musical style and charisma as a teacher. Before the pandemic, Mendelson presented a unique concert-like Friday night prayer service called Nachalah that was focused on cantorial artistry and performance of the music of early 20th century cantors. Nachalah provided an outlet for Mendelson and his students to reach an audience of deep aficionados of cantorial music in a prayer-leading context. Hanging over much of Mendelson’s work is the explicitly stated image of cantorial decline and the deficiency of the current synagogue musical scene in contrast to the creativity and aesthetic power of the early-to-mid-20th century.
I sat down on March 9, 2022, with Cantor Mendelson in a rehearsal room at HUC to discuss his memories of Perele Feig, who was a close personal friend of his family when he was growing up. In our conversation, captured on video and sound recording, Mendelson recalled details about her in an expansive conversation that touched on several of the cantorial personalities who inhabited the world of Borough Park, Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s, the years of his childhood and adolescence.
Our discussion centered on Cantor Mendelson’s personal memories of Feig. He spoke about her great knowledge as a cantor, her charisma and physical presence, and the role that she and her husband Jack Schwartz played as members of the cantorial social circle that patronized his parents’ delicatessen and that were regular guests at their homes. Feig cut an impressive figure. She possessed the gravitas of one of the great cantors, extending to some of the eccentric flamboyance associated with the cantorial persona. “I wouldn’t say I was afraid of her, but I was young, and she was a diva. And she carried herself like a diva. The way she was dressed. Never dressed in a casual way. And always wore heels. And the way she held her head. It was as if she was conducting a seminar when you spoke to her. And had a lot of the affectations of tenor khazonim…getting in touch with her voice…Khazonim were nuts.”
In Mendelson’s estimation, Feig stood above and apart from the other khazentes. “I thought of Perele as a classical khazn. I thought of the other ones as borscht belt khazonim types. Except for maybe Freydele Oysher, who really had every right to be a borscht belt, but she had the correct moves. She was like Perele…”
He told an anecdote about Jack Schwartz, who walked with a wooden leg as a result of an amputation as treatment for cancer. When the couple stayed as guests for a night at his parents’ home on one occasion, Mendelson heard Schwartz getting up before dawn and tromping down the stairs. He had gone to pour Feig’s orange juice so that it would be room temperature for her when she awoke, as she preferred. Schwartz was highly deferential and caring in his demeanor towards Feig; he was the “khazente’s khazente” in Mendelson’s words, playing on the double meaning of the term and drawing attention to the unusual performance of gender roles in their house. The Sauler sisters also highlighted the unusual degree of deference her husband paid Feig.
Neither Mendelson nor the Sauler sisters remembered that Feig had a daughter. In this way, they conveyed their perception of her as different from the other women in their circle who were socially defined by their roles as wives and mothers. Further differentiating Feig was the fact that she was always referred to by her “maiden” name that she used for performance, as opposed to using her husband’s surname.
Mendelson told the story of how Feig took him on an excursion as a boy in 1957 to Madison Square Garden to hear the sixtieth-anniversary concert of the Khazonim Farbund (the cantor’s union; the colloquial Yiddish name for the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association of America. He highlighted her driving skills, which he felt were unusual for a woman of that time, stating that “she drove like a man.”
Mendelson was interviewed by Arianne Brown for her 2005 Jewish Theological Seminary senior thesis on the khazentes. Most of his stories are related in Brown’s thesis in strikingly similar terms to those he used in our conversation, suggesting that they constitute a set repertoire that Mendelson returns to when he reminisces about Feig.  Despite the repetitions, having Mendelson’s testimony committed to video makes a valuable contribution to the scant archival evidence concerning Perele Feig’s life and personality.
In this blog post, I will focus on an area in our conversation about Feig that is not also covered in Brown’s thesis. In my interview with Gayna Kieval and Bianca Bergman, the sisters recalled that Feig was close friends with William (Velvel) Bogzester (1904-1970), a cantor and composer of their father’s generation who was born in Vienna. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about their association and if perhaps Bogzester had written music for her, as he did for other cantors, notably Moshe Koussevitzky. They referred me to their old friend Jackie Mendelson for more details. Cantor Mendelson, however, had a different story to tell about Feig and Bogzester. According to Mendelson, the two cantors couldn’t stand each other. He was surprised by the difference between his memory and that of the Sauler sisters. He suggested that there may have been a breach in their friendship at some point. As he recalled, Feig and Bogzester would sit as far from each other as possible when attending the same social events.
When I asked Mendelson to give me more details about their conflict, he suggested that it may have stemmed from professional jealousy. He told, perhaps inventing on the spot, a story about bruised egos and contention between artists. Mendelson placed this tale in his parents’ house at their annual party for the Sukkos holiday. At these holiday parties, the assembled cantors would sometimes be asked to sing. Mendelson imagined tension arising from Bogzester’s feeling of insecurity in comparison to Feig.
“I can see Bogzester feeling inadequate because, Bogzester in the Sukkah, we’d ask him to sing. He’d sing [sings L’Kel Boruch]. He had a huge voice, humongous! [continues singing] And he shot his load, and he would finish falsetto. He had a fabulous falsetto. And he would finish the piece.”
Bogzester, although possessed of a powerful voice, was unable to complete an entire recitative on full voice because he would sing himself hoarse in the first burst of intensity of his singing. Into the mix of this imagined story of cantorial competition, Mendelson inserted the character of Izzy Goldstein (apparently no relation to the former HUC School of Sacred Music director of the same name). Not a cantor himself but a friend of cantors, Goldstein was a resident trickster who would entertain his friends with outrageous humor, often of a sexual nature, leavened with mockery. It seems that part of Goldstein’s social role was to cut the assembled cantorial “stars” down to earth.
Mendelson continued his story about Bogzester and Feig, imagining the role Goldstein might have played in goading and baiting Bogzester. “And Izzy Goldstein would kill him. He’d say ‘What’s a matter Bogie? You can’t… [laughs]…Perele, you know, never had a problem getting through anything.”
Mendelson suggests that Bogzester’s masculinity was threatened by the fact that the “male” voice of the cantorial recitative could be performed effortlessly and with equal expressive power by a woman. Unlike Feig, for whom vocal strength was achieved without excessive strain and resulting vocal stress and collapse, Bogzester’s vocal feats were accompanied by a rapid exhaustion of his vocal apparatus. Mendelson’s choice of words, “shot his load,” offers a not-so-subtle sexualization of the performance. Mendelson seems to contrast a male excess in the display of bravado and resultant exhaustion and inadequacy against female poise and equanimity in the emotionally and physically demanding work of cantorial vocal performance.
Mendelson further contextualizes their conflict in a larger picture of Bogzester’s fears of irrelevance as an artist, both in relation to Feig and in the larger scene of cantorial stars he was involved in. “He [Bogzester] obviously couldn’t teach her anything. Maybe that disturbed him. Maybe she didn’t give him props. Izzy Goldstein used to make fun of him. ‘You wrote one piece, Habet. Big deal. One piece. All you do, Koussi [Koussevitzky] sings Habet, he asks you to get up and bow and that’s your life’ [laughs]…That’s what he would do, he would insult. But you always knew it didn’t come from a mean place. And he would laugh, Bogzester would laugh at it.”
In contrast, Feig did not receive the same kind of jocular treatment from Goldstein. “I don’t remember him ribbing Perele so much. Perele, you know, was an artist. That’s how she carried herself.” In the emotional economy of the cantorial scene at the Mendelson house, as remembered by Cantor Mendelson many decades later, Feig was afforded a degree of deference that may have caused stress to her male peer. Mendelson’s half imagined recollection offers a jagged image of the strains that might have existed in the professional relationships between khazns and khazentes.
Khazentes, for the most part, appear to have existed in a parallel performance world outside of synagogues, where their male colleagues could get prestigious and more consistent employment. Despite the fact that they were not in competition for the same jobs, both male and female cantorial performers were seeking to achieve excellence in the same affective realm of Jewish liturgical expressive culture. Both male and female cantors were seeking to claim the attention of the Jews and to speak for them as representatives of religious feeling and ethnic affiliation. The dramatic demands of cantorial excellence render cantors vulnerable to experiencing extremes of emotion and indulging in behavioral excesses, exacerbating tendencies towards contention and jealousy as elements of relationships between artists.
In Mendelson’s story, gendered difference figures as the basis of personal acrimony between two cantors. Cantorial anecdotes are rife with tales of competition between cantors, usually between mentors and their younger proteges. Mendelson’s partial and reconstructed story of Bogzester and Feig adds into the mix of cantorial strife images borrowed from popular culture relating to the “battle of the sexes.” But his story also points to the ways in which the expressiveness of male and female performers of cantorial music is given structure by vulnerability and social tension.
The power of the cantorial voice is contingent. The social configurations and forces that allow a cantor to be great in one context could result in failure or conflict in a different setting. For Perele Feig, her gender and her greatness as an artist were seen as irreconcilable elements by even some of her biggest fans, or at least as problematic puzzle pieces that did not fit together easily. The question of how to fit her work into the world of Jewish sacred music led to her being appraised in a variety of ways that are problematic and that at times may have undermined her integrity as an artist or a human being. Feig was judged as inadequately female (to the point that her motherhood was erased), romanticized as a genius, and, in at least this one example, was the subject of professional jealousy tinged with gendered resentment.
In Mendelson’s story, Feig’s artistic success was not adequate to close the breach between what was expected of a cantorial artist and what was expected of a woman. In their competition and personal animosity, Bogzester and Feig may have been caught in a larger drama that reveals the limits placed on the possibilities for khazentes to live as cantors. Even if her voice and her musicianship transcended these boundaries, in the social world of cantors, Feig’s presence as a woman and a cantor was treated as a dilemma that could not be solved without recourse to a more radical reappraisal of the rules of gender that was still a generation off in the future.
1. See Arianne Brown, “The Khanzntes – The Life Stories of Sophie Kurtzer, Bas Sheva, Sheindele the Khaznte, Perele Feig, Goldie Malavsky and Freydele Oysher,” Journal of Synagogue Music 32 (2007), 51-79.
2. For an example of Feig’s radio performances, see “Haynt iz Purim, Brider, Part II,” Song of the Month, Jewish Music Research Center [website] (April 2016).
3. See Arianne Slack [Brown], The Hazntes: The Life Stories of Sophie Kurtzer, Bas Sheva, Sheindele the Haznte, Perele Feig, Goldie Malavsky & Fraydele Oysher [Masters thesis] (2005).