What It’s Like To Be A Queer Female Cantor

Published: June 12, 2017

Risa Wallach serves a Conservative synagogue in an affluent suburb in Northern California, identifies as genderqueer and is also married to a woman.

When you hear the word ‘Cantor’ or the Hebrew word chazzan, the image in your mind might be a man in a miter or top hat, wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), with a beard, or perhaps the iconic Yossele Rosenblatt, the famous tenor from the Golden Age of Cantors, or a clean-shaven Israeli man in a kippah. Or maybe you’re even a millennial who grew up with a female cantor, and for you, seeing women on the bimah is simply how it is.

I myself am a female cantor and am 45 years old. I serve a Conservative synagogue in an affluent suburb in Northern California.

I’m also married to a woman. She identifies as genderqueer, a word that is gaining popularity — meaning that she uses feminine pronouns, but her identity and gender presentation leans toward the masculine, what’s called transmasculine. My appearance and gender presentation are cis-gender (consonant with gender of my birth) and feminine. My residence is in a multi-ethnic, multiracial neighborhood in the city of Oakland.

I listen to world music, folk music, classical, occasionally opera, hip-hip and glossy, highly produced dance music when I’m driving my car. I love bluegrass music, and especially singing along with Alison Krauss, maybe adding my own harmony here and there. I love Renaissance music, and live gospel choirs make me cry. I love Yiddish/Klezmer dance more than almost anything in the world. At my wedding last summer, the Yiddish dancing following the ceremony complete with being lifted in chairs and entertained by our guests doing ‘shtick’, was for me more delicious than the locally crafted cupcakes.Continue reading in The Forward