Firzogerin

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FIRZOGERIN

FIRZOGERIN , Yiddish word for "foresayer" or "precentor"; also zogerke. It came to refer to the woman who led prayers in the women's section of the synagogue. Since women were separated from men during worship, sometimes in a separate room, they needed a leader to help them follow the proper order of the service. This leader, reciting vernacular translations, enabled less educated women, who did not know Hebrew and often were illiterate, to pray in their own language. The firzogerin was probably not an official position in the Jewish community until late in the 16th century, and it was not firmly established as an East European institution until the 18th century. However, there is evidence that women functioned in that capacity during medieval times, especially in Germany. According to a poetic eulogy written by her husband, *Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, in the late 12th century, *Dulcea of Worms was said to know "the order of the morning and evening prayers…. In all the cities she taught women, enabling their pleasant intoning of songs." The 13th-century Richenza of Nürenberg is described in a contemporaneous martyrology book as a leader in the women's synagogue, and the gravestone of Urania of Worms, a cantor's daughter, calls her a prayer leader who "officiated before the women to whom she sang the hymnal portions." In the 14th century, Guta bat Nathan was "… the important young woman who prayed for the women in her gentle prayers." Ashkenazi Jews migrating into Italy in the 15th century may have brought this custom with them. Sixteenth-century documents describe Anna d'Arpino leading women's prayers in the synagogue in Rome on Saturdays and holidays, a job for which she was paid (although this was not always the case). The poet Deborah *Ascarelli, a Sephardi woman living in Rome, may also have been a prayer leader. She knew Hebrew and translated many parts of the Sephardi service into Italian, especially for women.

As Jews moved into Eastern Europe, the female precentor became an accepted institution. Often, the firzogerin was the rabbi's wife or daughter; she was likely to be the most learned woman in the community and often had some knowledge of Hebrew. Some later firzogerins wrote their own Yiddish translations of the psalms and prayers, sometimes adding heartfelt appeals that related to women's lives. Beginning in the 17th century, many of these prayers had kabbalistic overtones and some revealed a high level of Jewish scholarship.

By the 18th century, a number of well-educated women were serving as firzogerins; some wrote petitionary prayers called tkhines for women to recite both in the synagogue and at home. The 18th-century pseudonymous Sarah *Bas-Tovim was a prolific writer of tkhines. After her death male writers appropriated her name to ensure the popularity of their own vernacular prayers. The figure of the firzogerin or zogerke continued into the 20th century; she is described in the anthropological study of the shtetl, Life Is With People, as a woman who "unlike most of them, is able to read and understand Hebrew. She reads the prayers and they repeat it after her, following each syllable and intonation…" A few of these women prayer leaders immigrated to the United States in the large migration of Jews that began in the 1880s, but by the second half of the 20th century, the firzogerin had disappeared in both Europe and the Americas, made obsolete by the Sho'ah and an almost universal standard of literacy for women.

bibliography:

E. Taitz,, S. Henry and C. Tallan. The jps Guide to Jewish Women: 600 b.c.e.-1900 c.e. (2003), 77–78, 101; C. Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women (1998); M. Zborowski and E. Herzog, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl (1974), 54; I. Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 7, trans. and ed. Bernard Martin (1975), 23, 249–59.

[Emily Taitz (2nd ed.)]