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Milwaukee’s Goldye Steiner: First Black woman cantor in the golden age of Jewish prayer music

A graphic from the Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, with some tweaks to modernize the description of Goldye Steiner and take away racist language.
Shahanna McKinney Baldon
A graphic from the Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion, with some tweaks to modernize the description of Goldye Steiner.

Today we are unlocking a piece of Milwaukee’s Black and Jewish history.

Milwaukee lays claim to the first known Black-American woman singer of Jewish cantoral music. Gladys Mae Sellers grew up in Milwaukee in the late 1800s and early 1900s and got on the map for her singing throughout the Midwest region. But when she moved to New York in 1922, she became Madame Goldye Steiner, a trailblazing figure in the golden age of Jewish liturgical music.

Steiner sang Jewish prayer music as a part of the Yiddish theater scene, on Broadway and on the radio, and may have led prayers in Black Jewish communities, according to Milwaukee-born educator, artist and advocate Shahanna McKinney Baldon.

“She sang from a very young age. And she was a gifted vocalist,” says McKinney Baldon. “As a young person, she went to school in Milwaukee Public Schools, where she undoubtedly became fluent in German. Because all kids were getting at least some instruction in German in Milwaukee Public Schools at that time.”

As a young adult, Sellers was involved in St. Mark AME Church, still on 16th and Atkinson today. She was very active in the musical life of the church.

“The church was a very important center of African-American life at this time,” says McKinney Baldon. “And, you know, before the Great Migration, there were very few African Americans in Milwaukee in her early life. There were probably 1,000 Black people in Milwaukee.”

Sellers sang in the community in Milwaukee, and in the surrounding region, and Madison, in Chicago, in Minnesota. She sang at some very important African American community events, like a send-off for African American soldiers heading off to World War I, the opening of a Black-owned business in Madison, and the 50-year celebration of Emancipation.

“The Black press followed her career,” says McKinney Baldon, “[Including] the Wisconsin Weekly Blade and the Chicago Defender, which had a correspondent who was based in Milwaukee. So, we know quite a bit about her singing career in Milwaukee.”

Around 1922, Sellers gave it all up and moved to New York, where she became Madame Goldie Steiner and started to sing Jewish liturgical music. Steiner sang in six languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German, French and English. This was the golden age of “Hazzanes,” which is the term for Jewish prayer music. During this golden age, Jewish liturgical music was sung in concert halls, on the radio, and on records. “It was wildly popular in the Jewish community and also beyond,” says McKinney Baldon.

There were only a handful of Black singers who were a part of this golden age of Hazzanes. “Madame Goldie Steiner was the only African American woman, to our knowledge, who was a part of this artistic movement,” says McKinney Baldon.

As she became a part of the Yiddish theatre scene, Steiner faced the same kind of racism and social restrictions that her Black male counterparts experienced. But she experienced an additional obstacle being a woman, due to religious restrictions against men listening to women singing for modesty reasons. In Hebrew it’s called a restriction against “Kol Isha.”

But McKinney Baldon says that Black Jewish communities in New York had a lot of women leadership. She says, “It's conceivable that [Steiner] was in leadership positions and maybe even leading prayers in those communities, but certainly in Ashkenazi [European-Jewish] Jewish synagogues [in America], the woman leadership of prayers for the full congregation doesn't come until much later, with a very few exceptions.”

McKinney Baldon notes the research of Madison scholar Henry Sapoznik who first started looking into and uncovering Steiner’s life.

Steiner returned to Milwaukee in the 1940’s after a few decades in New York City.

McKinney Baldon was listening to a talk about Steiner by musicologist and author Henry Sapoznik who was discussing losing track of Steiner after 1941. McKinney Baldon says, "I'm listening, thinking, 'I bet she went home to Milwaukee. That's what I would do.' And I just kind of started poking around and doing my own internet research…and I found her. I found her family. I found her story about the end of her life."

McKinney Baldon found Steiner’s unmarked grave in Milwaukee, near Alverno College. She died in 1960 in Wauwatosa and is buried with her husband at Mount Olivette cemetery.

McKinney Baldon is working with Wisconsin Black Historical Society on a fundraiser to raise funds for grave markers for Goldye Steiner’s grave as well as her husband's grave.

“We've almost met our goal,” she says. McKinney Baldon has been invited to connect with the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, part of the Black Arts MKE organization, to do a production to tell the story of Madame Goldye Steiner and her trailblazing career.

On Friday Feb. 10, 2023, there will be a tribute event at MIAD featuring McKinney Baldon, Henry Sapoznik and Milwaukee musician Steph Lippert of the Steph Lippert Project. It is open to the public and will also be streamed online.

“I'm just thrilled,” says McKinney Baldon. “And I've been thinking about this as ‘rematriating’ her story to Milwaukee and to the histories of Milwaukee. I mean, there is this part of the story, which is I'm also a Black woman from Milwaukee who sings Jewish liturgical music. And I've really appreciated the opportunities that getting connected to Madame Goldye Steiner have afforded me and other people in our communities to connect and collaborate. So really looking forward to lots more of that.”

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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