A Capstone Project Reclaims a Feminist Legacy for Chanukah Yehudit (Judith): A New Opera by Cantor Iris Karlin ‘24 offers an extraordinary work of music and storytelling

May 7, 2024

In her creative and engaging opera, Cantor Iris Karlin, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music ‘24, serving as both composer and librettist, has ingeniously redeveloped the story of Yehudit into a musical midrash (creative interpretation). Based on her thesis research, with guidance from Dr. Gordon Dale, Rabbi Dr. Wendy Zierler, Cantor Gerald Cohen, and Cantor Jonathan Comisar, she wrote the libretto and composed Yehudit as the first modern Chazzanut Opera. As her capstone project, Iris undertook the full suite of creative work, overseeing everything from costumes to casting to theme. In particular, she wanted to emphasize reclaiming an important feminist spiritual connection to the Chanukah narrative through this opera. This can be seen as the title character is celebrated for her heroic leadership in women’s empowerment around the dignity of their own bodies, signified in a tradition linked by association with the kindling of the Chanukah lights.

Register here for the May 16th Premiere

 

Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller practices with Cantor Iris Kaplan and her daughter, holding “Scroll of Yehudit,” and son with a shofar at the ready.

Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller practices with Cantor Iris Kaplan and her daughter, holding “Scroll of Yehudit,” and son with a shofar at the ready.

Her opera commemorates the “Holiday of the Daughters,” honoring the courageous actions of Yehudit, who saved Israelite women from abuse. The day, observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tevet (the 7th day of Chanukah), is a celebration in collective memory of the brave act of the legendary Yehudit, whose heroism saved the daughters of Israel from conditions of abuse. This observance honors a long-neglected rabbinical instruction not only to read the Scroll of Yehudit during Chanukah, but also to encourage women to light the menorah as if they were there with Yehudit, in celebration of their freedom to make decisions about their own bodies.

Iris Karlin headshotThe opera features the culmination of everything I absorbed at HUC: ancient Jewish cantillations, the trope system, the Jewish modes, Ashkenazi chazzanut, nusach in a wider sense, contemporary Jewish art songs, cantorial recitatives, and music for communal singing.
‒ Cantor Iris Karlin, ‘24

For her retelling of the story, Iris has developed a compositional style that integrates traditional and contemporary elements of Jewish music with the worlds of opera, operetta, and musical theater. Set for soloists, vocal ensemble, and orchestra, the work will be presented on May 16th at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, conducted by Stephanie E. Leotsakos.

Workshop Performance of Excerpts from Yehudit at HUC, December 6, 2023.

Workshop Performance of Excerpts from Yehudit at HUC, December 6, 2023.

 

Jill AbramsonYehudit lies at the nexus of art and activism. Cantor Iris Karlin’s visionary work is at once an opera and an act of reclamation, demonstrating the power and the diversity of Jewish music as it continuously evolves. Retrieving an ancient thread of rabbinical midrash, Iris weaves Judith’s story into a contemporary liberation narrative.
‒ Cantor Jill Abramson, Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music

Experience an unforgettable evening of music, storytelling, and celebration at Temple Emanu-El on May 16 as we honor the legacy of Yehudit and embrace the power of female empowerment in Jewish tradition.

Cantor Richard Cohn

Cantor Iris Karlin’s exceptional gifts as a vocal artist and innovative composer converge in this remarkable achievement. She has created a new expressive medium, employing elements of the traditional soundscape of Jewish music within an entertaining and compelling environment that emulates both opera and musical theater.
‒ Cantor Richard Cohn, Immediate Past Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music