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Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim

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In Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, the the world meets an insightful, opinionated eight-year-old growing up plump, nerdy and Jewish in a Chicago suburb. Three things make her happy: singing, reading books, and going to Temple. Ridicule makes her afraid to open her mouth, even though she really can sing. But she persists, and with her awkwardness, anxiety, and fear in to In Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, the the world meets an insightful, opinionated eight-year-old growing up plump, nerdy and Jewish in a Chicago suburb. Three things make her happy: singing, reading books, and going to Temple. Ridicule makes her afraid to open her mouth, even though she really can sing. But she persists, and with her awkwardness, anxiety, and fear in tow, her love of singing propels her to become the first ordained woman cantor in 3,000 years of Jewish history. Overcoming her own crises and the challenges of finding her way in a male profession, Barbara Ostfeld shows us that we are all brave pioneers at becoming our true selves.


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In Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, the the world meets an insightful, opinionated eight-year-old growing up plump, nerdy and Jewish in a Chicago suburb. Three things make her happy: singing, reading books, and going to Temple. Ridicule makes her afraid to open her mouth, even though she really can sing. But she persists, and with her awkwardness, anxiety, and fear in to In Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, the the world meets an insightful, opinionated eight-year-old growing up plump, nerdy and Jewish in a Chicago suburb. Three things make her happy: singing, reading books, and going to Temple. Ridicule makes her afraid to open her mouth, even though she really can sing. But she persists, and with her awkwardness, anxiety, and fear in tow, her love of singing propels her to become the first ordained woman cantor in 3,000 years of Jewish history. Overcoming her own crises and the challenges of finding her way in a male profession, Barbara Ostfeld shows us that we are all brave pioneers at becoming our true selves.

30 review for Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline

    I found *Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim* both life-affirming and a total game-changer. Barbara J. Ostfeld was ordained the first woman Cantor in 1975 at my alma mater; Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music. Barbara Ostfeld is my friend and fellow alumna. She is also my mentor; my teacher, my sweet savory inspiration, and the best spiritual moshpit of professionalism and irreverence I will ever have the privilege to know. In short, I am Barbara Ostfeld's ha I found *Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim* both life-affirming and a total game-changer. Barbara J. Ostfeld was ordained the first woman Cantor in 1975 at my alma mater; Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music. Barbara Ostfeld is my friend and fellow alumna. She is also my mentor; my teacher, my sweet savory inspiration, and the best spiritual moshpit of professionalism and irreverence I will ever have the privilege to know. In short, I am Barbara Ostfeld's happy lackey, fervent fangirl, and grateful little bitch. Therefore, I write this review under the most blatant conflict of interest imaginable. Tough te'amim, folks: who said life was fair? Here we go. Cantorial biographies are rare but not unheard-of. In the mid 1980s, James Drake captured the late Richard Tucker's life and career in a comprehensive volume. Tucker's brother-in-law, Jan Peerce, had published his own autobiography, "The Bluebird of Happiness," a decade earlier. First and foremost in the lineup was Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt's accounting of the life of his father, the well-known Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Most recently, Cantor Hans Cohn published, "Risen from the Ashes"; the story of his own family's escape from Nazi-occupied Europe to the pyrrhic refuge of Shanghai before reaching North America. As the first woman to be ordained a cantor, Barbara Ostfeld is also the first woman cantor to publish a multi-chapter autobiography. Hers is a banquet of stories served with the voices of, by turns, an eight-year-old girl, a teen on the brink of rock-and-roll, and so on as our narrator grows up several lifetimes over. She starts out neither particularly privileged nor destitute. She doesn't have to relocate in order to save life and limb. We meet her as an extremely intelligent child way ahead of her zeitgeist and her chronological years. And Barbara Ostfeld's childhood dream of praising The Holy One in song becomes an uphill trial by fire unprecented and unimagined by the average male cantor. That's as much as I'm going to say about what's in the book. You must also understand, because Barbara's voice is so unique, that the way she tells you her life is every bit as important as what she's telling you. Recall at least one instance in your life when something felt off-kilter; but you were unsure whether or not you imagined it... because nobody could possibly behave to such extremes or say something so ugly in response to you trying to life your best life, right? Wrong. The ensuing pain defines a landmark difference between this cantor's life story and the books that came before it. While it's a fact that we can and do serve as our own worst enemies in terms of self-talk and self-doubt, Ostfeld's outer demons trained her inner ones all too well. I encountered many characters between "Catbird"'s covers whom I wanted to smite. I have met them all before on my own professional journey: some of the actual folks; some of their twins and triplets in other geographical regions. Thereby lies the double helix in the life-affirming power of "Catbird...": No, you're not paranoid. You didn't imagine this crooked word or that bad behavior or the furtive wandering hand brushing the one square inch of the nape of your neck that isn't covered by an opaque robe. You didn't imagine these nor other lowballing of your market worth according to the malfeasant antagonists...many of whom come from as progressive a social background as do you. But God is constant, omnipresent, and lyrically, dramatically creative. Ultimately, the musical and spiritual inspiration that propelled you on your journey will prevail - and so will you, if you sing your song as God meant for you to sing it. The game-changer is: unless you have actually walked the path, and no one who has walked it has depicted it so truthfully and courageously as Barbara Ostfeld has, you could never believe what lies under the seamy underbelly of singing the sacred song as a woman cantor. Yet, sing it we must, because it is not the song that sours; but what human beings have done to it. Ultimately it is humans who must rescue and restore the song and its purpose. When we remember who we are; who we were; who we were always supposed to become, we save the song and we save ourselves. By so doing, we save a piece of the world. You know you're going to read "Catbird...The Ballad of Barbi Prim" yourself. You must read this book. I repeat, do not allow yourself to enter another Elul until you read "Catbird..." for if you try to come into my synagogue for Erev Rosh HaShanah otherwise, I will know. But I won't quiz you. I'll save that job for a much tougher, more qualified Judge. I'm in serious withdrawal from "Catbird...The Ballad of Barbi Prim." As I referenced earlier, I love Barbara Ostfeld. I needed her whirlwind to resolve; I rooted for everything to be okay, yet I'm bereft at book's end. Halleluyah.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Hermien

    Very interesting biography which was particularly enjoyable as an audiobook as it was read by the author who also did a bit of singing every now and again.

  3. 5 out of 5

    skketch

    ***NOVEL THOUGHTS*** I quite enjoyed this self-reflective journey of the first woman to become an ordained cantor in the history of Judaism. Barbara Ostfeld broke the glass ceiling, opening the door to other women who later followed in her footsteps as cantors and rabbis. Her success though was complicated because she WAS the first cantor; there were no role models to help her find her way into the role that had been a man's for as long as time. How does a female cantor dress and act and sit and ***NOVEL THOUGHTS*** I quite enjoyed this self-reflective journey of the first woman to become an ordained cantor in the history of Judaism. Barbara Ostfeld broke the glass ceiling, opening the door to other women who later followed in her footsteps as cantors and rabbis. Her success though was complicated because she WAS the first cantor; there were no role models to help her find her way into the role that had been a man's for as long as time. How does a female cantor dress and act and sit and do hair? A man would never have been held to such scrutiny as she felt she would be. But this matter was also affected by her low self esteem that came from her childhood. She wanted so much to please that she felt she would never be good enough, do it right, or be perfect. It took 40 plus years of introspection and therapy to find out, "hey guess what, I'm just great as I am!" But in the meantime, her voice literally and figuratively, provided religious comfort to those congregations in her care over her career. In her memoir, Ostfeld allows for a very real vulnerability, admitting that she felt not-pretty as a child, being body shamed by kids, not feeling as though she warranted the love and attention of her father (who had his own mental health issues but how does a child know that?), hated her hair, her complexion, her nose. Ostfeld did some things that is not uncommon for a teenager feeling these things in order to "feel something!" like cutting herself and becoming anorexic. In her quest to control something in her life, she dieted to extreme, most of her adult life. But overtime and finally with support from her family and therapist, she was finally able to overcome all of these things. There are some outside factors that also contributed to her self-worth issues which were totally out of her control and it takes decades for her to win over those troubling moments and be able to safely deal with the remnants of that darkness. I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the book when she is narrating her story as the 8 yr old Barbi. She captures the voice of that 8 yr old and all the emotional baggage and conundrums that go along with it. As she finds her voice and her love for singing, she completely relates to her synagogue's own cantor and tells herself that she wants to be a cantor when she grows up. She never loses that dream. This is a challenging story in that there is a lot of self-deprecation and self-loathing. It is sometimes hard to read but is the layer of truth to who she was and who she believed herself to be, which is why the reader cheers for her successes and her ultimate achievements in life.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ken

    Though non-fiction is not my favorite genre, I found this book captivating, heart wrenching, funny, and richly written. The story begins written in a little girl’s voice and ends in a woman’s voice. As this is a memoir, the voices leads you through the story of Barbi Prim’s life; full of mazes. The twists and turns are hindered with roadblocks brought on by sexism, low self esteem, and physical assault. Her faith and wit propels her out of that maze and into the world, which she missed for the g Though non-fiction is not my favorite genre, I found this book captivating, heart wrenching, funny, and richly written. The story begins written in a little girl’s voice and ends in a woman’s voice. As this is a memoir, the voices leads you through the story of Barbi Prim’s life; full of mazes. The twists and turns are hindered with roadblocks brought on by sexism, low self esteem, and physical assault. Her faith and wit propels her out of that maze and into the world, which she missed for the greater part of her life, full of love and caring for others. As the first female cantor in the U.S., Ms. Ostfeld takes you with her on her journey through her childhood, schooling, private life, and professional career. Synagogue politics and leachereous rabbis. A long struggle with an eating disorder. Sexual assault. She unabashedly tells her story in well written prose, which was a good read from beginning to end.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Anne A

    I do not often write reviews. Unlike Barbara Ostfeld, who is baffled by numbers, I am baffled by words, but I will try. She begins this autobiography, using her voice and perspective as an 8 year old. The book is structured through the use of discrete vignettes that fit together like puzzle pieces to form a picture of Barbara's life, from a young girl to the present. Throughout, one is struck by the contradictions in her story, e.g. the insecurity and self-loathing vs. the remarkable strength of I do not often write reviews. Unlike Barbara Ostfeld, who is baffled by numbers, I am baffled by words, but I will try. She begins this autobiography, using her voice and perspective as an 8 year old. The book is structured through the use of discrete vignettes that fit together like puzzle pieces to form a picture of Barbara's life, from a young girl to the present. Throughout, one is struck by the contradictions in her story, e.g. the insecurity and self-loathing vs. the remarkable strength of character, conviction and drive to decide to become the first female cantor and to do it. This book is a page turner - I'm not exactly sure how Barbara accomplishes this in an autobiography, but she does. I'm sure it has to do with her gift for language and artful use of words, but also this is a compelling story.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Richard Cowan

    Catbird: The Ballad of Barbara Prim is a serious book in spite of its being filled with humor. It illustrates how people really change - not through adoption of someone's formula for the good life but through recurrent scrutiny of one's hang-ups that slowly vaporizes them. "In my beginning is my end....In my end is my beginning." Catbird: The Ballad of Barbara Prim is a serious book in spite of its being filled with humor. It illustrates how people really change - not through adoption of someone's formula for the good life but through recurrent scrutiny of one's hang-ups that slowly vaporizes them. "In my beginning is my end....In my end is my beginning."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    This was a wonderful book. I found it difficult to put it down! The author chronicles her life and career, her personal struggles with body image, eating issues, and overcoming trauma. It is beautifully written and compelling. A great read. I highly recommend it. Trigger warning: parts of this story may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joan Forster

    The very first page is a great invitation to this 8 yr old’s goals and dreams and plans. The way she States her physical faults is so brave. She has opinions and is so observant of everything “she doesn’t miss a trick “which is something that I was always told, so it’s close to my heart, amusing and makes me smile. It reminds me of The child in “the emperor has no clothes “but Barbie doesn’t wait for any pause to blurt it out she’s so observant every minute. It intimidates me to think of being in The very first page is a great invitation to this 8 yr old’s goals and dreams and plans. The way she States her physical faults is so brave. She has opinions and is so observant of everything “she doesn’t miss a trick “which is something that I was always told, so it’s close to my heart, amusing and makes me smile. It reminds me of The child in “the emperor has no clothes “but Barbie doesn’t wait for any pause to blurt it out she’s so observant every minute. It intimidates me to think of being in a room with this little genius, and at the same time, I want to learn from her, of how to state a fact and follow through with my ambitions. There are moments of deep disgusting anger that I felt, when this precious being has also come across the fucking evil people but like me it would get in her way of caring on and she never loses her self and her passions . I can’t tell you how much I adore this fucking book and would use this as a teaching tool for school children and adults alike. From her “European“ handmade clothes ,to the pride she possesses all throughout her core . She had a passion and followed it despite the “rules” she is my hero!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Harry

    I’ve known Barbara Ostfeld for two decades and I didn’t know her very well at all. The emotions Barbara reveals to us are so powerful it took me a long time to read the first 2/3 of Catbird. Her personal journey, externally, but more importantly, internally is an inspirational story of growth and hope.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Susan Freed-Oestreicher

    Engaging well written book. Loved it!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Emily Cohen

    READ THIS BOOK! "Catbird" gives us direct insight into forging a career path, the challenges women have faced (and still do face), and being a working mother in a demanding career, among other things. I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Catbird." I must state, in the interest of full disclosure, that Barbara J. Ostfeld was my childhood cantor. She had a tremendous positive impact on my elementary, middle, and high school years. It was truly my honor to read about her journey from childhood through coll READ THIS BOOK! "Catbird" gives us direct insight into forging a career path, the challenges women have faced (and still do face), and being a working mother in a demanding career, among other things. I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Catbird." I must state, in the interest of full disclosure, that Barbara J. Ostfeld was my childhood cantor. She had a tremendous positive impact on my elementary, middle, and high school years. It was truly my honor to read about her journey from childhood through college and various career stages and retirement. Barbara is a trailblazer (notice the present tense, because she continues to impact so many people, even those she has never met face to face) in this field, this industry, this "business." Her ability to put these aspects of her journey, her struggles, her triumphs into words is unparalleled. Her "author's voice" truly comes through as we see a progression from the voice of a child, to a teenager, to a young adult, to a wise woman navigating the various paths of her life, whether it was professionally or personally. What an honor it has been to read about those paths, to get another viewpoint on working and parenting and retiring and focusing on new interests. And an even greater honor was to be able to read about events I personally experienced, and to hear about those events from a different, and relevant, and important, perspective and point of view. Barbara made me laugh out loud while reading (that Frankenstein boot is something I know all too well!). She also allowed me to learn that we have things in common beyond just our Judaism and a love of singing and music, and our years at the same synagogue. I am grateful that Barbara, (my Cantor!) took the time to further educate and entertain us, with a book that makes you feel as if you're sitting down with a dear, respected friend, having a long conversation over many cups of coffee, surrounded by beautiful flowers that might eventually be the subject of some paintings.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    Brutally honest, intimate, witty, funny, sensitive, loving, inspiring, and poetic... all qualities I know in the author are shared in the pages of this memoir. Thank you dear Barbara for sharing your story with the world.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Honest, brutal, revelatory, and redemptive - thank you Cantor Ostfeld for being so brave - a true pioneer.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bari Dzomba

    Disgusting and stupid. Thankfully returned this after listening for about 30 minutes. Once this nutcase started talking about her father’s penis and pubic hairs I was like I AM OUTTA HERE WEIRDO!!!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Muriel Kudera

  16. 4 out of 5

    Susan Moss

  17. 5 out of 5

    Hayley Kobilinsky

  18. 5 out of 5

    Julie Rollins

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sandy

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alan Hochberg

  21. 4 out of 5

    Elaine B

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  23. 4 out of 5

    Robin Raphael

  24. 4 out of 5

    Patti Adler

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Dubbels

  26. 5 out of 5

    Carol

  27. 5 out of 5

    Gloria Hernandez

  28. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Kramer

  29. 4 out of 5

    Michele Fried

  30. 4 out of 5

    Hye mee

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