Meet Maria Winetzkaja, a renowned opera singer and a rebellious, independent woman.
Russian-born around 1888, her father was a cantor, but Maria wanted nothing to do with her family’s Judaism. She called it ridiculous and foolish, due to what she perceived to be a lack of respect for women, according to her grandson Steven Winnett. His biography of her relates what happened next:
Her family moved to the United States in 1904, following a series of pogroms. She studied opera in New York, eventually traveling the globe as a performer and learning to speak eight languages. She sang at New York’s Carnegie Hall but never at the Metropolitan Opera, the pinnacle of success for American singers: the reason, she said, was that she refused to sleep with one of the Met’s directors.
Throughout her life she broke social norms in career, marriage and motherhood. She was a common-law wife to her husband, Schai Winett, although they pretended a wedding date for appearance’s sake. She also took the feminine version of his Ukrainian name, Winetsky, as her own. Maria had her two children later in life, but the demands of her career meant that she was often distracted or simply not at home. Although it sometimes seemed she lacked the mothering instinct, she loved her family fiercely: she rejected the wisdom of doctors who suggested she allow her son to die as a newborn, because he could not keep down any food. She went from doctor to doctor until she found one who correctly diagnosed and treated him.
After retiring from the stage, Winetzkaja taught at Juilliard and traveled extensively. She also remained feisty. When her first grandchild was born in 1954, the baby’s parents would drape a towel over grandma’s shoulder and chest to “prevent the baby from drooling on her clothes.” Maria was not fooled. One day, she stalked wordlessly into their apartment carrying a large bag and disappeared into the bathroom. She emerged dressed in a spotlessly clean nurse’s uniform. “Now can I hold your baby?” she asked.
As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, Kveller and the Jewish Women’s Archive bring to light little-known stories of inspiring, intriguing Jewish American women whose legacies still change our lives today. To explore even more, visit jwa.org.