In a woman’s voice

In my first blog post for The Times of Israel, I said it was time for a different Jewish conversation, one that takes a critical look at intermarriage, conversion, and what being Jewish is all about – that offers a powerful vision of what Jewish life can be. Since I’m hardly the only voice on this subject, I promised that every month or so, I’d feature a guest, sometimes a convert or born Jew to share their journey, sometimes a noted commentator on modern Jewish life. It’s been a month since I posted my first article, so it’s time to let readers hear a different voice – this time, a woman’s voice. For my first guest, I didn’t look far from home, not far at all. I turned to my wife and co-author of our new book, Doublelife, to be that different voice. And what a voice she has:

Gayle Berman: Sometimes a limit really is a limitation. But sometimes it reveals unnoticed power. And paradoxically, sometimes it does both. There once was a time I didn’t know about the parameters traditional Judaism sets when it comes to the female voice. Of course, there once was a time I didn’t know much of anything about traditional Judaism. For there once was a time when I wasn’t Jewish.

When I met Harold, I was the Minister of Music at Colonial Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. Led by the very energetic Pastor Bill, who has since gone on to become a national authority on creating mega-churches, Colonial Hills Church kept me busy. Three services every Sunday morning with overflow crowds, twelve choirs, three major works with orchestra every year, a youth musical I took on an annual tour and two children’s musicals. That was in addition to singing professionally and teaching voice at a local university. No wonder I was so tired back then.

Many years later, in Boston, I was still working in a church. No longer a mega-church, for those are few and far between in New England. But a quiet, white-steepled affair where I played organ and directed the choir for one service every Sunday. Only, by that time, I had begun to fall in love with Judaism. And “church choir director” isn’t the ideal job for a nice Jewish girl. Especially an Orthodox one.

I struggled with how I would replace the church choir gig, something I had done in various guises since high school. And my singing? In Judaism, the laws of Kol Isha – a woman’s voice – place some limits on where and how a woman’s singing voice is used. I’ve been a singer all my life. God gave me a voice to use it. This is what I struggled with the most.

Shortly after I began my studies for conversion and continued to struggle, I made my first trip to Israel, where I had a wonderful meeting with Ahuvah Gray. Ahuvah’s journey from Christian minister to Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem is beautifully told in her book, My Sister, the Jew. I confided my struggles to Ahuvah, who sympathized but told me that maybe the struggle wasn’t necessary. Take the leap, she said, and you’ll find a place in Orthodox Judaism to channel your gifts.

Not quite ready to take that leap, I devoted my energies to learning everything I could about Kol Isha. I learned that many Orthodox men, for reasons of modesty, will not listen to a woman sing. And many Orthodox women will not sing in front of men.

But I also learned that Kol Isha is not so straightforward. After all, none other than Rav Yosef Soleveitchik, and even Rav Hutner, were known to attend the opera, hearing some of the very same operas that I had sung. In truth, there is probably a wider range of legitimate interpretation of what Kol Isha means than many other areas of Judaism.

But it’s not my intent here to wade too deeply into these waters, but instead to share what I discovered. And I discovered that the whole debate about a man hearing a woman’s voice presupposes one thing: a woman’s voice has power. And so, by definition, a woman has power.

In the end, Ahuvah Gray was right. Without giving away too much of what I wrote in Doublelife, I ultimately took a leap and found both a Jewish channel for what had previously been my church work, and a deeper understanding of what women are capable of when left to their own devices.

I discovered the world of Jewish women’s choruses, first directing Arbah Kanfote in Boston and later founding the Jewish Women’s Chorus of Western Massachusetts. And I learned that there is something different about all-women comaraderie. A group of women singing together feel like they can let their hair down far more than when men are around. Some women just feel more comfortable. Some of the women in my choruses had never sung before, and were amazed that they could get up there and sing.

When I came to Israel, I discovered that not only does something special happen when women sing together, but that they can even redefine notions of female beauty, unencumbered by the accepted male definitions. Raise Your Spirits Theatre was born in 2001 as a response by the women of Efrat and Gush Etzion to the terror of the Second Intifada that surrounded them. Still going strong twelve years later, the all-women cast performs original musicals exclusively for women. I was thrilled to perform the leading role of Devorah and direct the music for Raise Your Spirits in their 2010 production of Judge! The Song of Devorah. I was less enthusiastic when an Israeli reviewer, although praising my performance, referred to me as someone who “had left her twenties far behind.”

I don’t look so old, I thought, a bit huffily. Then I read the review more carefully. The reviewer’s real point, although said in a typically tactless Israeli way, was that in a performance where men are absent from cast and audience, male notions of beauty do not prevail. I thought about the several students I’ve had over the years who’ve gone on to perform on Broadway and the operatic stage. In those worlds, unless a woman has already made it big, many opportunities have passed her by once she’s hit thirty. She can sing wonderfully, act beautifully, move with grace. But why cast her when there’s a twenty-four year old waiting in the wings? This sad state of affairs has nothing to do with a woman’s real capabilities and everything to do with male notions of exterior female beauty.

This year, Raise Your Spirits Theatre is performing Esther & The Secrets in the King’s Court. The women in the cast range in age from seven to seventy. We have a good time. We put on a good show. And so many women’s voices joining together in song certainly is powerful.

Tickets for our final Gush Etzion performance tonight and our Kiryat Arba performance on January 24th can be purchased – if you’re a woman – at (or call 02-996-1666 for the Kiryat Arba performance).

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.