Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

She sings just like a woman

Maya Belsitzman, Youtube screenshot

I attended a thrilling event at Israel’s National Library this week. If a thrilling event at a library sounds to you like a paradox, and if you live in travelling distance of Jerusalem, sign up for the NLI’s newsletter to find out what you’re missing.

The thrilling event in question was the launch of a major project dedicated to collecting, preserving and transmitting piyutim, liturgical poems often set to music. Although piyutim appear in prayer books, and indeed are frequently the best-known parts of the service (Adon Olam is a piyut), they have a vibrant life beyond the synagogue.

Piyutim are especially popular in the Sephardi world, where an outstanding paytan (writer and/or singer of piyutim) can achieve rock-star status. But in the past ten years or so, they’ve entered Israel’s popular culture in a big way. The many concerts and festivals devoted to piyutim attract large audiences comprising a cross-section of society — Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Israeli-born and recent immigrants, religious and secular, young and old, male and female.

The National Library evening had two parts. First came a panel discussion on prayer, with six panelists, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, reflecting a wide religious spectrum.  Already, it seemed like a glimpse of heaven. Each speaker spoke profoundly, movingly and from his or her (yes, her!) heart. Each listened to the others, not just respectfully but with real attention, as if they had something to learn. No-one was aggressive, defensive, belittling or patronizing.

The bearded rosh yeshiva from the Gush echoed approvingly a comment made by the rabbah (female rabbi) of Zion, Jerusalem’s fasting-growing egalitarian community. The Ashkenazi panel coordinator told the two Iraqi panelists — a female professor of Jewish mysticism at Ben Gurion University, and a rabbi and paytan who uses music to break down Israel’s destructive social barriers, between Jews and Jews and Jews and Arabs —  that his experiences of Iraqi prayer have convinced him that he has an Iraqi soul. Hear, hear.

The panelists were asked two broad questions: how they learned to pray and what they dreamed that prayer could achieve.  I forget whether it was the veteran kibbutz member or the professor of mathematics who’d founded a religious tolerance organization (and whose father, David Buzaglo, was a great paytan) who said that his dream was that the dreams of all the other panelists would come true.  For me the discussion itself was a dream of what religious leaders could achieve if stopped worrying about what they stand to lose by sharing platforms and started imagining what they could gain.

An hour later, the performance began. I’ve been to many piyut events in Jerusalem, but this was the concert to end all concerts. It was almost frightening; if something happens in the National Library tonight, I thought, Israel will lose an entire galaxy of stars.

The impressario was Yair Harel, a brilliant musician and a major force behind Israel’s piyut renaissance as well as the National Library project. He leads the extraordinary Ensemble Machon Yad Ben Tzvi (click here and here for great performances), and is, I believe, the musical inspiration for Zion, the above-mentioned Jerusalem egalitarian community.

The first singer, Rabbi Haim Louk, was born in Morocco and delights in showing the points of contact between Hebrew and Arabic when it comes to piyutim.  In my opinion and, more significantly, that of a famous Ashkenazi cantor who performed later in the evening, Haym Louk is Israel’s greatest hazzan. Even my uber-Ashkenazi husband has fallen under his spell.

Haim Louk was soon joined by the amazing Rabbi David Menahem. They sang Adon Olam together, a very familiar and relatively straightforward piyut, which they nevertheless managed to transform.  After them came Naftali Hershtik, of Great Synagogue fame, who brought to the stage a classic variety of heart-wrenching, tear-inducing Ashkenazi chazzanut.

And then came the women. Orthodox Judaism, especially among Ashkenazim, has no place for the female voice. This is not just a matter of tradition and what’s acceptable in synagogues. Kol Isha, the prohibition in Jewish law against hearing a ‘woman’s voice’, means that in some Jewish circles, women do not sing in any public sphere — and that includes their own homes if men outside the nuclear family are present — in the presence of men.

The majority of Jews do not keep the Kol Isha prohibition, but in Israel, unlike the Diaspora, it has serious implications for everyone.  From a desire to be inclusive, and out of respect for Jews who do observe Kol Isha, women are almost never invited to perform in national public ceremonies, whether celebrations or mourning.

It was not trivial, then, that three women were invited to sing piyutim at the National Library’s piyut project launch. It’s so easy to imagine how — sensitive to the religious obligations of a major donor, board member or significant library employee — a decision could have been made to exclude them.

This was not the first time I’ve heard men and women sing piyutim on the same stage, but — perhaps because of the extremely high quality of all the singers and musicians — this was the first time I’ve been struck by the phenomenon I’m about to describe.

The male singers seemed to me to be in the first instance vehicles for the liturgical traditions in which they’d been raised and trained. Their personalities were in evidence, of course, but when they performed, they transcended themselves as individuals and joined the collective.  Given that the ultimate task of the paytan is to articulate before God, as persuasively as possible, his community’s prayers, this is just as it should be.

When it came to the female singers, however, the dynamic changed completely. As magnificently as each one sang, the power of her performance seemed to emanate in the first instance from somewhere deep inside — an internal spring of pain, longing or joy — and only secondarily from Jewish tradition.

This is not, I think, because they were women. A female opera singer is no more likely than a male to bring her own experience to a role, or to reveal her personal involvement with the emotions she’s projecting. It seems to me rather that in some cases, lacking a specific tradition of Jewish music, women are thrown on their own experience, while in other cases, the Jewish musical tradition to which women are connected is precisely one that privileges the personal over the collective.

From the Bible onwards, especially in Sephardi communities, women were called upon to articulate emotions that, though inextricably entwined with the religious lives of the community, existed to an extent outside it. Women traditionally sang laments at times of individual or collective crisis:

Thus said God, the LORD of Hosts: Listen! Summon the [female] dirge singers, let them come; Send for the skilled women, let them come. Let them quickly start a wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears, our pupils flow with water … Hear, O women, the word of the LORD, let your ears receive the word of His mouth, and teach your daughters wailing and one another lamentation. For death has climbed through our windows, has entered our fortresses, to cut off babes from the street and young men from the squares. (Jeremiah 9:16, 19-20)

And women also sang songs of joy at times of personal or communal celebration:

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in a dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)

Listening to three extraordinary women performing piyutim at the National Library this week — Maya Belsitzman (that link doesn’t begin to do justice to what we heard) in a duet with her own cello, breathing the deepest senses of loss and longing into a hasidic piyut from the Chabad tradition; Maureen Nehadar bringing her distinctively Persian joy to two piyutim about Israel; and Gila Beshari literally blowing the audience away with her full-on versions of piyutim in the Yemenite tradition — I understood how much we need their voices, and the voices of other women like them, in Israel today.

I don’t know how to reconcile this need with the Kol Isha prohibition, but there has to be a way (hi-tech ear-plugs?). Outside the Haredi world, which has its own mechanisms, something is missing in Israel, and I think we are suffering emotionally as a consequence. I want to hear Maya on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day, Gila on Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, and Maureen on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Independence Day.  I want to hear their particular renditions of the universal feelings of lovers and mothers that are as integral to our society as any other.

The evening closed with an extraordinary duet between Maya Belsitzman (plus cello!) and the fabulous Shai Tzbari singing his own setting of Tefilat Ha’Derekh, Prayer for a Journey.  My prayer is that Israel will embark on a journey to incorporate, or reincorporate, women’s voices where they belong (and are desperately needed) — at the heart of the national experience.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.