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Writing her own Song of Glory

With the synagogue podium off-limits, Orthodox female musician Mor Berenshtin cries out to God from the stage
Mor Berenshtein, Shir HaKavod. (screenshot, YouTube)
Mor Berenshtein, Shir HaKavod. (screenshot, YouTube)

Take three minutes and listen to the song below.

It’s called “Shir Hakavod” by Mor Berenshtin, an up-and-coming Israeli artist. Berenshtin grew up in the religious community of Petach Tikvah, attended ulpana (religious girls’ high school), followed by national service, religious studies and art college. The soundtrack of her youth included Hasidic music  giants, such as Avraham Fried, Mordechai Ben David and Yishai Lapidot. Eventually, the 32-year-old mother of three says she found her voice in music.

The song “Shir Hakavod” shares its name with the the liturgical poem also known as “Anim Zemirot” (“I Will Sing Sweet Songs”), which is sung at the end of Shabbat morning prayers. It is usually translated as “Song of Glory,” and is commonly sung by little boys from the bima (podium), while the congregation chants each alternating line responsively.

The song opens with Berenshtin describing her childhood, watching little boys grow up with recognition of their potential as scholars. A chorus of little boys singing lines from Anim Zemirot punctuate the verses. “Only, I had no musical notes; I had no face,” she points out. “Why didn’t you let me sing?” she asks in a voice that sounds more disappointed and hurt than accusatory. “All the glory of a king’s daughter is within,” she seems to answer herself wearily, with the quote from Psalms that is all too familiar to religious girls, cited by religious educators to prescribe a life of demureness and modesty behind the scenes.

In Hebrew, the words “Shir HaKavod” also mean “Song of Honor/Respect/Dignity.” Giving someone a platform and voice is a gesture of honor, respect and recognition of their dignity. In this choice of title, Berenshtin contrasts the fact that little boys are regularly honored with the same communal platform and voice that is denied to adult women. This especially stings when recalling that the reason for this halachic ban on women is deference to kavod hatzibur, the “dignity of the congregation,” which would presumably be insulted by a woman at the podium.

Toward the end of the song, Berenshtin’s tone changes: “Now, I am onstage; now, I will sing sweet songs; now, I am on the holy stage. Why didn’t you let me sing?” The children’s voices repeat Anim Zemirot as the song comes to a close.

Berenshtin realizes that if she is not afforded respect by her community, she has to write her song of dignity herself. And she does. The stage of a performer and musician are the only platforms to which she has access, and they become holy to her.

Note that the line she chose from Anim Zemirot, the line that the little boys sing and on which her song ends, is this: “My soul desires the shadow of Your hand, to know every one of Your secrets.” Access to holiness — maybe even to God — is a secret hidden in the shadows.

How many women turn away from the communal religious norms with which they were raised not because of a rejection of God, but rather out of a burning desire to be close to Him? How many are never able to crack the secret, to illuminate the shadow between themselves and God? In an interview, Berenshtin explains that she remains Shabbat observant, very traditional, and deeply connected to her roots, but that inside, she has become “quite an atheist.”

Even as the song ends on a seemingly empowered note, it is far from triumphant. It is heartbroken, weary, still mournful of opportunities lost.

I don’t think I’ll be able to listen to Anim Zemirot the same way again. I will think of all the girls who are listening — not only to the words of prayer, but to the message their community sends them, explicitly and implicitly.

Please, listen.

(English translation follows the Hebrew lyrics)

שיר הכבוד
מור ברנשטיין

במעגל הזה היו שישים ריבו בנים
-שעתידים בבוא היום בבוא העת להפוך ל
תלמידים בני תלמידים
חכמים בני חכמים
מלומדים בני מלומדים

ורק אני ללא תווים ורק אני ללא פנים
?למה לא נתתם לי
כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה

נפשי חמדה בצל ידייך לדעת כל רז סודייך

ורק אני ללא תווים ורק אני ללא פנים
?למה לא נתתם לי
?למה לא נתתם לי לשיר
כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה

נפשי חמדה בצל ידייך לדעת כל רז סודייך

עכשיו אני על הבמות עכשיו אני אנעים בזמירות
עכשיו אני על במות הקודש

?למה לא נתתם לי לשיר
כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה

נפשי חמדה בצל ידייך לדעת כל רז סודייך

Song of Glory
Mor Berenshtin

In this circle there were 600,000 boys
That one day in the future would become
Students the sons of students
Wise men the sons of wise men
Scholars the sons of scholars

And only I had no musical notes and only I had no face
Why didn’t you let me?
All the glory of a king’s daughter is within

My soul desires the shadow of your hand
to know every one of Your secrets

And only I had no musical notes and only I had no face
Why didn’t you let me sing?
All the glory of a king’s daughter is within

My soul desires the shadow of your hand
to know every one of Your secrets

Now I am on the stage, now I will sing sweet songs
Now I am on the holy stage

Why didn’t you let me sing?
All the glory of a king’s daughter is within

My soul desires the shadow of your hand
to know every one of Your secrets.

About the Author
Rachel Stomel is a literary translator, graphic designer and slam poet. She is passionate about social justice in the Jewish community, with a special focus on women’s rights and issues of religion and state.
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