song of songs
it was a shtotsy shabbos. to reach the proper shtotsiness threshhold, they brought in an a cappella group. these were guys, students, like nearly everyone at the shabbaton. it was a pleasure, not only to hear them, but to observe them: i kept myself entertained trying to interpret the hand signals they would occasionally flash each other as they sang. they performed at davening and a few times during the meal. they beatboxed; they did scat; at the end of songs they would break into astonishing and surprisingly intricate riffs or arrangements. between them they had a pretty wide range of vocal tones and blended them with smooth efficiency.
in short, they were very good. but it was clear that they were students first, yeshiva guys. i didn't know them, but in their white shirts and black pants, they looked the part.
time for a small tangent.
so. kol isha.
it's an inyan with many nuances, many shades, many interpretations. with my poor grasp of the subject, it would be unfair for me to attempt to define it. for that i refer you to links like this and suggest further research.
i do not pose what follows as my personal view, but a description of what i perceive to be common practice, if you can even talk about such a thing, in yu.
in yu circles, it seems that women are encouraged to sing with men during bentching or davening, but in no other context. certainly i've never seen a band or a choir of women perform for a male audience in a university setting. perhaps in other arenas. but i know that most of my friends would consider these performances 'sketchy' at best. at any rate, i think we can agree that standard orthodox policy discourages it.
And by its nature, halachakically sound as it may be, that policy limits.
i am always fascinated by the talent that i encounter in my peers. at this point, it may be a little embarrassing that i am still surprised when a friend opens her mouth and unearthly music rings out, or i pick up her sketchbook and witness a vision. G-d implants all kinds of miracles in people, and i have had the pleasure to know some truly miraculous people, even in passing.
yet in orthodox judaism, the talent of women is no simple thing. with some talents - visual arts, even writing - gender is no bar. but i have always wondered about those of my friends whose throats house treasures. you know women like this too (although if you're male, perhaps you've never heard them): they're the ones who perform at women's benefits; in the back of your shul, quietly, beside you during kedusha; in their dining rooms as they're clearing the shabbos table. and instantly you think of a different world or maybe a different life where they would be on a stage somewhere drawing tears from the coldest eyes. my grandmother has an expression for voices like these. 'to make angels cry,' she says.
i feel privileged to listen as they sing. But in the back of my head i think of the cost. what must it be like to contain this music, to flex a muscle so strong, to cradle so much beauty - and keep the lid closed? don't tell me about women's concerts or women's tours or things like that. yes, i know. but it's not the same. it's not the same as landing your first role in a broadway musical, and it's not the same as singing to thousands at an outdoor festival or a national opera house or whatever else you can think of.
It’s not singing a duet with a baritone, either.
they tell you to do what you love. what if you love to sing - if singing is your life - but you're almost categorically prohibited from pursuing that as a career?
I dreamed once of being famous. wanted to be a nationally-acclaimed songwriter (doesn’t everyone at some point?). I had no particular skill for it, so i mourned that dream hardly at all. But the experience gave me a taste of what some – not all - vocally gifted orthodox women might feel. Denied, a little bit. Constricted.
Of course, restraint, for lack of a better word, is integral to Orthodox Judaism. There’s a lot of things we don’t do. We don’t eat cheeseburgers. We don’t work on shabbos.
But those, for most people who are born frum, anyway, are easy.
We don’t wear certain things, even if they look good. We don’t hang out certain places.
We don’t hold hands.
There are a lot of things we, as orthodox jews, do not do. And some are hard.
In that frame of reference, here is what I stumbled across this shabbos:
I was walking down a stairwell in the building where the shabbaton had eaten. There were some speeches, interesting but longish, and it was somewhere in the grayish midpart of the afternoon. I was tired and focused only on the unfair number of stairs remaining between me and the ground floor.
After just a few steps, an unmistakable swelling of sound filled the stairwell, and I paused, smiling to myself. Apparently the a cappella group had decided to practice in the stairwell, which, running a considerable distance as it did, boasted rich, atmospheric acoustics. I hardly noticed the flights as I walked, the lush layerings of voice floating up to me like magic. I listened closely for each harmony and each part, singling them out as i identified them with my pitiful knowledge of music: this one is holding down the bass end, that one is doing a round, the other one –
The other one was a trilling, gorgeous soprano.
I stopped on the steps, frowned, and listened closely. But there was no mistaking it: the soaring, almost angelic tone was distinctly feminine. And now I heard others. It dawned on me that the unearthly tapestry of sound rising all around me, swelling and subsiding like waves in the sea, was full-bodied. Every range was represented. Baritones, altos, sopranos. They were all singing the same zemer, but the harmonies had shifted, rearranging themselves to accommodate the new flexibility and reach of their voices. These were no ordinary voices: each was rich, elegant, powerful. Together there were maybe twelve.
It sounded like every part of the world, from the earth to the sky, was singing. It was glorious.
But it was also stupefying.
Could I really be hearing what I was hearing? In this place? With these people? The guys had been doing some Yehuda songs earlier. Not envelope pushers as I would imagine them.
I descended the staircase slowly. As I said, the songs came in waves. I detected a trend: the male voices would start, and then, after a time, the higher end would join in. I was utterly intrigued. I kept walking, enveloped in the music.
As I neared the ground level, I finally discovered the a capella group, knitted together in a tight half circle on a landing. I watched their faces, mystified. Where were the other voices coming from? Had I completely lost it? They parted to let me and my friend pass, still singing.
It was at the bottom of the next flight that I found the girls.
I stopped to consider their arrangement.
I don’t remember how many girls there were. Maybe five. Some I knew, some I did not, but all sounded indisputably beautiful. They were separated from the guys by one and a half flights of stairs: they couldn’t see each other at all. Yet the acoustics were intimate, and they could hear each other with perfect precision.
I stood by the door to the flight, watching, noting, wondering how this had evolved.
Had the girls heard the choir practicing in the stairwell and decided to hum along, softly at first, then with escalating volume as they lost themselves in the music? Had the boys asked for their accompaniment? It seemed impossible for either group to be unaware of the crucial and substantial role each voice was playing in the sound.
How did the a cappella group feel about it?
Were the women’s voices an unwelcome addition? Was the group concerned that they were violating an issur, but too afraid to offend the girls by moving to another practice space?
Was it, perhaps, not something which would have occurred to them, but which they didn’t mind? Were they enjoying the majesty of this sound?
What about the women?
What was their justification—or did they even see a need for one? Was this, at last, an opportunity to participate in a full choir? Was I mistaking them entirely—was this just the impetus anyone feels, when they hear a beautiful song, to sing along? Did they feel immodest? Did they care?
Standing there, I doubted anyone in the stairwell could remain unaffected, untouched by the delicate grace of the interlocking voices, building and dying away.
Was it right or wrong? I’ll leave that for you to think about. I'm still thinking myself.
But I will tell you this: the image and the music will stay with me a long while. In a way I cannot fully explain, that stairwell feels emblematic to me of what orthodox Judaism today can sometimes be. You would have found it nowhere else.