Saturday, January 31, 2009

song of songs

i noticed a very interesting phenomenon at a shabbaton i attended recently, and i'd like to present it to you - without judgment or analysis, if i can.

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.


Blogger Shira Salamone said...

" . . . was this just the impetus anyone feels, when they hear a beautiful song, to sing along?" In my opinion, yes, absolutely. I've often joked, on my blog and elsewhere, about sitting in the back at Jewish rock concerts because, as a veteran Israeli folk dancer, I can't sit still, and invariably end up dancing. What I haven't really mentioned is the *other* reason why I sit in the back: I also can't resist singing along. And I can't blend in unobtrusively, either, because I'm a born harmonizer. As a Conservative Jew and former mixed-gender synagogue-choir alto, I can't imagine living in a community in which singing, especially in harmony, which comes as naturally to me as breathing, would brand me as immodest.

"Was this, at last, an opportunity to participate in a full choir?" Quite possibly, and, if it was, I think it's really sad, that a woman can be branded immodest when she isn't even visible.

Should I ever choose to become Orthodox, I would have to choose my community really carefully: With all due respect, I simply couldn't spend the rest of my life in a community that would brand me immodest--even in long sleeves, a knee-covering skirt, and a top that comes close to my collar bone--just because I sing in the presence of men.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

In many MO homes in my community it is normal for women to join in on singing zemirot around the shabbat table. One of the things I miss from the days I was active in C is the sound of female voices acting as shaliach tzibbur and as torah readers.

7:04 AM  
Blogger Kovi said...

this is a fascinating story. it's so... typical. but if you think about it, as you do, it's mind boggling.

My only answer would be that these people have been removed from their yeshivish background and put into a different environment with different rules. Before, they didn't because they would be shunned for it. now things are different. questions of halacha have a way of not being asked. it feels right. so we do it.

Is that wrong? I know i don't live my life totally by halacha, not even close, though i don't specifically go against it. ignorance can only shield us for so far. to go all the way is often to cut yourself off from the rest of jewish society.

nobody likes to ask these questions. you have a nack for it :)
i can't say if it was right or wrong, but i can tell you that if i were there, i would be there with them, singing.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I grew up with the impression that all Modern Orthodox communities hold that religious singing doesn't count as קול אשה... i was surprised when i found out that some people don't, and it makes me very uncomfortable to be at shabbos tables where the men are having fun and singing while the women are just sitting their quietly. It feels sort of obnoxious to be having so much fun in your face in front of someone who is being prevented from participating.

11:02 AM  
Blogger yoni said...

well there are lots of heterim for kol isha. One is holy things, another is multiple voices, another is if you cannot see her voice, another is if she is single (yes, major authorities hold this, including nossei keilim) etc.

but also, there are men who are altos and sopranos. . . i'm one of them actualy (alto).

but its different. at shul when i'm giving full play to my voice while the shul sings, haredi visiters always turn to look back at me strangely a few times while i'm singing. . .

I didn't use to know why, and now I wonder.

Am I not allowed to sing either?

5:07 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


i remember hearing about a miniscandal in israel a year or two ago, where a hhareidi radio station yanked a song they had been playing because the [male] singer's voice sounded too feminine.

5:54 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Fudge, you yourself introduced me to the phrase “dan l’kaf z’chut” several years ago in one of your posts. The translation given of this saying from Pirkei Avot (Verses [Ethics] of the Fathers) in my Artscroll siddur (prayer book) is “judge [everyone] favorably,” and I gather that this phrase is used the way we use “give [a person] the benefit of the doubt” in English. It seems to me that dan l’kaf z’chut might apply to the situation that you described.

Rabbi Jachter, in the discussion of the laws of kol isha to which you linked, described some substantial differences of opinion on the question of what a woman is permitted to sing—if anything—in the presence of a man, saying that “Modern Orthodox communities in Israel and North America generally follow the tradition of German Jewry in this regard,” the German approach being to permit women to sing z’mirot [Sabbath songs] with men.

Jachter also wrote, “Gemara (Sanhedrin 45a) states, “The Yetzer Hara is not interested in what the eyes do not see.”

Concerning the female singers, you asked, "What was their justification—or did they even see a need for one?" Perhaps you might wish to consider the possibility that the male and female singers in the situation that you described, since they were singing z’mirot and were not visible to one another, may have believed that they were not violating halachah/Jewish religious law.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"Did they feel immodest? Did they care?" If they hadn't cared, why would they have gone out of their way to separate themselves from the men sufficiently to ensure that the men couldn't see them?

10:58 AM  
Blogger fudge said...

interesting comments, everyone. i love what's going on here.

i was actually fortunate enough to talk about this with one of the girls who sang for a bit, and she phrased what she said so beautifully i thought it would be worthwhile to share it with you:

"Well, I guess the first thing I thought you would find interesting is that the boys knew we liked to sing (my friends were sitting near them at lunch) and so we were invited to join them when they moved to that stairwell.

Also, at least the original group of us felt it wasn't really a problem, because we were trying (at least, most of us were trying) to sing quietly, and they didn't know who was singing.

Also, when you love to sing, to get a chance to sing along with other people who you know you can blend's not an oppurtunity you get often in kosher environment when you're frum.

So even though we were trying (and I hope, succeeding. There were people there who I didn't know who weren't as careful about it, and I felt bad because I didn't know if the boys felt uncomfortable, but they joined us later...)

So even though were trying to keep it tzniut, an oppurtunity like that was like...I don't even know how to describe it.

It's like, when I made the decision not to pursue anything musical (for various reasons, a lot of them religious), it felt like that part of my was atrophying

to get an oppurtunity to truly sing with other gifted people was like having a part of ourselves reawaken. Not in a halachically assur way. In a way that felt like we were using our talent to finally praise the G-d that gave them to us."

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Ari said...

Am in awe of your writing. Plain spoken poetry is the only way I can describe it. Keep it up.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Wow. While I missed the performance, you did a superb job of transfering it to words.

I see nothing wrong with it -- since they were 1.5 floors away from each other and didn't see each other singing.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!

7:56 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home