A better answer might have dismissed the rabbinic exegesis that led to the prohibition, in favor of the simple verse itself: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful.” In the past year, those sweet voices seem to have multiplied, producing a soundscape full of strikingly talented Jewish female artists. These range from “Kis Avir,” the album by the utterly secular (but tonally sacrosanct) Israeli singer Roni Alter, to Galeet Dardashti’s solo debut, “The Naming,” on which all the tracks are named for female biblical personalities.
Nowhere is the proliferation of high quality women’s voices clearer than in “The Naming” and in a trio of other albums that explicitly engage with the role of women in Jewish music: “The Bowls Project” by Charming Hostess, Judith R. Cohen’s “Sefarad en Diaspora” (“Sephardic Jews in Diaspora”) and John Zorn’s “Mycale: Book of Angels, Volume 13.”
That two of these albums come from Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture imprint solidifies Zorn’s status as a cultivator of thrilling new Jewish music. The first to be released this year, “Mycale” is the 13th album in Zorn’s Book of Angels series, which began as a place for Zorn to record his hundreds of klezmer-style compositions. Unlike other Book of Angels entries, which tend to include avant-garde instrumentals and lean toward klezmer influences, “Mycale” is a lush vocal exchange among four singers. In addition to Gottlieb, Pharaoh’s Daughter frontwoman Basya Schechter, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis and Malika Zarra sing a cappella, inspired by the work of Meredith Monk.
In 1977, Roland Barthes coined the term “the grain of the voice” to describe how you can hear the human body when you listen to singing. The vocals arise from the diaphragm and fill the lungs with air that passes through the lips, teeth, tongue and then the nasal passages. For this reason, “Mycale” sounds very bodily and even sensuous.
“It’s very cool and inspiring that John created a project of four woman vocalists doing work so specifically Jewish,” Gottlieb said. Putting the female Jewish singing body front and center has strongly characterized the work of these artists. Gottlieb’s 2009 release “Up to Here/From Here” and Pharaoh’s Daughter’s 2007 album “Haran” work similar territory, but those albums cannot compete with the volatility of “Mycale.”
“The Bowls Project” draws on the Gnostic history of Babylonian amulet “demon bowls” to chart an elusive Jewish history of women and mysticism. Borrowing from American blues and folk, Charming Hostess frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg develops a counter-history of Jewish culture, written from the perspective of the domestic household and the stories of apocryphal angels and demons passed on from mothers to daughters. Songs such as “Merduk bat Banai” link a mystical tradition to a matriarchal one, and Eisenberg celebrates these women in her music.
While Charming Hostess’ genealogies are avant-mystical, Cohen’s are literal. On her latest album, “Sefarad en Diaspora,” the ethnomusicologist sings alongside her daughter, Tamar, on about 30 tracks drawn from Cohen’s work with women and Sephardic music. The duo started singing together when Tamar was a child.
“I love singing with her, because she is my daughter and because she is a very fine singer and musically sensitive,” Cohen said. “I value her opinions, and I value her company, both as her mother and as a person.” The two have traveled together for Cohen’s research throughout the world — to Turkey, Greece, Israel and Morocco, among other places — and they have studied crypto-Jewish communities in Spain and Portugal. Cohen, who lives in Canada, traces the globe on her new album.
Other artists have also mapped mothers and daughters across countries and continents. On Clare Burson’s hauntingly beautiful “Silver and Ash,” out this year, she sings about her grandmother’s experiences during World War II, inspired by her own time spent crossing Germany, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia. Her folk meditations — gorgeous compositions that deserve to mark her name next to those of Laura Marling and Kathleen Edwards as an essential contemporary folk artist — move by train and boat. In “The World Turns on a Dime,” a woman rides a train “over the border / with suitcases piled overhead,” wondering if “the officer [will] scowl and stop before passing.” The song evokes a distant time when a frightened grandmother traveled across an embattled continent. Burson uses “Silver and Ash” to self-consciously attach herself to a line of mothers following mothers, stretching into the past.
According to the standard Talmudic tradition, King Solomon wrote Shir haShirim, but some people, including Gottlieb, are skeptical. “It’s definitely said to be written by a man, but it’s spoken from a woman’s mouth,” she told the Forward in 2006. These women are not simply reclaiming a musical tradition that has spent much of the past two millennia hidden away and relabeled with men’s names. They are inventing bold new ways to write and sing about being a Jewish woman now and going into the future.
When asked about the future of “Mycale,” Gottlieb said: “We haven’t planned anything specific. This is still really fresh. We don’t know what a new project will be, but we know we want there to be one.” Here and now, kol isha is the sound of the future.
Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine and the Village Voice.