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What’s Behind the Boom in Orthodox Women Singers?

‘My singing is not an act of rebellion. It’s what I’m meant to do,” said Perl Wolfe, lead singer of the now defunct Hasidic rock band Bulletproof Stockings. “The rebbe said, ‘You’re supposed to take your God-given talents and use them for the betterment of human kind.’ I’m creating a space for women to have a voice.”

The 29-year-old singer-songwriter is branching out. Now dubbed “Perl,” Wolfe and her two accompanists — cellist Elisheva Maister and violinist Dana Pestun — were about to take the stage for their debut performance on the rooftop of the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Wolfe twirled her shoulder-length hair, which is part of her sheitel, or wig, clearly a bit nervous as she checked to see how many seats were taken.

It was an oppressively humid July evening. The sun was still out, and a silver moon was just visible in the windless sky. Women were beginning to pour onto the rooftop; some clustered in small groups, chatting; others, patting their foreheads with tissues, headed directly for the folding chairs arranged around a platform that served as the stage.

This was a mixed crowd, more than a few evoking feminists who might have attended rallies for the National Organization of Women in the ’70s; the observant women, heads covered, were there, too, and there was the younger contingent (secular Jews and gentiles), who had heard of Wolfe or were already fans of her music — an amalgam of blues, jazz and pop.

Men were not welcome. According to rabbinical tradition (that has arguably become more stringent in modern times), a singing woman is especially arousing to a man — her warbling voice sexual to the core — and thus off limits (kol isha) to Orthodox Jewish men, whose impure thoughts would violate their sanctity.

If a man were to show up at Wolfe’s concert, odds are he would not have been escorted out. The “For Girls and Women Only” printed on promotional material is a courtesy the singers extend to religious men. Ultimately it’s the man’s choice.

For her part, Wolfe told me she could not wait to get out there and sing. Still, modesty is her hallmark. She wore a long-sleeved, neck-high, floor-length dress despite the 85-degree-plus temperature. On her feet she sported thick-soled sneakers.

Wolfe paused a moment to listen to the announcer introduce her. She took a deep breath and strolled onto the stage, her jitters gone. She seemed taller. Greeting her applauding audience, she sat herself at her keyboard, fiddling with the pedals that were not quite working. “Welcome to our first show as ‘Perl,’ Whew!” she said. The concertgoers cheered.

Image by Courtesy of Esther Freeman

Women singer-songwriters within the Haredi community are not unknown here or in Israel (where there are many more performing opportunities, including open mic and all female karaoke nights), but they’re not commonplace either, and with few exceptions they’re performing below the radar. For some that is choice.

But now, Orthodox women are making their voices heard at least within their own communities. According to Miriam Leah Gamliel, who heads the Association for Torah and the Arts for Religious Artists, there is a boom in female singer-songwriters and it is the most significant artistic trend aside from ultra-Orthodox women filmmakers.

The Orthodox singers I interviewed for this article agreed with the idea that a woman’s singing voice is potent to men. “I remember how the men reacted to a shabbily dressed woman singing on the street in Israel,” Shaindel Antelis told me. “She hadn’t put much effort into the way she looked, but the men couldn’t keep their eyes off of her. It certainly wasn’t her appearance. It was her voice.”

Miriam Sandler spoke of the feelings of vulnerability and nakedness she has when she sings. It can be comfortably shared with only her husband. “I’m not going to put that out there for any man,” she said.

The woman;s voice is emotional fodder throughout the culture. The loud, emphatic female in politics or on stage is viewed as shrill. And what’s more comic than the bad soprano? The new film “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a perfect example.

“People expect women to have a beautiful voice,” singer Chani Levy said. “When it’s not beautiful it throws everyone off balance.”

Chani Levy Image by Courtesy of Chani Levy

Cantor Nancy Abramson, director of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told me there’s nothing inherent in the woman’s vocal makeup that warrants (or biologically elicits) any particular response.

“Women at high levels in society are a relatively new phenomenon,” she said. “The idea that women are equal with men is still not true. And until there are many more women in powerful positions, it will continue to be more difficult for women to be heard for what they do and say and not what they sound like.”

Esther Freeman Image by Courtesy of Esther Freeman

The singers come from a variety of backgrounds and religious upbringings. But even the most observant of the singers grew up exposed to the songs of contemporary stars — from Celine Dion to Christine Aguilera to Taylor Swift — and their music reflects modern pop sounds, while their topics are often in stark contrast, expressing views and sensibilities that are compatible with Jewish law.

Personal stories that inspire and motivate (overcoming bad times, gaining self-acceptance, feeling blessed) are major themes. Lessons from the Torah are prevalent; sexual revelations and family scandal are not. The singers may accompany themselves and/or use their own tracks as backup. A few (very few) have band mates.

They land gigs through word of mouth, frequently performing at private parties and fundraisers, but also at concert halls that may seat up to 1,500. Wolfe performs in secular rock clubs (that are willing to market her events as “for girls and women only”). A few have produced CDs and music videos awash in dancing-singing casts. Many boast websites and are active on social media.

Orthodox male rockers and pop singers — for example, Lipa Schmeltzer, Eighth Day, Benny Friedman — are also making the scene and testing cultural boundaries, but the personal stakes are clearly higher for women.

Along with Wolfe, Antelis, Sandler and Levy, the list includes Nechama Cohen, Esther Freeman and Judy Winegard. In Israel, Kineret Sarah Cohen and Ruthi Navon are among the better known.

Judy Winegard Image by Courtesy of Judy Winegard

So what’s behind the boom? Greater access to the world at large is a factor, as is the ubiquitous internet; so, too, is the emergence of niche audiences hungry for entertainment that speaks to them.

Musical productions in girls’ yeshivas are increasingly popular, and special arts camps for Orthodox youngsters are popping up too. Some singers believe these cultural/sociological factors are cosmically revealing and indeed intrinsic to the biblical inevitability of the coming of the Messiah. Horrific times on the one hand and the healing reflected in a creative upsurge, coupled with powerful women in leadership roles on the other hand, foreshadows the coming of the Messiah.

“When the Jews left Egypt, women playing tambourines and singing led the way,” Wolfe said. “And when Moshiach comes, singing women will lead the way out of exile. Men will be allowed to listen to women sing. Men and women will be one.”

Heady stuff, but then Wolfe’s journey has been a head trip. Her father was a Jewish atheist, her mother Catholic-born but always drawn to Judaism. When the couple married, Mom was the guiding force in transforming her husband from nonbeliever to Hasid. She converted as well.

Wolfe, who was encouraged to perform and grew up listening to everything from oldies to rhythm and blues and hip-hop, describes herself as someone who is FFB (frum from birth) and became a nonbeliever and is now a baal teshuva, a secular Jew who returned to religious Judaism. Divorced twice — and at a particularly hard time in her life — she found herself spewing forth emotional songs that expressed her own turbulence.

“I don’t know where it came from, but as I replayed my music I saw myself as part of a sisterhood,” she recalled. “The music brought me back to Hasidism. At the time, I was living in the Midwest and suddenly knew I’d be moving back to [Brooklyn’s] Crown Heights to create a band by and for women.”

Forged in 2011, Bulletproof Stockings was the first female Orthodox rock band to gain mainstream attention, generating a following and a bit of controversy, too, not least for its title, which satirically refers to the thick hosiery worn by Orthodox women. Wolfe acknowledges the element of affectionate send-up — but says the title was also a statement of self-empowerment. “I want women to own it,” she said. “‘I’m Hasidic. And I’m bullet-proof.

“One woman objected to the word ‘stocking’ in the title. I guess she thought it was too risqué. Another thought my belting singing style was not modest. Some frum audiences thought the work was too secular, and some secular audiences felt the songs were too frum.”

After four and a half years with the band, Wolfe hopes she comes to her new incarnation as “Perl” with more concise lyrics, greater emotional accessibility and paradoxically more restraint.

All the singers I spoke to, Wolfe included, told me that being Jewish informs their artistry and, conversely, the experience of performing shapes their understanding of themselves as Jews.

“I’m used to people telling me that it’s contradictory to be a religious Jewish woman and a performer, that the two are mutually exclusive,” Wolfe said. “I believe they go hand in hand. As Jews, we’re supposed to use our gifts to uplift and inspire, to make the world a better place. It’s all about connectivity for me as a performer and a Jew. By sharing yourself with an audience you learn about yourself. You learn about them. Performing onstage reminds me of what it means to be a Jew, what it means to be a Jewish woman.”

“When you entertain and teach something of value to your audience you become a beacon of light,” said Los Angeles-based Winegard, who was previously a musical theater actress. “And when I’m performing I’m also talking to myself. It’s an affirmation. As a Jew you have to feed yourself every day.”

“Many of my songs are based on deep concepts in Torah and my own personal experiences that everyone can relate to,” Esther Freeman said. “I remember singing in Chabad House in San Francisco, and afterwards a woman in her 50s came over to me, crying. She said she had been in a spiritual descent and had begged God to send her a signal. ‘You are my sign,’ she said to me, and that’s when I realized this is far bigger than I am.”

Singers often consult their rabbis if they’re conflicted about some aspects of their careers, such as collaborating with male producers who may or may not be Jewish. Performers may find them on Craig’s List. Generally their rabbis feel it’s a working situation, not unlike visiting a doctor. There’s usually more than one person on the premises, and as long as the studio door remains open, it’s kosher. Yet some women take their sisters or female friends with them to meet with producers.

“I asked my rabbi what he thought about me making a CD ‘for women and girls only,’ and he thought it was a great idea,” Nechama Cohen said. “He said that it would be amazing for girls to have inspirational Jewish music to listen to. I worked to create something that would be meaningful and yet remain authentic to my musical expression. I do make the effort to minimize my exposure in certain aspects, though I can’t control the decisions men may make.”

Miriam Sandler Image by Courtesy of Miriam Sandler

Still, some performers have had difficulty reconciling a singing career with a religious identity. Antelis said she was conflicted until she spent time in Israel. There she witnessed a close-knit, supportive artistic community among the Orthodox women singers, one that didn’t yet exist in the States.

“I became even more committed to my Judaism,” she said. “At the same time my lyrics grew more profound. There were also many more places to perform, and for the first time my focus wasn’t on becoming famous, but rather inspiring girls and women.”

Today, Antelis is one of the best-known singers on the scene, and she was the first to do a full-scale music video, which was a challenge not only for her, but also for her director-manager, Leah Gottfried.

“It was pushing the envelope, mostly because it hadn’t been done before and, unlike performing, it is more difficult to control who views a video online,” said Gottfried (best known as the director-producer of the Orthodox Web series “Soon by You”). “Another challenge was bracing ourselves for the pushback we thought we might receive. The feedback ended up being 95% positive, and the number of young girls who were inspired by it greatly outweighed any negative criticism from the few people who felt it was inappropriate.”

To date, Gottfried is the only manager specializing in Orthodox women singers, but she says it’s only a matter of time before many more such managers will surface, all of whom will face many challenges.

“Because the Orthodox world is so varied in terms of what people find acceptable, sometimes it has been difficult to assess if a potential booking or audience will find the music too ‘out there,’” she said. “I always make sure they listen first, but sometimes people still don’t understand that the music isn’t just Hebrew songs or covers.”

Whatever the singer’s ambitions, I was told repeatedly that it’s not about self-aggrandizement or gaining fans and press, though clearly some performers are more competitive than others. For the most part, it’s a collegial environment, altogether less demented than the world of secular entertainment.

“I’m not going to lie, it really is a struggle for me,” 16-year-old singer Rivky Saxon said. “I can’t say for certain what I will do in the future, but I hope I’m grounded enough to realize that if I sang for a broader audience, more bad would come of it than good. Kol Isha limits my possibilities as a singer, but it actually protects me from being sucked into the whole mess of celebrity and exploitation. You’re asked to change your looks, your style, your individuality. You become who you’re not. Of course, that doesn’t have to happen. But it’s a slippery slope. It’s scary.”

Rivky Saxon Image by Courtesy of Rivky Saxon

The Pittsburgh-based teenager — who sings opera, contemporary, pop, rock and country and is viewed as an upcoming vocal talent — was singing before she even spoke, says her father, Mordechai Saxon, who has encouraged her musical interests from the outset, yet admits that her career opportunities are limited.

“Rivky loved performing karaoke [for mixed audiences], and on cruises she’d bring down the house,” Saxon said. “People asked for her autograph, saying, ‘She’ll be famous someday.’ Rivky dreaded her bat mitzvah because she knew from then on she could not sing for a public that included men. In her bat mitzvah speech she said that sacrifice was her commitment to God and Torah and to her own beliefs. And I don’t think she’ll ever give up on those values.”

Singing for “women and girls only” is natural for most of the performers who have attended all-girl schools and camps for much of their lives. They say “women only” provides a freedom to express themselves without censorship; their expression would be tainted if men were present, “objectifying” them. It’s not that women don’t do it to each other, but they do it far more if men are in the room.

“Girl time,” “sisterly bonds” and “support” were the terms used to describe what it’s like to appear before all-female audiences. Few dub the experience “feminist,” since the word evokes for them a political view that casts men in an adversarial light. In fact, several singers believe their songs would have resonance for the guys. too.

Sandler unequivocally champions her “women only” audience and by extension her Orthodoxy. A “Jewban” (a Jew of Cuban descent), Sandler was a soloist for a decade in Miami, but served mostly as backup for, among others, Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada and Michael McDonald. Stints at the White House and on “Late Show With David Letterman” were part of the package. It was a high-profile glam existence. It was also chaotic and empty.

“The lifestyle was toxic, the promiscuity disgusting with a capital D,” she recalled. “I knew if I stayed I would end up alcoholic and suicidal. At best I would be miserable for the rest of my life. I always wanted to get married to a man who would be my soul mate, and I knew I wouldn’t find him in that world.”

At the same time, her father became ill with pancreatic cancer. It was a pivotal moment, making her question life’s purpose. At the cusp of her biggest career move — an international tour with Estefan — she dropped out to spend time with her father during the final 18 months of his life. That turned out to be a period of spiritual growth and religious exploration, including studying Torah with a rabbi.

“By the time I was 27 I knew I had found my alternative lifestyle — called Orthodoxy — which turned out to be my true calling, my ticket to happiness,” Sandler said.

In Israel, Sandler matriculated in an all-woman’s seminary and became part of the legendary, Orthodox all-female rock band Tofa’ah, which included more than 10 instrumentalists and vocalists. Sandler had never seen anything like it. The all-women audience was mind-blowing, too. So was the small-scale arena. Remember, Sandler had performed in stadiums.

“Suddenly my performance had nothing to do with what I looked like or even my singing talent,” she said. “The performance was about the content, the music. I had moved from singing trashy love songs to songs of prayer, godliness, kind deeds and Jewish unity. People say: ‘Oh, it’s so restrictive, such a shame. You’ve given up so much to be observant.’ I feel blessed to perform in that setting. I especially love singing for young girls to teach them how joyous it is to be a Jewish woman.”

Sandler does not miss her past life, short of “the top quality of musicianship in the bands I used to sing with,” she said.

Similarly, Winegard misses the intense camaraderie and synergy of working with high-level professional actors and musicians. But she does not miss the casting couch (“yes, it still exists”) and cutthroat competition that comes with the performer’s life in the secular world. “There’s a lot to be said for being a big fish in a small pond,” she said.

Not that she thinks the pond will remain all that small. It won’t be long before cable TV, websites and social media will be presenting Orthodox women performers of all stripes, targeting a host of niche audiences.

Wolfe says she looks forward to the time when international musical festivals open their doors to “women-only” performances and audiences, viewing the event as an endorsement of diversity rather than discrimination against men.

“The 2016 Glastonbury Festival is doing just that, introducing its first women-only venue, dubbed ‘Sisterhood,’” Wolfe said.

She has upcoming gigs in Chicago, Colorado and Texas, and one at Chabad of Binghamton, New York, on September 27. She is currently auditioning drummers and working with a trumpet player, and plans to start recording an album of nine to 12 songs within the next few months.

“My goal is to have all the music played by women, and the whole album recorded, produced and released by women,” she said.

For now, however, Wolfe is still basking in the success of her first “Perl” concert. After coming off the stage to a crowd of congratulating well-wishers, friends and strangers alike at the JCC, the scene could not have been more perfect. The sky was now fully dark, the moon bright, almost circular, directly above, and a small festoon of lights flanking the rooftop walls sparkled.

Simi Horwitz, who has won numerous New York Press Club and Simon Rockower Awards, is the author most recently of ‘Jewish Art Today: News, Views and Cultural Trends,’ a collection of essays originally published in the Forward (Hadassa Word Press).

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