Marrying outside the faith wasn’t a tough call: After the wrenching divorce, I just wanted to be happy, with the right guy. In addition, I had already begun living a completely secular life. I had shifted from the semi-observant, kosher-in-the-home, deeply connected Jewish life I had lived as a young adult to a woman who rarely remembered that Shabbat existed unless she was having Friday night dinner at her parents’ place on the Upper West Side; who accidentally mentioned her love of lobster rolls to her strictly kosher father; who accepted music gigs on Yom Kippur. In fact, I had gone so far as to occasionally call myself an atheist, or at least a strong agnostic. The only tribal boundary I could not seem to cross, for some reason, was the idea of having a Christmas tree in my house. I’ve never gone there.
I had danced with my Jewish identity for years after graduating from yeshiva high school—including a post-college stint living in Israel, where I became so serious about making aliyah that I shipped my red ten-speed bicycle to Tel Aviv. But my divorce and remarriage, which coincided with my immersion in a variety of musical communities and an obsessive effort to become the singer-songwriter I’d always longed to be, seemed to spur me to run as far and as fast from my Jewish past as I could. Maybe it was seeing that life through my new husband’s outsider eyes, but I wanted no part of it. Sure, I was always the one my non-Jewish friends knew they could turn to with questions related to anything about the Tribe. But I almost never spoke about the deeply conflicted, complicated feelings I had about my upbringing.
I never told anyone about the anger I still held about sitting behind the mechitza as a teenager at the Modern Orthodox shul my family attended, unable to stand on the bima and sing like the men because of Kol Isha. Or my memories about the bat mitzvah I wasn’t permitted to have for the same reason. Or the severely mixed feelings I had developed about Israel since Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, which led me to recall, in disbelief, the two summers I had spent as a kid at a religious Zionist summer camp. Or the time my former father-in-law, a cantor at a Staten Island shul, announced to his entire congregation at an honorary dinner, with a hot white spotlight shining directly on my face, that he was “ready” to be a grandfather—and one of his congregants sneered at me, “You’re 30—it’s time.” Or how all the deep and broad knowledge I had acquired growing up—about Hebrew, about the Bible, about prayers, about rituals, about Jewish history, about Israel, about the Holocaust—seemed to have no connection to my current life but gathered dust in a corner of my brain with no outlet.
You may not be surprised to hear that I have found, since then, that it’s not possible to run from your past, though I tried mightily. It turned out I could not escape my Jewish identity, which was clearly still in my bones, in my very DNA. And I could not get away from the mess of unsorted feelings I had about how I had grown up.
Then, two years ago, I sat down for a songwriting session. I had been in a writer’s slump for months. I was sick of working with typical songwriter fare—love, breakups and love, and breakups.
It was hard to concentrate, anyway. I was angry because I was suddenly ready to cancel a nostalgic trip I had planned to travel with my parents to Israel and bring my husband there for the first time (my father, among other things, is the world’s leading collector of El Al Israel Airlines memorabilia, and he and my mother travel to Israel almost every year). I didn’t want to go anymore: The war in Gaza was in full swing; I worried about being judged for my no-kids life and non-Jewish husband; and I was afraid I’d be dreadfully disappointed in the place—maybe it had none of the beauty and power I remembered. My parents went anyway, but I stayed home and wrote about my love-hate relationship with Jerusalem:
I kept coming back to you this city made of stone
Your golden mountains and a thousand generations’ bones
You hid your secrets, but you’d always be unknown
I brought the song to my weekly writer’s feedback group, terrified of singing a Hebrew word in front of the group, as though it would expose me as the religious girl I had been at age 12. But instead, I received praise. And encouragement.
Slowly I started writing more songs with Jewish or biblical themes, like the one about Lilith, whose myth, I discovered with some research, included being turned into a demon night owl who would seduce your husband and steal your children:
They call me a demon, wild without reason
I’m the night owl flying
I left Eden for the desert, leaves for wings and feathers
But you don’t see me crying
I rise when the sun goes down
I rest in the shadows of barren ground
The raven and I have no spirit of shame
Lilith is my name
It didn’t take long for more songs to start spilling out. The one about The Sabbath Queen, who in real life toils in the kitchen baking bread for Shabbat but must still pull herself together to be perfect for her public. The one about my memories of being a child searching for three stars as I waited for Shabbat to be over. The one about how I felt stepping beyond the boundaries of “The Tribe,” where I discussed being “born to the exiled, to the wretched and the blessed.”
And, there was the one about how I felt about sitting behind that mechitza, wishing I could sing like the boys:
A woman’s voice is naked, forbidden
Don’t raise that sweet sound in front of men
Silence, silence girls
Sit quietly, don’t sing out loud
It might arouse attention
The most surprising thing, as I journeyed down this particular songwriting path for over 18 months, was that I began to embark on a related, separate and rather epic emotional journey of healing my Jewish childhood and young adult hurts. The songwriting led me to examine those deep feelings about my Jewish identity I had long put aside and hoped to forget. I realized, with a start, that I would have to deal with them or they would continue to hurt me for the rest of my days.
One element of closure turned out to be a trip to Israel, my first in 20 years. But I didn’t go with my parents, nor with husband #2. I traveled alone. I spent a week with family, friends and on my own, visiting places I had been with a sense of nostalgia, seeing new places with a sense of wonder, observing everything around me with an objectivity I had never previously enjoyed there. While I felt a bit like a stranger, I was also warmly welcomed — and I had a great time.
When I returned, I realized one more item of closure was in order—the bat mitzvah I never had. I decided to approach my local neighborhood egalitarian synagogue in New Jersey, and last November I stood up in front of family, friends—including some who were not Jewish—and the entire congregation to chant with the traditional trope from the Torah and Haftorah. It was a celebration, as well as a weight lifted from my conflicted Jewish shoulders.
Finally, over the past year I’ve been talking to my parents, my husband, my mentors and my friends about my feelings about the community I grew up in and the choices I’d made in my life. These conversations felt healing.
Now, I’m recording those songs I wrote, in an album to be called KOL ISHA (A Woman’s Voice). Six of the songs have Hebrew in them, and all are filled with Jewish and biblical imagery that earlier I would never have dreamed of including in my music. After a lifetime of dancing with my Jewish identity—and holding onto girlhood memories of literally being silenced—these songs helped me find my voice.
Next week, I will go onto a small stage again and sing my songs to a (hopefully attentive) audience of a dozen or two. After all, that’s what I love to do. But I will also finally share my truth—as a lifelong questioner and seeker, as a woman and—yes—a Jew.