An Explosion of Jewish Women’s Popular Music
When Debbie Friedman wrote these words to “Miriam’s Song” 17 years ago at the age of 27. she was one of a handful of Jewish women composing and performing Jewish music. Today, dozens of Miriams have grabbed their timbrels and, in Friedman’s words, they have chosen to say “hineni”—here I am.
Take Flory Jagoda, for example, a 71 -year-old grandmother who lives in Falls Church, Virginia and sings the Ladino songs of her native Sarajevo. Or Dana Mase from the Orthodox bastion of Monsey, New York, mother of four children (6 and under), once a born-again Christian who hopes to become a Jewish version of the popular Christian singer Amy Grant. Or Montrealer Fran Avni, who was a popular Israeli performer in the 1970’s and who now (repatriated to Canada in order to be near her aging parents) writes and performs Jewish children’s music.
MUSIC AND JEWISH IDENTITY
“Music is a basic form of communicating both personal and historical experiences,” says Adrienne Cooper, a third-generation Jewish musician and historian. “And it’s part of women’s culture to communicate emotionally.” That inherent need, coupled with the opening of the cantorate to women 20 years ago, motivated women to leap into the world of professional Jewish music, adds Cooper, who co-founded the Yiddish folk arts camp, KlezKamp, an annual inter-generational Jewish arts week in New York’s Catskills. Cooper is also a singer with the klezmer group Kapelye, and has just released her own recording. Dreaming in Yiddish, which challenges listeners to hear traditional and contemporary Yiddish folksongs “as if they had never heard them before, leaving nostalgia behind,” she explains.
For both performers and listeners, Cooper says, “music is a way to enter Jewish cultural literacy through a more accessible standpoint than traditional learning. It democratizes access to Jewish expression.” In fact, music has shaped the Jewish identities of many of the musicians—and they express the desire to share their excitement about this with others.
“Jewish women need to hear themselves sung about with pride,” says Berkeley-based singer Linda Hirschhorn, 48, founder of the a cappella women’s group, Vocolot. “Music allows them to find ways to remain in the tradition, to change it but still be rooted in it.”
LILITH’s exploration of popular Jewish women’s music turned up well over a hundred recordings. Almost all of the musicians and singers featured here cited the enormous barriers raised by the practical aspects of the music business. Most have funded their recordings themselves and have to promote themselves through concerts and workshops if they want to sell their work. Most support themselves through other professions. Non-parents like Frankel, Friedman and Helzner find it much easier to schedule performances than mothers with children. “No one can be a full-time musician and a parent,” says Fran Avni, who interrupted her career as a performer to raise her children. “What mother can leave her children for a month to go on tour?”
Kol B’Isha Erva (often shortened to Kol Isha), the talmudic concept that forbids men to listen to women’s voices because they are sexually distracting, creates enormous problems for Jewish female artists in terms of distributing their work. A main source of retailing is, of course, Jewish bookstores, but they are run largely by Orthodox men who refuse to carry women’s recordings, says Michael Schlesinger, folklorist and owner of Global Village Music, which publishes the music of many Jewish women (from Yiddishist Ruth Rubin to Turkish singer Victoria Hazan). Tofa’ah, an Israeli-based band of Orthodox women, has channeled the prohibition positively by performing solely for female audiences.
I’ve chosen to feature the recordings I thought were strongest: exquisite original compositions; hauntingly beautiful blends of women’s voices; robust, simple versions of old folk songs; sensitive renditions of liturgy; playful children’s tunes; healing chants, and a mix of musical styles from bluegrass to Old World ethnic. In this article we’ll feature vocalists in the pop and folk genres rather than performers of cantorial, classical or formal compositions.
WOMEN’S FEARS, HOPES AKD ANGERS
Velvel Pasternak, owner of Tara Publications, the largest publisher and distributor of Jewish music in America, has encouraged and supported many women musicians at the inception of their careers. He agrees that many Jewish women bring something particularly moving to their work. “They infuse their music with a sense of spirituality that’s hard to define,” he says. “It affects the neshama, the soul.”
“It’s ‘heart music’ for most of us,” is how Hanna Tiferet Siegel, 47, explains it. She is a songwriter and singer from Hanover, New Hampshire, whose work is popular in Jewish Renewal circles. “Our words give voice to a missing expression.” Take, for example, Faith Rogow’s lyrics to a song called “Mira’s Lullaby”: “Strength of Deborah, wisdom of Miriam, courage of Judith, rest in your mother’s arms, cradled in your mother’s arms,” she sings.
Women are filling the gaps in several major categories: They are creating new liturgical music by reinterpreting religious texts through original translations; composing pop songs in English wrapped around Jewish themes; writing children’s music that explicitly imparts Jewish values; salvaging Ladino and Yiddish songs, often handed down only through oral tradition; and reintroducing neglected Hebrew folksongs from Israel’s pioneer days to an American audience.
“The music reflects women’s roles that range from spiritual forces to nurturers of children to angry advocates,” Cooper says. She explains the last category by noting that women today are preserving Yiddish and Ladino labor and resistance songs that advocate the dignity of people and were written by women of previous generations. In her archival research, she even uncovered a song about spouse abuse that she recorded on Dreaming in Yiddish.
As you might suppose, contemporary lyrics express a wider range of Jewish female experience than ever before. Flory Jagoda, for example, conveys [on Kantikas Di Mi Nona] what Passover in Yugoslavia was like from a female point of view: “Grandmother leads her troops against every crumb, every drop of dust, even the ceilings are not safe. And then comes the rabbi to inspect our efforts, and to remind the old aunts not to eat bread for eight days.”
And lyricist/singer Margot Stein Azen [on her recording Create Out of Nothing] delivers words which elaborate on the meaning of Psalm 27 (“Let me dwell in the house of God all the days of my life.”): “Hide me, Sarah, in your tent sheltered from the storm. Rivka, light the way and I’ll continue oh. Mother me, oh Leah, I’m your daughter too. Rachel, in the way of women, keep me safe with you.”
Judi Tal [on Path Across the Sky] turned to the traditional— but neglected—prayer, “Blessing of the Moon,” which has begun to enjoy renewed usage in the context of proliferating women’s Rosh Hodesh [New Moon] groups. “It’s a beautiful old prayer,” says Tal, “but in order to really bring it back so that it sticks as a part of women’s liturgy, it needed something beyond recitation—it needed music“
Creating new Jewish music is not, however, exclusive to women. It is part of the explosion of Jewish music in the past decade that has drawn men and women to express their true voices by combining the American musical idiom with Jewish themes. Musically, anything goes—rap, jazz, heavy metal, calypso, doo-wop, a cappella, rhythm and blues. The lyrics are as diverse as texts from the siddur [prayer book], to original compositions that could play on Christian radio stations, and everything in between. But the message is clear: Jewish music can be part of a contemporary vocabulary.
For many women musicians, feminism indeed is a basic word in that vocabulary. Some musicians have consciously chosen to integrate feminism into their work, singing of the Shekhinah—the feminine aspect of God—and of Miriam, Ruth and Vashti. [Unfortunately, other female musicians seem not to have given thought to their male-centered lyrics. In LILITH’s opinion, they have lost a rich opportunity to remediate Judaism.]
The issue of feminism is especially crucial in composing liturgical music, because the name of God—Adonai—is male in gender. Hanna Tiferet Siegel’s adaptation of the morning prayer, Baruch She ‘amar, reflects an inclusive approach common to many of the songwriters. Instead of the traditional translation, “Blessed is He whose word created the universe,” she sings, “Blessed is He. Blessed is She. Blessed are we who speak and are heard.”
Linda Hirschhorn chooses texts that do not describe God as male or female. “I simply sing ‘Praise’ instead of ‘Praise God.’ You can still evoke a deep sense of awe and spirituality without a name.” Debbie Friedman writes gender-free translations but expresses concern about changing the original Hebrew. “If we throw out the Shema” she says, “we throw out Bubbe and Zayde with it. I don’t think we can do that. It’s drastic and dangerous.”
Even when women sing of home, hearth and unrequited love, there is often a feminist subtext. San Francisco singer Judy Frankel, 49, a specialist in medieval and renaissance music, makes sure to talk with her audiences about how women were responsible for passing down the legacy of Ladino tunes (called “romances”): “They transmitted the songs to their children while peeling potatoes, sweeping the floors and making the beds, while drinking coffee and looking at their fortunes in the dregs of the cups. We can be thankful for how much we’ve grown and evolved, but had the women been corporate executives, they wouldn’t have created and passed down these songs.”
SINGING TO SURVIVE, TO TEACH, TO CREATE COMMUNITY
Even if the lyrics portray an outdated picture of Jewish life, adds Flory Jagoda (who often performs with members of her extended family), the message is the continuity of the Jewish family and the Jewish people. “Teach your children,” she says, “so we can celebrate our survival.”
The theme of survival resonates deeply for the musicians—Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic. Many are children of Holocaust survivors or survivors themselves. They may be folklorists like Ruth Rubin—the octogenarian doyenne of Yiddish folksong—who are committed to preserving the songs the way they were sung in Eastern Europe, unaccompanied or prettified by instrumentation. Rosalie Gerut, the child of survivors from Vilna and Lodz, dedicated her recording. We Are Here: Songs of Remembrance, Hope and Celebration, to the martyrs of the Holocaust and to its survivors. Sharon Wechter, 39, raised in El Paso but now living in the Berkshire mountains, was inspired by the words of “The Butterfly,” a poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and set them to music on her album, Journey of a Soul.
Israel’s history and music has also captured the hearts of several of the musicians featured here, and they are passionate about the spirited folksongs, ballads and war songs that mirror Israel’s glorious, tragic and romantic past. Robyn Helzner, 40, of Washington, DC, grew up with Israeli music and still enthusiastically sings both its nationalistic lyrics and its intensely personal songs of love and loss.
Another immensely creative home for many women musicians is—surprise—children’s music. Cindy Paley, 42, of Los Angeles, the mother of three, has collected traditional holiday and Shabbat songs on six recordings. “If we just stick with new music,” she says, “we won’t know our roots.” Leah Abrams, 65, of New York, and Fran Avni, 50, have composed tiny masterpieces tailored to a child’s understanding, not an easy task when you want both to entertain and to teach Judaism without being heavy-handed.
The musicians featured here often cross the boundaries of children’s and adult music, and break out of the limitations of one language or culture. “I’m interested in the many threads of Jewish culture,” says Rita Falbel, 58, “in all its languages and places.” Falbel, who escaped Vienna with her family in 1939 at the age of two, and is a founding editor of the feminist Jewish journal Bridges, recorded selections (on her album Timepieces: Between Jewish Past and Future) as diverse as the Yiddish song Shterndel, the Ladino song Zorongo, and an original song in English about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Falbel is one example of Jewish women whose work is infused with a sense of compassion and social justice. Linda Hirschhorn is another. “Circle round for freedom. Circle round for peace. For all of us imprisoned, circle for release” she sings on her tape, Roots and Wings.
Though performers often create reputations as soloists, it’s not unusual for Jewish women musicians to cite building community as a vital aspect of their work. “My greatest joy is to have a community of people singing,” Debbie Friedman says. “People spend enough time alone that I don’t need to stand on stage alone and sing at people.” Hirschhorn agrees. “I write in harmony,” she says. “You can’t sing harmony by yourself so you’re forced into community.”
What follows is a sampler of the best, in alphabetical order.
LEAH ABRAMS: Those Hebrew Musicals from Summer Camp
[Composer, children’s music. Abrams has three recordings. None include lyrics; songbooks, however, are available separately for each tape. Sold through Tara (see directory).]
Born in Chelm, Poland, 65 years ago, Abrams grew up in Israel and the U.S. When she married a Conservative rabbi and began teaching music and drama at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, she found the available Israeli children’s plays too complicated, and so she developed her own musicals in simple Hebrew instead. “What it did for me was fabulous,” she says. “I learned I could express myself.”
Abrams’ credentials are impressive: She wrote musicals for the New York World’s Fair, worked at Hebrew University’s Department of Education, developed school programs for Israel Radio (during the family’s 14-year stint back in Israel) and conducted workshops across the U.S. on music, movement and drama for young children. The special materials she created ultimately turned into her first two cassettes, which have won awards from the Jewish Early Childhood Association.
You won’t hear Abrams’ voice on her albums, because she hired professional musicians. Still, she’s present in every vibrant word. My eight year old and three year old know most of Abrams’ songs by heart. The songs once kept my younger one diverted for an hour and a half when she was 18 months old. Abrams’ musical for children, King Solomon and the Bee, is not to be missed!
FRAN AVNI: Redefining Jewish Kids’ Music
[Composer/singer, children’s and adult music. Avni has ten recordings. None include lyrics. She also has two songbooks. Sold through Tara (see directory), or contact Avni directly at P.O.Box 3929, Berkeley, CA 94703.]
What most fans of Avni’s children’s music don’t know is that the Montreal-born singer started her career as an Israeli performer after she made aliyah in 1966. She learned Hebrew on the job, performing for troops during the Six Day War, working on stage, theater, educational TV and radio, and forming a duo with another Canadian, Susan Cogan (a.k.a. Susan & Fran). In Montreal in 1974, a new mother herself, she teamed up with nursery school teacher Jackie Cytrynbaum to create the first label for Jewish children’s music, Lemonstone Records.
Their debut recording, Latkes and Hamentaschen, has sold 50,000 copies and is a standard in Jewish pre-schools. Avni has written numerous Hebrew-language music curricula for children; she also continues to record for adults.
Her rhythmic, crisply articulated music for children is lively, practical and nurturing. Don’t pass by her adult recordings, however—especially the peaceful, shimmering harmonic blends of Shoshanim, a sampler of Israeli music by Susan & Fran.
JUDY FRANKEL: Sephardi Wannabe
[Singer, Sephardic music. Frankel has two recordings. Both include lyrics in Ladino and English. Contact Frankel directly: P.O.Box 470515, San Francisco, CA 94147-0515; (415)931-7669.]
The Sephardic community of San Francisco has adopted Judy Frankel, playfully calling her “Joya Franco.” Frankel knows her family is from Lithuania, but her attraction to Sephardic music is so strong that she wonders if her roots somehow go back to Spain.
Interested as well in international folk music, Frankel sings in 20 languages! As a vocal soloist with the San Francisco Consort (a chamber ensemble specializing in medieval and Renaissance music), Frankel performed much Christian early music—which got her interested in whether there wasn’t a Jewish counterpart. Traveling to Israel in search of “old” Jewish music, she found scraps of lyrics in archives and introduced this music to her ensemble. Frankel also gathered repertoire when a Jewish organization awarded her a grant to take down the oral musical-tradition of Sephardic Jews living around San Francisco. “Ladino is rapidly dying,” Frankel says, “and may only survive through songs.”
Frankel’s voice is warm and graceful, assured and unpretentious; perfect for the romances she sings. Don’t be daunted by the foreign language—it’s not distracting, and Frankel’s pronunciation is accurate and easy on the ear. There’s something ancient and moving about this music. Frankel also sings on a stunningly beautiful collection of Yiddish, Ladino, English and Hebrew lullabies. Sleep My Child, produced by Rosalie Gerut.
DEBBIE FRIEDMAN: The Miriam of her Generation
[Composer/singer, adult and children’s music. Friedman has 11 recordings. All include lyrics in Hebrew and English. She also has five songbooks. Sold through Tara and Sounds Write (see directory).]
“In 1971, a melody came into my head,” says Friedman. “It had no lyrics, so I put it to the words of Ve’ahavta. ‘And thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ I sang it with some high school kids, who sang it arm in arm, crying and singing. They were looking for a spiritual avenue of their own.” That was the beginning of song writing for Friedman, who had been a song leader at a Reform synagogue since age 17. Since then, though she is not trained as a musician and cannot even read music, she has given a musical voice to a new generation, and is the bestselling Jewish musician in the U.S.
Born in Utica and raised in Minneapolis. Friedman made her first recording as a demo to promote herself to a studio, paid $500 more for a thousand copies, and called it Sing Unto God. She sold out in two weeks. After recording six albums on her own, she found a publisher, Sounds Write Productions.
Her life changed eight years ago when prescription drugs left her disabled and often in a wheelchair. Much of her music is about healing, which she views as the natural province of women. “My music is about engaging anyone willing to be a partner in tikkun olam, repairing the world. Music is the vehicle for the message.”
At concerts, Friedman is treated almost like a guru. Her charisma pulls audiences together to sing as a community. But adulation makes her uncomfortable. “That’s not how I experience myself at all. It has set me apart when all I’ve wanted was to bridge the gap.”
Friedman describes her music as “kishka-esque,” and it is. It comes from deep inside her and it touches listeners deeply. What makes her stand out from others is hard to pin down, but you’ll probably come close to understanding if you listen to Live at the Del. which includes adult songs, kids’ songs, funny songs and spiritual ones, and also showcases her dynamic interaction with an audience. Friedman’s music is truthful and easy to sing; it stirs up the feeling of prayer.
ROSALIE GERUT: From Holocaust Songs to Broadway
[Singer/composer. Gerut has four recordings. All include some lyrics. Sold through Tara (see directory) or Blue Hill Recordings, P.O.Box 566, Milton, MA 02186; (617)698- 9806. Fax: (508)440-8359.]
Gerut, in her 40’s, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, has a passion for both Jewish music (folk and Broadway styles) and human rights. Descended from many generations of Yiddish folk singers, Gerut was one of the leads in—and composed the music for—Songs of Paradise (which ran for a year at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York City). She wrote the Jewish music score for the film The Imported Bridegroom, as well as the theme song of the P.B.S. TV documentary, “Breaking the Silence,” about the children of Holocaust survivors. Gerut is a founder of One by One: Descendants of the Holocaust and the Third Reich, Inc., whose current work includes affiliating with the organization Children of War to “establish a physical place in New England where several dozen young teenagers from wartorn areas, including American inner cities, can come for a year, grieve, heal and be mentored by members of One by One,” she explains.
Gerut, who does concerts accompanying herself on guitar, is a complete professional. We Are Here, a stirring, passionate, beautiful memorial to Holocaust survivors and martyrs, presents folk and gentle klezmer music renditions of material ranging from pre-World War II popular Yiddish tunes, to those composed in the Vilna Ghetto, to Gerut’s own compositions in response to the Holocaust. Sleep My Child is an exquisite recording of lullabies in Yiddish, Ladino, Hebrew and English (for both adults and children) featuring the singing of Gerut, Judy Frankel and three others. Of Angels and Horseradish is a totally fun album of mostly Yiddish theater selections. Accompanied by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, Gerut sings “Coney Island” and crazy Mickey Katz’s “Loudmouth Dance” (“Trombonik Tantz”). and Moshe Waldoks talks-sings his way through a piece of musical comedy.
ROBYN HELZNER: Hong Kong Hora
[Singer, adult and children’s music. Helzner has three recordings. None include lyrics. Sold through RAH Productions, P.O.Box 11398, Washington, DC 20008: (202)244-3975,]
Helzner (the lead singer of the Robin Helzner Trio) began performing for Jewish organizations at age eight and went on to become a music teacher in Jewish schools. Traveling twice to the former Soviet Union, Helzner was a part of the first Jewish cultural tour there in more than 50 years. She has developed a concert tailored especially to Soviet Jews, weaving together Jewish and Russian folksongs. Helzner serves as the lay cantor for the High Holidays in—of all places—Hong Kong.
Helzner’s kids’ albums are fun (especially Clap Your Hands), but I more urgently recommend A Fire Burns, a collection of Israeli songs in Hebrew and Yiddish that show Helzner’s strong, lovely voice at its best. In A Fire Burns, Helzner really shines. Both her choice of material and her delivery convey gravity and character.
LINDA HIRSCHHORN: Fugues, Canons, Rounds
[Composer/singer. Hirschhorn has four recordings. All include lyrics in Hebrew and translation. She also has two songbooks and four “teaching tapes” of music for Shabbat, Passover and the High Holidays. Sold through Tara, Sounds Write (see directory), and Oyster Albums, P.O.Box 3929, Berkeley, CA 94703; (510)654-0799.]
Whenever Hirschhorn hears a melody, she says she hears it in four-part harmony automatically, “My head is full of fugues, canons, and rounds,” says the mother of two. “As I hit my 40s, these melodies just welled up out of my unconscious.” In 1988, Hirschhorn founded the only Jewish women’s a cappella musical group, Vocolot—the name is a bilingual play on the Hebrew word kolot (“voices”) and the English word “vocal.” The group sings about compassion, peace and justice, using Jewish, folk and classical musical idioms combined with biblical and liturgical themes.
Hirschhorn started singing in a Manhattan yeshiva choir at the age of six, and she continued choral and solo singing through her college years. After being mugged several times in Manhattan, she moved to San Francisco. There she began writing folksongs and singing both Jewish and non-Jewish repertoire. Hirschhorn (who also has a Masters’ degree in counseling) does everything from cantorial work to bar mitzvah training.
When she was asked, in the 1980’s, to write music for a Jewish women’s conference, she composed her first (now well-known) round, “Ilu Finu,” the words of which are: “Let us have songs to fill our mouths as full as the sea.” After Velvel Pasternak of Tara Publications offered to publish a book of Hirschhorn’s rounds, she began to write ferociously, and formed, Vocolot, to record her compositions. Vocolot has a core of four members, but often expands to include up to seven women. Part of Vocolot’s creative agenda (besides their standard concert work) is something called “concerts starring you,” in which Hirschhorn cleverly incorporates a community’s own choir into Vocolot’s performance. Upcoming projects include composing music with Fran Avni [featured above] to accompany the new feminist liturgy of Marcia Falk [featured in LILITH, Fall 1995].
The pure harmony of women’s voices together is so hauntingly beautiful that it gives me goosebumps. On Gather Round: Songs of Celebration and Renewal and Roots and Wings, the lush power of kol isha, unadorned by instrumentation, is unmistakably present.
FLORY JAGODA: Preserving Ladino Songs of her Native Bosnia [Composer/singer, Sephardic music. Jagoda has three recordings. All include lyrics and loose translations. She also has one songbook. Sold through Global Village, Tara (see directory), or contact Jagoda herself: 6306 Beachway Drive, Falls Church, VA 22044; (703)379-4259.]
“Teach your children what you want your children to teach their children,” Jagoda remembers her nona, her grandmother, telling her. Jagoda wanted to instill the love of Sephardic music in her four children and six grandchildren—so she recorded the Ladino songs of her native Bosnia. She also composes new Ladino songs.
Born in Sarajevo, Jagoda inherited her talent from her family of folk singers, 41 of whom perished in the Holocaust. She fled to Italy, where she met and married her husband, an American serviceman, fifty years ago. Jagoda built a career as an international folk singer in the U.S., narrowing her focus to Ladino songs after her mother died in 1978. “I couldn’t sing in front of my mother,” Jagoda says, “because she used to despair and say, ‘I lost my harmony!’ All of my mother’s sisters and brothers—all of whom sang together—were killed.” Three of Jagoda’s children now perform with her.
Imagine that you’re sitting around the family table and singing. Grandmother is leading, crooning the songs you grew up with: counting songs. Sabbath songs, Purim and Hanukkah songs. That’s the comfortable feeling of Jagoda’s gorgeous albums. Except they’re in Ladino, backed with a decidedly Greek-sounding beat. [Note in particular “La Bendison di Madre” “A Mother’s Benediction,” on the recording La Nona Kanta: The Grandmother Sings. It’s a very old Judeo-Spanish prayer, retrieved by Jagoda, that used to be recited by Sarajevan women.]
NAOMI MILLER: The Music Even Deaf Jews ‘Hear’
[Singer. Miller has two recordings. Neither includes lyrics. Contact Miller directly: 194 Webster Drive, Wayne, NJ 07470; (201)696-9280. Miller also has sign language illustrations for several of her songs.]
The child of Holocaust survivors. Miller moved to the U.S. from Landsberg, Germany at the age of two. Her first break came as a teenager when a woman visiting the mikveh —the ritual bath operated by Miller’s parents—heard Naomi rehearsing a song for a high school show in the mikveh waiting room. The woman asked Naomi to perform a Mother’s Day program at the local Yavneh Academy in Patterson, New Jersey.
Through music, Miller, a speech therapist, feels she’s been able to vent her emotions and deal with two major events in her life: the legacy of the Holocaust and her son Philip’s deafness. Miller has founded two organizations in New Jersey: Parents for Deaf Awareness, a support group, and the Jewish Deaf and Hearing Impaired Council, which raises funds for interpreters and sensitivity training in the Jewish community. Her album, Keeping Our Dreams Alive (our favorite), includes wacky sign language illustrations (her son Philip dressed as Big Bird signing) for the song “Koo- Koo-Ree-Koo.” Miller’s husband, Harvey, an amateur Israeli and ballroom dancer, signs his wife’s concerts. “Why do the deaf come to my shows? They respond to the graceful poetry of Harvey’s fingers which are like dancers in the air. Harvey transfers my sung emotions into his hands, and the deaf ‘hear.’ It’s very moving.”
Miller delivers up a variety of Jewish music with an old fashioned, campy, sometimes shlocky, lusty, unself-conscious passion. She’s not afraid of comedy (“Midnight in Paramus”), sentimentality (“Papa Can You Hear Me”), social action (“Tell Them We’re Still Here”), English, Hebrew, Russian, Yiddish or Ladino. Miller enjoys herself, and so will you.
CINDY PALEY: From Cheerleader to Songleader
[Singer, children’s and adult music. Paley has seven recordings. Six are children’s cassettes which include large booklets with lyrics in Hebrew, clear transliteration and English. Sold through Sounds Write (see directory), or through Paley herself: 14246 Chandler Blvd., Van Nuys, CA 91401; (818)907-8954.]
As a cheerleader in high school, Paley didn’t care much about football. “I liked to be out in front,” she says, “leading people and performing.” She decided, however, on a career as a French teacher. Positions in her native Los Angeles were meager, so she instead drew on her song-leading background and began teaching music in synagogues and Jewish day schools. At the request of nursery school parents, Paley made her first tape—100 songs in 90 minutes!—that was circulated locally. Aside from recording, Paley does holiday shows with singer-comedian Kenny Ellis, and she also serves as a High Holiday lay cantor.
One of Paley’s tapes is for adults: With her group, Koleet, which includes two other female singers, Paley sings in Ladino, Yemenite, Russian and Hebrew.
Paley has done a real service in collecting children’s holiday music that doesn’t begin and end with “Dayeinu” and “I Had a Little Dreidel.” Though her voice is a bit saccharine, it is well-suited to children, who gravitate to her enthusiasm and sweetness.
HANNA TIFERET SIEGEL: Niggunim and Healing
[Composer/singer. Siegel has four recordings. Lyrics included in English and Hebrew transliteration. To purchase, contact Siegel directly: 8 Carter Street, Hanover, NH 03755; (603)643-5149.]
Growing up, Siegel studied classical flute, but at a Shabbat retreat in college she met Shlomo Carlebach, the late charismatic Hasidic “singing rabbi,” and she became his protegee. “I used to love leading songs in U.S.Y. [United Synagogue Youth],” she says, “but I didn’t know what to do with this when I grew up. Carlebach showed me what to do.” Later, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, taught Siegel the structure of chassidic niggunim—chant-like, repeating melodies—that are the basis for her music.
In Vancouver, Siegel founded a havurah called Or Shalom. With two of its members, Myrna Rabinowitz and Harvey Rothstein, she formed Shir Hadash (“a new song”), and the group recorded two albums. When her husband, a rabbi, accepted a new pulpit in 1987 in Hanover, NH, the Siegels moved, and the mother of three began recording her music solo. “I try to give voice to the feminine spirit,” she says. “I sing traditional Hebrew prayers—elaborating on them in English to try to make them accessible.”
Siegel’s albums are, in her words, “Jewish soul musicacoustic, folk-style tunes that are heartfelt and meditative. Refuah Shieyma: The Healing Circle, with guitarist Nomi Fenson, was my response to people telling me that they use my tapes for healing. I set to music Moses’ prayer for Miriam’s healing, and the Priestly Blessing feminized and called ‘The Priestess’s Blessing.'” Siegel’s last album, Olamama (mother of the world), recorded with Fran Avni, is family-oriented, upbeat and celebratory, with styles ranging from calypso and jazz to folk ballads and niggunim.
Siegel doesn’t overpower listeners with her voice; instead she uses her soothing voice to help listeners focus on the healing quality of the words. The niggun-based music is intentionally repetitive, so be prepared, and you’ll find calmness in its chords. Olamama is the most feminist and best-produced of Siegel’s recordings.
JULIE SILVER: Carole King In Blue Jeans
[Composer/singer. Silver has three recordings. All include lyrics in English, Hebrew and transliteration. Sold through A Silver Girl Production, P.O.Box 610281, Newton Highlands, MA 02161; (617)244-9631 or (310)395-3167.]
Silver, 29, who grew up in both the Conservative and Reform movements, is one of the few female musicians who is able to support herself entirely through performing Jewish music. For the past two years she (and her acoustic guitar) have traveled full-time across the country, playing Jewish community centers, conventions, synagogues and campuses. “It’s like people have been waiting for this Carole King-influenced, thoughtful ’60s and ’70s type music. The Jewish community has opened its doors to me. It’s incredible for me, as a young artist, to wake up every morning and realize I’m doing what I love and getting paid for it. There’s like a big voice in my head that’s saying, ‘lech lecha’—go forth.”
Silver writes nearly all of her own lyrics and tunes, though she also sets traditional prayers to new music. “My first two albums are more summer-campy, written by a young Jewish American woman about her experiences. My third album, Walk With Me, is darker, more meditative.” Indeed, Walk With Me, shows off Silver’s mellow voice and maturing style, and has received much attention. Here’s a wedding lyric based on The Song of Songs: “When the wind blows gently and the shadows flee/ I will take you to the garden, I will take you with me./ Shining through like the new dawn, beautiful as the moon above/ Like a lily among the thorns, how sweet is your love.”
TOFA’AH: All Female, Orthodox Band
[Tofa’ah has four recordings. All include lyrics in English and Hebrew. Sold through Tofa’ah, 199 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, NY 12866; (518)584-2474.]
For members of Tofa’ah, the Orthodox Israeli women’s liturgical band that plays to women-only audiences, rehearsals mean nursing infants while practicing, and cradling children on laps while drumming. “We bring our lifestyles into our music,” says Mindy Fuhrer, singer and guitarist.
Tofa-ah, literally “phenomenon,” is comprised of eight core members, all American transplants to Israel who range in age from 17 to a 53-year-old grandmother of nine. Each has between one and five children and brings to the group her own musical style—jazz, classical, pop, rock, country. In 1981, founder Yona Saslow Yacobovitz, the group’s drummer, did a benefit performance in Jerusalem with several women friends for a family that had lost everything in a fire. Since then, she says, she’s had a mission to help people through music. Tofa’ah has played at women’s music festivals, for the wives of Egged bus drivers, and at women’s prisons, immigration centers and schools, and has formed an organization (called Tof-Miriam, Miriam’s Drum) to help other women artists in Israel.
It’s uplifting just knowing this band is made up of Orthodox Jewish women. The music is lively, strong, unapologetic in the right places and sensitive in others. Still, it’s a little disconcerting to hear a rich blend of women’s voices singing “Ashrei Ha’ish,” “Happy is the Man.” I must confess that Tofa’ah’s bluegrass rendition of the biblical “Song at the Red Sea” (“Shira Hadasha”) had me wondering if the women—3000 years ago-had been square dancing there.
A Valentine to Her People: Rahel Musleah’s Loving, Painstaking Project
Rahel Musleah [author of the accompanying feature], 37, immigrated to Philadelphia from Calcutta at the age of 6. A descendant of two illustrious religious families—the Musleahs on her father’s side, and the Shindookh’s on her mother’s—Rahel can trace her lineage back through seven Calcutta generations and, before that, through three Baghdadi ones. Volumes of her greatgreat- great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s religious poetry (piyyutim) and songs (pizmonim) still exist in manuscript. Saleh ben Yosef Musleah was the Nasi and Hazzan [president and cantor] of the Jews of Baghdad in the 1700s. Rachel’s father, Ezekiel, once the rabbi of the Calcutta Jewish community (and later the rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Philadelphia) also published the pizmonim of his people in an ethnographic study which chronicled traditions that were rapidly dying.
Rahel—a writer by trade, not a musician—decided that she wanted also, like her forefathers, to create a kind of musical valentine to her people. “My father’s work was academic. I wanted to put together a tape and songbook that would be singable, not esoteric, Jewish music.”
Starting by simply singing dozens of tunes into a home tape recorder, Musleah then worked long hours with Velvel Pasternak of Tara Publications. Pasternak notated the pizmonim, which had never been done before, while Musleah wrote explanations for each song, striving to keep alive the original Indian context. For the Passover melody to Ha Lachma Anya [“This is the Bread of Affliction”], for example. Masleah’s songbook explains: “The custom in Calcutta homes was for each person to stand, put one hand on the matzah, and tap everyone else’s hand lightly during the singing.” Shabbat and holiday pizmonim were sung in a strict, unwavering order which Musleah has taken pains to transmit in her songbook.
Collages of over 60 old family photographs grace Musleah’s book as well: her family’s servant preparing aloomakalas (deep-fried potatoes) for Shabbat: her mother making hulbah (a sauce from fenugreek seeds and coriander); her great-grandfather, Meir Ezra, choosing a chicken; her great-uncle Elias having a cup of tea in the family sukkah.
“My identity is totally wrapped up in being a member of the Indian Jewish community. It’s a very very deep part of me,” she says. “I feel that I personally need to preserve this music—the Torah trop, the Haftarah trop, the songs, the customs. I once learned a difficult piece of Calcutta trop and surprised my parents by reciting it in shul. They were crying. I started crying as soon as I got off the bimah. It was something so emotional, it’s hard to put it into words. The Ashkenazic trop never does that to me, never. But the Indian music—people experience some ethereal effect.”
“To do the Torah reading of the Shirat HaYam in Calcutta trop, I sat and listened to my father’s voice on tapes over and over. But I don’t feel I do it exactly as it was done in Calcutta. I’m not used to the cadences anymore—I’m hopelessly Westernized. When I goof up, I worry, “Who is going to be left to carry this on. if I can’t even do it?'”
With her two young daughters— Shoshana Michal, 3, and Shira Zahava (which means “golden song”), 9—and her rabbi-husband. Michael Klayman. Musleah continues to preserve as well as organically change Calcutta traditions within her own home.
“We take the Saturday evening ritual of singing about the zodiac, about what the week is going to mean, a half-hour of sequenced songs that I grew up with,” she explains, “and we alter it with something that Shira started doing when she was five. We dance in a circle to two melodies about Elijah.”
Musleah recounts a surprise that was an unexpected part of her grueling weeks spent in the recording studio. “I was singing songs over and over,” she says. “This wasn’t right, that wasn’t right, I didn’t like it, Velvel didn’t like it. I was singing for hours. And it turned out—but I didn’t know this at the time—that I was pregnant. Even two weeks later and I would have been too nauseated to sing.
“It gives me joy to know that Shoshana was in me during that time. My sisters and I were raised with the idea that these pizmonim, are the most important ways to celebrate holidays and Shabbat and being together. This is so important to my parents, to my father particularly. And here I was pregnant and singing! It was one more link in a chain that’s deeply beautiful.”
WHERE TO GET IT
by Lisa Lepson
So, if you like women’s music, you’ll love the Ladyslipper Catalog. From classical to new age and from Jewish to alternative, this catalog has a huge selection of CDs, books, calendars and musical and comedic videos of popular women artists. Great chick flicks like Go Fish, and Kiss of the Spider Woman can also be purchased through this catalog.
If you’d like to sample some of the tunes before you invest, you can call the Ladyslipper Listen Line at (919)644-1942, and preview hundreds of titles, including songs by Linda Hirschhorn, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, Ofra Haza, Rosalie Gerut and Friends, and Alix Dobkin. Contact: For catalogs and orders call (800)634-6044, for Customer Service, call (919)683-1570; P.O.Box 3124-R, Durham, NC 27715.
Global Village Music’s catalog features a wide assortment of music influenced by hundreds of different cultures. Flory Jagoda’s Ladino albums and a variety of klezmer music are the highlights of the section of Jewish traditions. Irish, Italian, Middle Eastern, East European, African-American selections are also available. The Roots of Worldbeat, and the Blue Ridge Institute Series might also be great additions for your international music collection. Contact: 245 West 29th Street, New York, NY 10001; (212)695-6024.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the Yiddish culture, just open up the catalog of The Jewish Book Center of the Workmen’s Circle. This collection showcases books, music and videos includng favorites sung by Molly Picon; cantorial and klezmer music; Yiddish art, theatre, and folk music; Yiddish poetry, and, my favorite. The Women’s Haggadah. Contact: 45 East 33rd Street, New York, NY 10016; (212)889-6800.
Perfect for programmers of community activities, The Jewish Entertainment Resource Directory, created by singer Judy Caplan Ginsburgh, has complete listings of many of the women featured here and a slew of other Jewish performers. The 1996 edition is available for $18. Contact: P.O.Box 12692, Alexandria, LA 71315; (318)442-8863; FAX (318)443-8816.
For the complete round-up in women’s music, check out Women’s Music Plus: Directory of Resources in Women’s Music and Culture. This annual publication lists festivals and gatherings; record distributors and labels; writers; performers; women’s choirs and choruses; producers of live events; cartoonists; craftswomen; libraries and archives and more. Hot Wire: A Journal of Women’s Music and Culture is another source for happenings in the women’s music biz (January 1993’s article, “Jewish Women’s Identity at Fests,” is great reading for LILITH musicians and fans.) Available from: Empty Closet Enterprises, Inc., 5210 North Wayne, Chicago, IL 60640; (312)769-9009.
Sample the music on the world wide web! If you’re surfing the net and want to hear some beautiful voices, visit Tara Publications’ impressive site at http://www.jewishmusic.com/tara/ and hear Debbie Friedman. Their catalog carries our favorites like Leah Abrams, Flory Jagoda and Rahel Musleah. Available from Tara Publications, 29 Derby Avenue Cedarhurst, NY 11516; (516)295-2290.
The catalog of Sounds Write Productions has all eleven of Debbie Friedman’s albums, plus lots of other incarnations of her talent including songbooks and videos. Recordings by Judy Frankel, Linda Hirschhorn, Rosalie Gerut and Cindy Paley can also be ordered through Sounds Write. Contact: 6685 Norman Lane, San Diego, CA 92120; (619)697-6120; FAX (619)697-6124.
Kol Ami, Voice of My People, has the “World’s Largest Selection of Israeli and Jewish Music and Videos.” Though they might not be the friendliest company, they carry Yiddish film classics like Yiddishe Mama (starring the Jewish mother who, according to Kol Ami, “successfully guides her children through many of the world’s problems”). You’ll also find Ashkenazic music like the Barry Sisters and Debbie Friedman, and Sephardic music like Lauren Pomerantz and Voice of the Turtle. Available from: Kol Ami, P.O. Box 381 Hicksville, NY 11802; (212)779-7944, or (516)933-2196.
Also of Note
by Lisa Lepson
Here’s how to get the music of the artists that are mentioned in our article but not profiled: Margot Stein Azen’s two solo albums Create Out of Nothing and Guarding the Garden (the eco-feminist musical) and her newest album, A Moon Note (its Hebrew homonym; Emunot), recorded with two other rabbinical students, Rayzel Raphael, and Juliet Spitzer [New Legends. 608 West Upsal Street, Philadelphia. PA 19119; (215)843-19181 • Adrienne Cooper’s Dreaming in Yiddish [from Cooper herself: 90 LaSalle Street, Apt. 19C. NYC, NY 10027; (212)866-1095] • Rita Falbel’s two recordings of Jewish international music. Timepieces: Between Jewish Past and Future, and Hitchin’ Rides [Ruffled Feathers Music, 23 West 68th Street, NYC, NY 10023; (212)873-3129] • Dana Mase’s albums. Diary and Sitting With an Angel which includes additional vocals from David Broza. the king of Israeli pop music [Water Records P.O.Box 393. Tallman, NY 10982-0393; (800)356-14691 • For Ruth Rubin: Yiddish Songs of the Holocaust, the live recording of Rubin’s lecture/ recital, [Global Village Music (see directory)] • Judi Tal’s Path Across the Sky [Galit Productions, P.O.Box 21419, Baltimore, MD 21208; (410)730-0443, fax (410)730-4656] • Sharon Wechter’s Journey of a Soul [Neshama Productions, P.O.Box 620, New Lebanon. NY 12125].
For the Kids
A third generation cantor, Deborah Katchko-Zimmernian’s most popular recording is Kinder songs: Jewish sing-along for Families on which she sing basics for 5-9 year olds accomplanied by children and folk guitar. Another recording. Spirited and Soulful, has songs about Jewish identity. [Order from Katchko-Zimmerman at 11 Birch Street, Norwalk, CT 06851; (203)854- 1684, fax (203)838-5021 or from Tara Publications (see directory).] • llene Safyan and Margie Rosenthal, two friends from Portland, sing wonderful songs for the three and under crowd. Our favorite of their 6 recordings is Just in Time for Chanukah [Sheera Recordings, P.O. Box 19414. Portland. OR 97219; (503)221-1848 or (503)635-6502].
Yiddish and Ladino
Lauren Pomerantz’s albums. Jewels of the Sephardiin and Wings of time: the Sephardic Legacy of Multicultural Medieval Spain, includes Biblical Ballads, Hebrew poetry from Medieval Spain set to Music [Kol Ami (see directory)]. * Eleanor Reissa is truly a professional whose gorgeous recordings of Yiddish Broadway tunes are simply delightful. We especially recommend Gems of Yiddish Song [The Workman’s Circle Catalog (see sidebar directory)]. • Tanja Solnik. who has appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, soothes the listener, as she sings in Yiddish, English and Hebrew accompanied by accordion and balalaika on her album From Generation to Generation: Legacy of Lullabies. [Dream Song Recordings. 2505 7th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405; (310)450-0144].
What Faith Rogow’s album lacks in professional equality, it makes up for in feminist content. Courage to Dare sets to music the feminist liturgy of Marcia Falk. whose prayers were also featured in LILITH, Fall 1995 [Rogow at 19 Barbara Avenue, Binghamton, NY 13903]. • Laura Wetzler’s albums, A World of Jewish Folk Music and Laura Wetzler are sung in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino or English and accompanied by guitar and Yemenite drum ]Nervy Girl Records Box 406, Times Plaza Station, Brooklyn, NY 11217-0406; (718)596-5725].