A year ago, singer Elizabeth Schwartz was booked with her klezmer band. Hot Pstromi, for a gig at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Then organizers realized that she wasn’t allowed to sing.
The synagogue observes kol ishah, a practice which, among some groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews, prohibits men from listening to women sing, for fear it might lead to inappropriate behavior.
The show went on without her But Hanna Griff, the Eldridge Street Project’s program director, was determined to find a way to bend the rules. She decided that Rosh Hodesh, the festival of the new moon, was the perfect occasion to give women the opportunity they deserved.
So on April 6, 2003, for the first time in the synagogue’s 116-year old history, the Eldridge Street staff turned men away at the door. And in side, women’s voices chimed in song and celebration.
The event, titled “In a Different Voice: Music By and For Women, “featured liturgical and secular songs performed by Hebrew Union College cantorial student Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, and klezmer music by an all-female group called Mama La Bushnik, with Alicia Svigals on violin, Lauren Brody on accordion, and Nicki Parrot on bass—with Schwartz, finally able to sing, at the helm.
Arlene Agus, a founder of the Jewish feminist movement and its first American organization, Ezrat Nashim, delivered a short speech to the assembly.
“I get very choked up in this building because it represents the history of ourpeople,” Agus told the crowd. “Less well known is the part of our history that is female.” Agus, who has written extensively on Rosh Hodesh since the 1970s, is credited with its” rediscovery” as a women’s holiday.
Schwartz was thrilled to have the chance to participate in the Eldridge Street event. “We look for pieces that express women’s positions from the point of view of strength, “she says, and avoids songs about “women pining after their men.” The group’s name, “LaBushnik,” is klezmer slang, referring to the lead fiddle in Eastern European klezmer music. Appropriately enough, it’s one of the few words in Yiddish that has no gender.
“The Eldridge Street Synagogue is becoming an important cultural venue,” Schwartz adds. “The subjects of performance are very contemporary and very relevant, politically and culturally.”
Griff had another reason to commemorate women at Eldridge Street: the synagogue, which also hosts literary events, tours, and educational programs, is run entirely by women.
The Eldridge Street Project is a not-for-profit cultural institution dedicated to restoring the building, now a National Historic Landmark. As the synagogue is slowly rebuilt, it is transformed not only through its physical renewal, but also though the stories told within its walls. And, for one day last April, the stories were told by women, voices raised powerfully in song.