Jewish Women Who Rock

When veteran singer Darlene Love was  inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  earlier this year, feminist music fans raised a  collective cheer. Long known to cognoscenti  as a powerful and indelible voice of the  girl group era — that’s Love singing backup  on the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and  the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” — she  had nevertheless languished  outside the official annals of  rock. Indeed, of 619 individuals  inducted into the Rock and Roll  Hall of Fame, 55 (less than nine  percent) are women.

“Women Who Rock: Vision,  Passion, Power” on  exhibit at the Rock and  Roll Hall of Fame and  Museum in Cleveland  (through February  2012), takes aim at this  erasure of women’s and  girls’ contributions to rock and  roll histories, shining a spotlight on more  than 70 artists, from “foremothers” like  Billie Holiday to contemporary standouts  like Lady Gaga and Janelle Monae. Billed as  the world’s first museum exhibit of its kind,  “Women Who Rock” features a range of fascinating  artifacts, from instruments such  as Wanda Jackson’s Martin D-18 guitar to  costumes — Madonna’s iconic gold bustier  from her 1990 “Blonde Ambition” tour; a  red sequined number worn by gospel-rock  legend Mavis Staples — which shed light  on how women have used self-display for  artistic expression.

Jewish women turn up in unexpected  places here. We learn that Carole King  played a particularly prominent role in the  1960s girl-group era. We discover Florence  Greenberg, a New Jersey housewife who  owned and ran the influential independent  Scepter label, which released hits by  Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles. We find  out about Genya Ravan, born Genyusha  Zelkowitz in Lódz, Poland, in 1940, whose  group, Goldie and the Gingerbreads, broke  barriers in the 1960s when they signed  with Atlantic Records, becoming the first  major-label all-female band whose members  played their own instruments.

And then there are the fun “who knew?”  moments. Like Bette Midler and Carly  Simon, Amy Winehouse — the English soul  singer noted for her big voice and bad-girl  antics — never changed her name. But Pink  (born Alecia Beth Moore), “Mama” Cass  Elliot (born Ellen Naomi Cohen) and Lesley Gore (born Lesley Sue Goldstein) all did.  And who knew that indie music trailblazer  Ani DiFranco, a professed atheist, was born  to a Jewish mother? Or that Marianne  Faithful is the daughter of a half-Jewish (on  the maternal side) Viennese baroness?

At its heart, “Women Who Rock” is  about shaking up established narratives,  whether of rock and roll as an expression  of masculine freedom from domesticity or  of the electric guitar as a phallic instrument.  The exhibit’s inclusion of Jewish  women is particularly refreshing given  that the Jewish story in rock and roll music  is so resoundingly masculine. So too does  “Women Who Rock” suggest an alternative  to male-centered accounts of “black-Jewish”  relations. Rock and roll is in its roots an  African American form, but Jewish women  have been on stage and behind the scenes  since its inception.