Making Music for Women Only

The star performer for the evening is introduced with a fanfare of rock music. Emerging from the wings in a shimmering blue dress and white heels, she walks to center stage, takes the microphone, and breathes “Good evening, ladies and . . . (dramatic pause) ladies.” More than 2,000 women in the audience cheer their approval.

The fans are hardly your typical rock concert regulars. They are grade schoolers to great-grandmothers chatting among themselves in English, Yiddish, Hebrew and perhaps a few other languages. Their record collections at home are apt to include such names as Avraham Fried, Country Yossi and the Shteebl Hoppers, and Favorite Chasidic Melodies branded with the request, “Please do not play on Shabbat or holidays.” No, this is no ordinary audience, but that’s the whole point. Because of their religious convictions as Orthodox Jews, these women would neither attend nor participate in a concert at which men and women appear on stage together Today they arrange their own evenings for the pleasure and inspiration of hearing music by their Jewish sisters.

The history of Jewish women and music is at least as ancient as Miriam and the dance of the Red Sea. Because of its spiritual dimension, music has always played a central role in Jewish education for both sexes; still, until recently, there has not been much money spent on music especially for women. Recognizing that there was indeed a market among Jewish women, Negina Productions, music producers in the Orthodox community decided to tap the market by organizing the first large-scale concert by women for women in November 1985, at the Brooklyn College auditorium. The performers were gifted and popular women who had appeared in school performances, as well as recent baalei teshuvah (returnees to observant Judaism) who had been professional performers. Community response was tremendous: close to 2,500 women filled the hall that evening. Another concert in December 1986 was equally successful. As popularity grows, the producers say, the concerts will have to move to larger quarters in Queens or Manhattan. In Jerusalem, 3,000 women flooded Binyanei Haoomah, the city’s largest hall, to hear the popular Israeli star Ruthi Navon in concert. Last March, the Lubavitch Women’s Organization again presented Navon in a highly professional program produced and directed entirely by women.

The requisite girls’ choruses or dance groups perform at each concert, but now 50-women choirs are organizing as well. The women range in age from 16 to 60 and include former professional singers and actresses as well as women from Orthodox families who sang at summer camp and school. There is “no difference” between working with the professionally trained and the untrained, says Devorah Lipson, a former student of music at the University of Western Ontario and now the director of the Crown Heights choir. “It is an easy group to work with. There is a tremendous amount of musical talent among the Crown Heights women,” she remarked. And Lipson believes in the power of music. “The first Lubavitcher Rebbe said that words are the pen of the mind, but music is the pen of the soul. I find it to be a powerful vehicle for bringing unity to Jews,” she said. (Indeed, you can practically feel that unity: I recognize one particular woman as the work-worn mother of small children whose family seems to barely make ends meet. Tonight her face is glowing, transformed with rapture as she sings the popular Jewish melodies and medleys.)

A six or eight-piece female orchestra accompanies each concert; instruments include alto sax, flute, viola, electric guitar, bass, piano and drums. Some members of the group are not Jewish due to producers’ lack of contacts with interested Jewish female musicians, but, said a Negina producer, “Our concern has been with providing quality backup music by women for the singers.” Still, he indicated that Neginah would welcome Jewish applicants for future concerts.

The jokes for the evening are decidedly Orthodox Jewish female. “Do you like my hairdo?” Ruthi Navon asks at one concert, fingering her feathery shoulder-length brown tresses. “Not mine.” Laughter and applause. After all, virtually every married woman in the audience wears a sheitl (wig), hat, kerchief, or hat on top of a sheitl, each according to personal custom. They are extra-appreciative because they know Navon herself as a baalat teshuvah who only began covering her hair a few years ago.

Ruthi Navon began her career in the Israeli Army Entertainment Corps and had become a top singing star by the time she was in her early twenties. She then studied music in the United States for five years, after which she moved into musicals (she appeared on Broadway), television, international concert tours and records. In 1974, on her way to performing in the Israeli Song Festival, she was involved in a car accident in which a 21-year-old woman was killed. Realizing how short life could be, she began to seek meaning beyond the life style of a celebrity. Through friends she became interested in Chabad and was introduced to the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who she says was instrumental in her decision to become observant. Gradually over a period of seven years she adopted a full Torah life style. Today she is married to Yossi Zmora, a Florida real estate developer, and is the mother of two young sons.

Navon talks on stage about the effects her Torah observance has had upon her career. “A performer without an audience is a gornisht, a nothing,” she asserts. Once she had accepted the Torah’s prohibition against a woman’s singing in front of men other than her husband, Navon at first tried stifling herself, believing that perhaps she was not meant to sing. She was miserable. To further complicate matters, her former producer was phoning several times a week and offering her tens of thousands of dollars to perform before a mixed audience. In a letter to her spiritual guide, Navon wrote: “How can one stop a river from flowing?” The answer: “I give you a blessing to continue your successful career as a singer,” wrote the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although she expected the gates of heaven to open for her immediately, they did not. There was a year of fruitless pavement-pounding and disappointment. Ever since the first ground was broken, the demand for Ruthi’s music has mounted dramatically. To date she has performed before female audiences in New York, New Jersey Montreal, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as in Israel.

Navon’s repertoire for these performances has consisted mainly of popular Israeli songs. One of her favorites is Al Chomotayich Yerushalayim, composed especially for her in honor of Yom Yerushalayim ten years ago. But her crowning number is Yeh.i Ratzon Milfanecha, the prayer for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. As a Lubavitcher, I have heard the same melody and lyrics hundreds of times but the quality of personal expression and improvisation Navon invests in it has stunned me to tears.

I am not the only one to experience such delight upon hearing and watching Ruthi Navon and other women — such as Penina Klaver — perform. The concerts invariably end with a standing ovation, a crescendo which leaves the audience fairly dancing in the aisles. “Jewish women have been my very best audiences… I can feel the electricity in the room even before coming onstage,” Navon remarked. It is not difficult to understand why. Not only do the fans thrill to each artist’s performance, but by their presence they validate and encourage her in her personal quest. In a sense, the audience is her greatest mentor.

Chana Shloush has written and edited for many Anglo-Jewish publications. She lives with her husband and children in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she freelances and gives occasional mikvah tours.