Over the last three decades, singer /songwriter Debbie Friedman has gained legendary status for her melodic, folk-music-inspired contributions to Jewish liturgical and secular music. A new generation of Jewish women musical performers represents the diversity of how Jews practice, what they believe (and don’t believe), and how they both critique and celebrate our shared tradition. Although you may not have heard of them (yet), these musicians are — once again—redefining the boundaries of Jewish music, and wearing their politics and passions on their sleeves. What does this Jewish feminism sound like? Listen up.
Rothman picked up a guitar at 15, and wrote her first song at 17 — an experience she described as “a magical, chemical equation.” For the next decade, she gathered inspiration from travels in Israel and Nepal, from working as an environmental educator and spending time among the mountains of Colorado and the paved sidewalks of Brooklyn, where she lives now.
These experiences, and her passionate musicality, culminate in Rothman’s debut album, “We Can Rise,” (Oyhoo Records, 2007), which blends reggae and hip-hop with guitar-charged folk, Hebrew with English, and lyrics that speak to the particulars of Jewish tradition as well as universal themes of feminism and social justice. In “More Than One Way” Rothman connects back to Jewish activism in the Civil Rights movement: “Marching through Selma in the blistering heat / A.J. Heschel he prayed with his feet / If you can’t get no justice, then take it to the street b/c there’s more than one way to be free.” Rothman says that she avoids “shoving in a text” simply to make her songs “feel Jewish.” Her music feels authentic and builds bridges — both within and beyond the Jewish community. www.chanarothman.com
This four-piece rock outfit, founded by Temim Fruchter, Louisa Solomon, Ian Brannigan and Elijah Oberman, infuses classical and Jewish melodies with punk and politics. Their songs serve the double purpose of artistic and activist expression, covering queer issues, feminism, anti-racism, connection to Jewish tradition, and Palestinian solidarity work. Fruchter says, “We talk about everything that’s deeply important to us — things we’re plotzing to express through music.”
The band’s unique mix of surging violin, driving rhythms, and intersecting vocal lines lends equal parts urgency and elegance to their sound. Their anti-occupation song, “I Watched the Temple Fall,” offers one of the most significant examples of the band’s signature sound: “You watched Schindler’s list this morning / to create generic mourning / where the state means salvation.” On stage, The Shondes, (shonde means shame or disgrace in Yiddish), maintain a revolutionary intensity, laced with their unexpected — and endearing — old-timey sense of humor. Their debut album, “The Red Sea,” will be available in January 2008. www.shondes.com
Ayelet Rose Gottlieb
Israeli-born singer and composer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb brings Sephardic and Middle Eastern flair to improvisational jazz. She performs with myriad projects, her supple voice sounding equally at home floating over a jazz standard or winding around a complex avant-garde score.
Gottlieb’s most recent album, “Mayim Rabim “ (which means “many waters,” released in 2006, Tzadik Records), features a song cycle based on the biblical “Song of Songs.” Shortly after she moved to Boston for conservatory training, her mother sent her a copy of the Hebrew Bible. “It was the first time I read [“Song of Songs”] from beginning to end,” she says. Moved by the layers and motifs within the poem, she developed 10 songs that expressed her understanding of the word “love.” A year after its debut, Gottlieb collaborated with a director and video artist to transform “Mayim Rabim” into a multi-media performance piece. www.ayeletrose.com
Berkson describes the sound of her four-piece ensemble, Platz Machen, as “cantorial metal.” Growing up a cantor’s daughter in Chicago, her early musical life was filled with liturgical melodies. As a conservatory- trained musician with a penchant for the avant-garde, however, Berkson kept separate her two identities: one as the cantor for a Long Island synagogue, the other as an experimental musician who claims Arnold Schoenberg, Billie Holiday, and famed hazzan Moishe Oysher as influences.
With Platz Machen, however, Berkson brings her passions together, enlivening cantorial music with drums, bass, and atonal vocal lines. Her songs respect tradition while flirting with rebellion. “I’m on stage singing these prayers wearing a miniskirt and sometimes singing in an ugly or different way,” she says. Although Berkson primarily performs outside of the Jewish community, her music has the potential to leave a lasting contribution to the canon of cantorial music. Platz Machen’s first album will be available early in 2008. www.judithberkson.com