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One of the noteworthy acts at this year's Hamshushalayim Festival, which takes place over the next few weekends in Jerusalem, features Ruth Wieder-Magan and the Theatre Company Jerusalem (TCJ), who strive to explore "sacred Hebrew text and music... in a universal voice that communicates beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries." In other words, Weider-Magan is a hazzanit, or female cantor.
Born and raised in Australia, Wieder-Magan moved to Israel in her teens, founding the company in 1988 together with Gabriella Lev and Joyce Miller. She is a pioneer in opening up women's voices in prayer.
"It was a new thing [at the time], that women were singing traditional prayers," Wieder-Magan told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. "No one sang prayers on stage." Since then, though, prayers have been breaking out of the synangogue and the prayer book. And for Wieder-Magen, there was a new musical feel to them.
Asked about how she came up with the idea of bringing women's voice in prayer to the stage, Wieder-Magan paused before saying in a tone that evoked her passion for the issue, "It's more than just idea - it's a life's work. The Theatre Company's aim is to create theater from Jewish tradition, human voice and Jewish prayer."
Wieder-Magan has devoted the past two decades to researching the human voice and studying its various aural possibilities and capabilities. Through the process she has also been "gaining a deep understanding of what it means to be human altogether," she said, adding that there is a "parallel between what we can express through our voices and what we can touch in our soul. Voice in its nature is a connection between the body and the higher aspects."
Based on this insight, Wieder-Magan sees prayer as central to the connection between body and soul. "In a sense, all expression is prayer," she said, "but traditional prayer gives us a way to give it form that is beyond the span of an individual life." Wieder-Magan believes that when she sings an ages-old song something bigger - beyond herself, even - is given expression.
WIEDER-MAGAN acknowledges the controversial nature of her work and is very proud of the fact that it is so revolutionary. "Real art needs to be controversial, it needs to be challenging the norms of society," she said, emphasizing that her work gave prayer a more relevant, modern voice. This is also why she refuses to sing in front of exclusively religious audiences or those composed solely of women. She also finds that she has "opened up a whole area of work for young artists here in Israel."
The listener, Wieder-Magan said, had to be challenged by the music and forced to listen deeply in order to accept the unusual musical combinations. This is true both with the highly traditional pieces and those that employ a larger range of tones. The music, she said, "opens up the emotions. You can't stay cool emotionally; you have to be moved by it, and that can be challenging."
Wieder-Magan considers herself, and her music, to be deeply religious, but not within the framework of established practice. "Jewish prayer is the deep source of my tradition, but you can't touch deeply if you don't touch universality," she said of singing in Buddhist temples and churches as well as synagogues. "My own source is not separate from the source of other religions; they are one." And by source, she means the eternal source - God. "We are all human," she said. "I'm trying to touch a place where there is common, where there isn't conflict."
Since her first album, Ayin Zoher-Songs to the Invisible God, was released in the US in 1999 Wieder-Magan has had the chance to travel the world and sing. She's performed in the US, England, France, Eastern Europe, India, Thailand, and has even had the unique opportunity to appear in front of the Dalai Lama.
Wieder-Magan recently put out a new album, Kadayil Shabbaso, titled after a phrase from the Zohar. The album, a compilation of songs from Jewish mystical tradition, was the fruit of a collaboration with Mark Eliyahu, a rare instrumentalist who plays the kamancheh, a traditional Iranian and Turkish instrument that is an ancestor of the violin.
Eliyahu and percussionist/clarinetist Daniel Yaakov Zol will be accompanying Wieder-Magen and the TCJ when they perform on Thursday, December 5 at Mishkenot Sha'ananim at 9 p.m. For more information on Hamshushalayim call (02) 531-4600 or visit the Hamshushalayim Web site.