God's gift to women

New all-female religious groups reconcile Halacha with drive to perform.

By MATTHEW WAGNER
June 18, 2008 19:54
God's gift to women

women pray beach 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In 2006 Delia Spiers appeared to be on her way to stardom. Her five-track CD had attracted interest from Universal, Warner and Sony. An important publisher and producer from her hometown of London had offered her an enticing record deal. And her appearances were registering ever stronger responses from adoring crowds. But something was wrong. "I was more in touch with something higher than me and I was connecting and singing from a real place," Spiers says. "People were crying at my gigs and that was amazing. But I was confused. Even as I was giving over more honest and powerful music and the reactions were getting more positive, I felt that this was not what I was supposed to be doing. "I remember after one really phenomenal performance with a Diva Rock band when I should have felt empowered, all I felt was sick and that I was sharing a part of myself that I should not." Spiers, like many other Jews from secular backgrounds who embraced an Orthodox lifestyle as an adult, realized that her artistic aspirations clashed with her religious convictions. Spiers knew that Halacha forbids men from listening to a woman sing. A female voice is sensual and sexually stimulating, ruled the rabbis, it arouses passions and fantasies that are spiritually unhealthy. But Spiers had a strong need for artistic expression. She could not simply repress her musical side. It would make her too unhappy. Even from a religious perspective repression made no sense. After all, God had given her a gift that could move and uplift people. How could she abandon that gift? Unless God was testing her to see whether, like the patriarch Abraham in the binding of Isaac, she was willing to give up what was dearest. Would she opt to cleave to God's will or would she ignore His command and follow her wayward heart? Luckily, Spiers ran into Professional Women's Theater. A sort of Orthodox-minded impresario, PWT creates kosher venues of artistic expression for women. Men are the problem, so PWT simply leaves them out. Women-only audiences are brought together to enjoy women-only singing, acting and dancing. Spiers was given the opportunity to pursue her career as a singer, but to do it in a way that did not contradict her religious convictions. But she hopes for even more. She dreams of harnessing her talents to do God's will. "People tell me that my singing wakes them up to the possibility of living life to its fullest, of realizing their potential. If I accomplish that it would be a great thing." SPIERS, 26, GREW up in a secular household. As long as she can remember, she has had a desire to sing. Her first solo performance was at a spring concert at London's Jews Free School. She was 16 and she sang George Gershwin's "Summertime." "I am not a shy person but I was terrified of appearing before people," she recalls. "My heart was racing and I felt dizzy. Before I got on stage, I had this internal argument with myself. Should I sing or shouldn't I? But then the lights were on me and the saxophone began and I started performing. And then it was over and I wanted to do it again. I said to myself, 'I have to do that every day forever.'" Around the same time she embarked on a spiritual journey that would eventually lead her to reexamine her need for artistic expression and her singing talents. "I started getting interested in Judaism at about the age of 18. I went to classes at Eish Hatorah's center in London. There was something that I found there that connected with my strong belief in an objective truth. It would make me so mad when my friends would say that all truth is relative, that it is all a matter of perspective. "I always had a strong belief that maybe we cannot grasp it, but there is a real, final truth. I did not see that a subjective approach to truth made any sense of the world. It did not make people any happier." For Spiers Judaism's prohibition against women singing in front of men was an objective truth that resonated deeply. It was as wrong as sharing something intimate with a perfect stranger. "When a woman gets on stage and sings, she gives over this internal part of her," she says. "Her voice is a kind of mix between body and soul. It is not something that she should share with men." ADENA BLICKSTEIN, 25, founder of PWT, grew up in a liberal Orthodox household in Englewood, New Jersey. She learned gymnastics, ballet and lyrical jazz dance as a young woman. She danced in the Joffrey Ballet and the Tisch NYU Summer Programs. But it was not until she came to Israel that she became fully aware of the clash between her pursuits as a dancer and her religious lifestyle. "I was in Israel for a year after completing a BA at Stern College," she says. "I had been accepted to the Mechola Dance group. And I mentioned this to a guy I was dating. He was appalled. He said, 'That is completely unacceptable.' "I could not believe people could be so closed-minded here. But it got worse. I was working for a religious Zionist philanthropic organization at the time. When my boss heard that I was a dancer, he said to me, 'If I would have known, I would never have hired you.'" Blickstein says that she was forced to reevaluate her religious practice vis a vis her dancing pursuits. "I began to notice all sorts of issues that came up. For instance, I lived in dread that the dance director would give me a role in which I would have to touch a man. I was worried about the costumes we would have to wear. And I had to excuse myself from practices on Shabbat. "When Mechola participated in the Karmiel Dance Festival, there was talk of coed sleeping arrangements. I began to ask myself how far I could take my career with my secular peers. "I got angry at God for stopping me from doing something that I love. I felt trapped. I had no alternative. But I could not stop dancing. I have a physical need to dance three hours a day." She eventually ran into a professional-level dancer named Yocheved Polanski who had embraced Orthodoxy late in life through Chabad. Polanski told Blickstein that God did not want her to stop dancing. Polanski read her a letter written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Chabad's last spiritual leader. In it Schneerson advised an artist that he must continue to pursue his artistic career because "everyone has the obligation to fulfill the gift that God gives." In 2006 Blickstein decided to establish PWT with the goal of creating a first-rate group of female performing artists. She says that PWT's main goal is to raise the professional level of female performing artists without compromising Halacha. "Right now Orthodox women do not pursue a serious career in the performing arts because they do not see it leading to anything important," says Blickstein, a medical student at the Technion. "PWT is trying to build up the audience for all-women's performing arts so that it will be possible to make a decent living from it. We offer performing artists workshops run by top-notch professionals that help them perfect their skill in an atmosphere of constructive criticism." The centerpiece of PWT's efforts is the annual Wanna Be a Star competition. Wanna Be a Star is made up of a series of preliminary competitions judged by professionals who choose the most promising performers. The winners in each field of performing arts appear in a gala event. This year the event, which features Shuly Nathan, the singer who made the song "Jerusalem of Gold" famous, will take place on June 19 at 8 p.m. in Jerusalem's Heichal Shlomo. A crowd of 500 is expected. Spiers won the first contest, which took place in 2006. Since then PWT has helped her and the other winners to get gigs at all-women's forums such as girls' seminaries, women's organizations and clubs that sponsor women-only nights. She says she is managing to support herself from her singing. PWT IS NOT the only organization that teaches dance, singing and acting to religious women. Hamechol Shel Banot Miriam (The Dance of the Daughters of Miriam) is a haredi organization created by two newly observant immigrants, Tovia and Rachel Factor. Tovia, a former TV commercial director and producer, and Rachel, a former Broadway dancer and Shakespearean actress, teach dance, drama and voice to Orthodox women. Some of their clientele comes from the most haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem. However, a main distinction between the organizations is that while Hamechol carefully restricts dress codes, music styles and the artistic content of its plays, PWT is more open. "There are no short pants, no midriff shirts, no immodest dress even though everyone is female," Tovia says. "Also, there is no secular music with lyrics and even popular secular songs without lyrics are not used if there is concern that the melody alone will remind the women of the lyrics." In contrast, while PWT does not allow songs or plays with explicit sexual innuendo or obscenities, restrictions are more relaxed. A more fundamental difference between the two is that unlike PWT, Hamechol has no aspirations to reach a high level of artistic professionalism. "We see ourselves as a community service organization," says Tovia. "The main emphasis is not on perfecting technique or on performances. Rather we use the performing arts as a way of enhancing the well-being of the community. We use dance, drama and voice as a tool to help women achieve a greater connection with themselves, others in the community and ultimately with Hashem." From conversations with the women at PWT, it is clear that they see the perfecting of an art form - whether dance, voice or drama - as a legitimate religious goal. They say that art, when fine tuned and perfected, has the power to move, to inspire, to express spiritual messages. Artistic expression can be a form of worship. In contrast, haredi organizations such as Hamechol use the performing arts as a means to an end, and gentile criteria for judging the level of professionalism should not be adopted by God-fearing Jews. "We believe that if a woman is fulfilled she gives more to her husband and her child," Tovia says. "The goal is spiritual well-being, not chasing the secular dream of attention seeking. "Haredi women will never reach a professional level in the performing arts. It is simply unrealistic to expect her to dedicate the time needed to reach such a high level. True, in theory if a young girl were to train hard before she takes on obligations as a mother, she could reach a high professional level. But the question is the goal. If it is to become a star, it is detrimental. "As Rabbi Eliahu Dessler taught, any drive for material success such as fame or riches is ultimately a result of a spiritual void. And there is no way that material successes will ever fulfill a spiritual emptiness." But for Spiers singing can be a spiritual pursuit. "True there is always the danger when a performer gets up on stage of being intoxicated by self-importance," she says. "That's why before I perform I pray. I ask Hashem that the gift He gave me be used in a good way and that He help me inspire the people I am singing to. "I believe that during a beautiful concert, when everyone is connecting to the music and the performer has pure intentions and is not involved with ego, it cannot be a bad thing. I can't see how a concert like that will fail to elevate people in a spiritual way."


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