Sitting in the back of a religious elementary school classroom in Rehovot, I wasn’t expecting much.
I’d wanted to encourage a bashful granddaughter to join the girls’ choir, part of the after-school program for third graders.
Then I heard their teacher sing. Like those reality shows where a mellifluous voice stuns the audience and has them standing up and applauding, I was startled by the lilting soprano surely meant for a concert hall.
Indeed. Meet Lea Dror, haredi soloist; her website calls her a “haredi singer.”
She’s been performing since she was in kindergarten.
But in the last decade she has been performing concerts for women only, singing and telling the story of her childhood, of her aliya, and how she – like the biblical Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot – decided to become a full-fledged member of the Jewish people.
Lea was born in a farming village in Kazakhstan.
Her father, a photographer, was the oldest of 13 children in a Jewish family. “They weren’t religious, but their single imperative to their children was to marry a Jew,” says Dror of her grandparents.
Her father ignored it. Lea’s mother, a music teacher, wasn’t Jewish. Nor were the villagers.
Lea’s family lived among country folk, storing preserved vegetables and jams in a potato cellar because they weren’t available in the long winters.
By age five, pretty blond Lea – then called Vlada – was singing in school, at parties and on public occasions.
But her parents were dissatisfied with their surroundings.
“They were intellectuals and felt isolated in such a small town,” she says. “They knew something was missing in their lives.”
A chance encounter with a non-Jewish stranger who was handing out books about the afterlife began the family’s spiritual odyssey. Her mother read the books, and began sharing spiritual thoughts together with the bedtime stories she read to Lea and her brother. “My mother was searching. First she tried Christianity. When she was sick, she consulted a Krishna spiritual healer, and he predicted that one day she would become a Jew like her husband.
She waved his words away. By then she was into mediation; she would get us up at 6 a.m. and go to the snow-covered forest to meditate.”
They decided to leave Kazakhstan. One option was Germany; another was Israel. They were impressed by the photos of sunshine and tomatoes in winter in Israel, where members of her father’s family had moved. They settled in Rehovot when Lea was 11.
A fellow immigrant child advised her it was best not to mention that she wasn’t Jewish to her classmates – so she didn’t. Always a good student, Lea learned Hebrew quickly. She was among the few girls in the science track at the local ORT school, starting a popular band in which she was lead singer.
“I realized people were different here when we had our first class trip,” Dror says. “We were late leaving because we were waiting for a few kids.
That never would have happened in Kazakhstan; the bus would have left. I understood that we care about each other in a different way.”
The school wasn’t religious, but she learned about the cycle of Jewish holidays. At home, the family took on certain Jewish practices. “We realized that people didn’t eat milk and meat together, that they didn’t eat pork. I heard about Yom Kippur. I wasn’t fully 12 and I wasn’t Jewish, but I fasted. A Yemenite girl in the neighborhood invited me to classes with her rabbi’s wife. We ate cakes and got prizes for learning psalms.
“There’s a hassidic idea that each family, like Noah, has its own ark to protect it. Without realizing it, our family was beginning to lay down the planks of our ark.”
Then, one day when Lea was 15, her father shocked the family by announcing he wanted to become religious – and not just religious, but a hassid. “He wanted the whole package: Shabbat, kashrut, black hat, Chabad. He said he wouldn’t force anyone to go along with him, but he didn’t want us to stand in his way. We assumed this was just another phase that would pass.”
It didn’t. For Lea’s mom, this was a crossroad. Despite all their past changes, they had maintained a happy, harmonious household. She remembered the prediction of the shaman in Kazakhstan.
Says Lea, “We always believed in God, an afterlife, the existence of souls. We were even modest in our dress out of a sense of dignity.”
At the recommendation of a relative, she, her mother and brother began taking Judaism classes in Russian. “We found them fascinating.
A lot of our old questions were addressed.
Whenever we heard of a mitzva we could do, we embraced it with enthusiasm.”
The classes, they only realized later, were connected to a conversion program. “We were studying together, which made it easier,” says Lea.
After 10 months, they were examined by rabbinical judges. “In 10 months, you get the basics,” says Lea. “You understand that it will take your whole life to learn Judaism.”
Her toughest exam question? “I was asked to explain the Paschal Lamb sacrifice of Passover,” she remembers. “I didn’t know the answer, so instead I started reciting the Grace after Meals. ‘See,’ I told the rabbi, ‘I know how to practice even though I don’t know all the theory.’” The examiner gave them a final stern warning.
“Today, you are only obligated for the Seven Noahide Commandments. If you convert, you’ll have reward and punishment for keeping the full 613 mitzvot. Why would you want to take that on?” Lea told him that she couldn’t imagine living any other way.
The grilling over, the rabbinical judge smiled.
“Welcome to the Jewish people,” he said.
And so they covered their eyes and recited the Shema, the pledge of allegiance to the People of Israel.
The last part of conversion is immersion in a ritual bath. But only certain mikvaot are suitable for conversions, and there was a waiting list.
What do you do between the conversion and the immersion? Are you Jewish or not? Do you keep all the mitzvot or make sure you break one as you do on the path to conversion? Do you thank God for not making you a non-Jew? Is your food kosher? Six weeks after being declared Jewish, Lea’s turn came at the ritual bath. There are three immersions – the first and third in the presence of a female mikve attendant, the middle one robed in the presence of three rabbis. “The mikve is where, according to tradition, that sincere converts get their Jewish soul,” she says.
She was 16 and a half. “No,” she corrects, “I was like a newborn.”
One huge personal challenge remained: her singing. “It had never occurred to me that anything could be wrong with a woman singing in public. My band was popular; I was always the star at school assemblies.”
So, for two years, she continued singing in public.
At the 12th-grade schoolwide memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, she performed a solo: Ofra Haza’s mournful “Along the Seaside.” “Tell me how to stop the tears, tell me where there’s another world to live in… along the length of the sea, there are no waves; there is a world broken into fragments on the pier.”
Then she announced to the astounded principal that she wouldn’t be singing any longer.
“I went home and cried and cried and cried.
‘Vlada,’ I said, using my old name. ‘What have you done to yourself?’” But she stuck with her religious decisions. And instead of studying biology at a university, she went to college in Kfar Chabad. One day, she saw a room with a piano and sound equipment. She couldn’t resist. She closed the door behind her, sat down and started to sing.
Suddenly, the door opened and the housemother walked in. Without saying anything, she sat down at the piano and began to play alongside Lea. When they finished, the housemother asked, “And now, what are you going to do with this God-given talent?” So today, Lea Dror gives concerts in Israel and abroad, for women only. She teaches privately and encourages women to sing, and she organizes the choir for the religious little girls – some bashful – in the school down the street from the home where she lives with her husband, the Moscow-born Tomer, and their four children.
She’s fussy about them singing on-key.
Sometimes the little girls even get to come to Lea’s apartment, put on big headphones and record in her studio with playback.
Beautiful music. ■The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.