All-female band Ashira proves that the Orthodox music scene isn't just for boys.
By KARIN KLOOSTERMAN / ISRAEL 21C
If there's one thing religious girls in Israel like to do at celebrations, it's dance. But Orthodox prohibitions prevent them from forming their frenetic dancing circles in front of men. Instead, they put up a curtain in front of the men, who are usually the ones playing the dance music.
"But it feels like we are dancing to a tape recorder," says Inbar Gassner, 22, who is the bass guitarist in the all-female religious rock group Ashira. Comprising six musicians, the band - whose name means "I will sing" - formed three years ago so that women from the religious community could have the same fun at parties as men.
Today Ashira is making headlines around the world for its women-only policy at concerts. They are also striking a chord with Israel's secular audience, despite the fact that their songs all have religious themes. Their upcoming album will have a warning label: for women only.
"At first the idea was Pnina Weintraub's, the violinist," Gassner tells ISRAEL21c. "She was very angry because during all the dancing circles we do at schools and during the holidays like Purim, Pessah and Rosh Hodesh, we would have to bring a man to come play."
Gassner says it "was very annoying that there were no girl bands that could play music without the separation. Pnina had a dream; her first dream was a band of girls who could play music in front of girls so they could dance and have fun."
Weintraub, who was studying at Bar-Ilan University outside of Tel Aviv, turned to her friend Yael Taitz, who played flute, with the aim of starting a band.
They found Gassner, then drummer Ma'ayan Schweitzer and guitarist Lia Bagrish, and now they are working with their second singer, Hagit Tawil, whom they found after auditioning about 20 women.
At first they started playing at women's seminaries, and at small halls during the holidays when live music is permitted.
Although three of them are married, their husbands will never get to see them perform, since religious Jewish men are not permitted to hear the voice of a woman who is not his wife. They are also not allowed to see women dancing.
"Whoever invented rock did it for people to let loose," Weintraub told the Associated Press. "It's not just sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Our music is very liberating, and that is very important for our community."
The band plays Irish music, rock music, Jewish music and its own original songs.
"We play lots of genres of music," says Gassner, who is married and lives in Petah Tikva. "We play everything that makes sense for the songs. We do covers for Jewish songs and we combine them with our songs. This way the audience will know some of the songs and will feel comfortable."
The other band members live in the greater Tel Aviv area as well, and practice sessions are held at Bar-Ilan University or at Schweitzer's house.
The members of Ashira are convinced that the music they're making is on a par with the music the guys get to listen to at their men-only parties. At Ashira's last show in Jerusalem, about 300 women turned out, both religious and secular. And there is one more twist: they pray before they sing.
Until recently, Ashira hadn't thought that much about performing outside Israel. But that's changed.
"Invite us, and we will come," says Gassner.
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