Esther’s voices

Women throughout the Jerusalem area are reading the megila.

Women on Purim (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Women on Purim
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Megilat Esther readings by women for women began some 30 years ago in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem interviewed Rabbanit Malke Bina, founder of Matan (the Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies), and a pioneer in promoting advanced Torah study for women.
We also caught up with Sandy Cash, a well-known singer and actress for English-speaking audiences, who lives in Beit Shemesh and reads the megila there.
Rabbanit Malke Bina: A student approached me about a women’s reading. She was American; I’d say most of the women interested in this were from the US.
Thirty years ago, I don’t think there were women’s readings. It was something new. That’s why it was necessary to check out all the halachic sources.
I’d never been to a women’s reading. I researched in Halacha and asked several rabbis all the halachic issues. When I received satisfactory answers, I realized it was an option for women. In my life, I’d been to at least 50 megila readings by men, with the women sitting behind the mehitz. A woman’s reading was entirely different. Just to be up close and seeing how the megila is folded, and hearing a woman’s beautiful voice, singing and connected, it was very uplifting. I wanted this to happen in Matan, too.
Knowing that a megila reading with a fuller women’s participation is halachically acceptable, I felt that it could be done. But I insist that our readers know the pronunciation and melodies of the megila perfectly.
Also, the reading can be broken up into different sections and read by different women.
It’s an even better way of being conscious of the miracle that happened in the story. Women were very much involved – they were not only saved, but Esther, the heroine, risked her life to save the Jewish people. Women can have a very full share in commemorating the miracle, and take an active part in the day’s mitzvot.
Personally, I attend one women’s reading and also one family reading, where I’m with my sons.
Sandy Cash: Why did I start reading the megila? I’m observant, a singer, and work in musical theater. Purim gives me a chance to use my theatrical skills. The megila’s the one text that lets you be halachically correct and at the same time have a great time.
I’ve been reading the megila for about 20 years. Our group has an attendance of about 300 women. It’s a group reading, with veteran readers, first-time readers, mothers and daughters, and bat mitzva girls.
Cash acts out the different roles when she reads, using different voices for each character’s dialogue. She switches from Esther in a girlish soprano, to an aggressive, scratchy tone for Haman. For Ahasuerus, she puts on a deep, bullfroggish voice.
“It’s a lot of fun. But it’s a real challenge, getting the pronunciation exact,” she notes. “You have to spit the consonants out because the audience has to hear every word clearly. That’s the mitzva of hearing the megila. My husband is a ba’al koreh – he polished my enunciation. The accuracy comes from him, and the theatrics come from me.”
Cash credits her local women’s study and prayer group for inspiration. “It’s been very important to me, over the years.”
Are you a woman who would like to read Megilat Esther to her congregation? The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has an app for you. To learn the cantillations for reading the megila, go to: Megillat_Esther_App. The app can be downloaded to your smartphone or tablet, or can be used on the web with Chrome or Safari browsers.
It also includes instructions on how to organize a megila reading, a halachic discussion of the sources for women’s reading of the megila, and a dvar Torah about the Book of Esther.