What’s the secret behind Kol Isha, the rapidly growing Facebook group that’s devoted to informal videos of Jewish women singing and dancing for one another? The closed Facebook group, created by Kerry Bar-Cohn of Ramat Beit Shemesh in December 2016, has nearly 4,000 members.
Group founder and performer Bar-Cohn is best known as Rebbetzin Tap. Her motivation to create the group came from an awareness that “there wasn’t a space online for me to share my creative projects with an exclusively female audience. It occurred to me that many other female artists are facing the same challenge. That’s how the idea of Kol Isha came about.”
In Jewish legal terms, kol isha refers to the necessity for Jewish men, under certain circumstances, to refrain from listening to women sing. Although the prohibition applies to men, many traditional Jewish women do not sing in front of men.
Bar-Cohn attributes the group’s rapid growth to the fact that “people have a deep need for an outlet for creative expression. Aside from this group, I’m not aware of any other spaces that are nearly as easy, accessible and welcoming, where women can quickly share themselves singing and be showered with encouragement and reinforcement… where women can express their creativity without feeling self-conscious, and where they can expect to receive positive feedback and support.”
How fast is the group growing? Rehovot-based Julie Levi, one of the group moderators and an active participant, said that “an average of 50 people daily ask to join.”
Styles of the videos vary widely – from professional studio recordings, like a cover of Kesha’s “Praying” by voice coach Rachel Hutner of Ramat Beit Shemesh to a cover of Britney Spears’s “Oops I Did It Again” by Levi, wearing a ragdoll yellow pigtail wig and hamming it from home.
Hutner’s impassioned explanation speaks for many women in the Kol Isha group.
“A group like this is a necessity. Women need an outlet.
There are not many venues a woman can just perform in. Some of these women are professionals, and some just sing because they love it and want to share a piece of themselves. We are all sharing our hearts and souls with one another.
“There is so much positivity and encouragement in this group! People who never sang in front of anyone before will post something hesitantly but feel so good about themselves after because there is so much positive feedback. It’s giving women the ability to empower themselves, feel good and shine.”
Varda Epstein, a haredi grandmother from Efrat, makes her living as a writer. But her alter ego “love[s] to act, sing, and play piano in front of an adoring crowd to vigorous applause.” She identifies the Kol Isha group as “this place where anyone with a smartphone can share, and that’s amazing, because there are so few venues for religious women to have this outlet. Practically nil, in fact, and I just know God gave me musical talent for a reason (other than singing silly songs to my babies and now my grandbabies).”
Reflecting her understanding of Jewish law, Epstein especially appreciates that the group is limited to women.
“I don’t think I’d like to wear my musical heart on my sleeve in front of men, which is one reason I chose to adhere to Halacha. I don’t even play piano in front of my sons in-law, because I know I sway and that my feelings come through my music. It doesn’t feel okay to share that with them.
“One son in-law does me a beautiful favor at the Passover Seder and goes to sit outside for nirtza, so I can sing with my kids. It’s our favorite part of the Seder. I turn into their ‘rebbe’ for a few minutes, singing the old beloved tunes and we get totally raucous.”
Not everyone agrees on what constitutes kol isha in Jewish law. Jerusalem-based Sharona Halickman, the first female member of the clergy staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York, and the founder of Torat Reva Yerushalayim, asserts that “anything holy,” such as prayer or Jewish songs sung at a Shabbat or holiday table “should not even count as kol isha. The issue is really if the songs are sexy.”
In addition, Halickman quotes rabbinic opinions which assert “that if there is a microphone or at least two voices together, then there is no issue” with men hearing women sing.
For singer-songwriter, pianist and professional music student Hadassah Daniels of Ramat Beit Shemesh, a women-only environment offers her a measure of emotional safety.
“It’s important to me to share my songs with others, because they are a personal expression of my thoughts, feelings and beliefs. It gives me an opportunity to bond with others more intimately and vulnerably.”
She believes that the group provides “an empowering feeling of sisterhood and less inhibition when you’re part of a group that is exclusive to women. Despite the large size and diversity of the group, there’s a feeling of unity and intimacy.”
In addition, for professionals like Daniels, “Kol Isha gets me a lot of exposure; people take interest in my album. I can get my name out there more efficiently.”
Efrat-based Avital Macales performs regularly for audiences of primarily Anglo women in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion.
“The need that this Kol Isha group initially fulfilled for me was a platform on which to sing songs that I wouldn’t otherwise perform on stage. For example, a song that doesn’t quite fit my voice but gives me pleasure to sing,” explained Macales.
“Impersonating singers is a hobby of mine that I don’t usually share with people, and this group finally gave me the platform to do so! I posted two impersonations of famous singers that I adored. That was fun.”
The group also gave Macales and others a chance to do a tremendous kindness.
“When Noa, a dear friend, was diagnosed with cancer, she initiated the hashtag #theforceofnoa, and my friends and I began posting videos of songs she loves in order to help her through the difficult process.
“Every video included the hashtag she started. For one of those videos, I wrote a parody based on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” together with my friend Shifra Penkower, because Noa loves that song. Our lyrics were about how strong she is. She said she plays it during her chemo treatment and it inspires her. That, to me, is amazing.”
Julie Levi rhapsodizes, “This group is such a gift to women and girls, regardless of whether or not each member performs for female-only audiences. I wish it had been around years ago, when I went through a 20-year dry spell of performing. I personally enjoy performing for women only; they get my sense of humor and goofiness more than men and the feedback is much more encouraging.”
Veteran performer Sharon Katz of Efrat enthuses about the distinctive importance of the Kol Isha group.
“Women sing while playing piano, holding their baby, while the kids are going wild in the background, listening to the music through earphones, playing ukulele, on the stage, in the kitchen, whatever is natural for them.
“There is nothing as affirming, as self-esteem strengthening, as love-filling as performing (showing your inner you) to a group of women who will love you and cheer you and encourage you whether you are a star or have never performed before.”