Letting the female voice be heard in song

Spotlight on Women (Bama L’Isha) is an initiative providing a special outlet that allows female performers to shine.

Spotlight artist Ana Elya (second from left), who sings as well as plays guitar and drums, with the Adamama choir (photo credit: JUDITH HARPAZ)
Spotlight artist Ana Elya (second from left), who sings as well as plays guitar and drums, with the Adamama choir
(photo credit: JUDITH HARPAZ)
 Kol isha, literally meaning “the voice of a woman,” is the halachic prohibition of women singing in front of men who are not immediate family members, for fear that the allure of a woman singing will distract men from their studies of the Torah. This law limiting the artistic and emotional expression of Jewish woman has existed for thousands of years.
But Spotlight on Women (Bama L’Isha) is an initiative providing a special outlet that allows female performers to shine. A nonprofit organization started by Annie Orenstein and Rochel Grundman in 2010, Spotlight on Women creates opportunities for Israeli women to showcase their performing artistic talents through open mic performances, workshops and sponsorship.
Working around the parameters of kol isha, Spotlight’s audiences are female-only.
“About 10 years ago, many female Jewish singers – professional performers in their own right – were at a crossroads, feeling pressure to choose between their love for the music and for the values set forth by Torah and Halacha [Jewish law],” says Orenstein. “We needed a professional stage of our own.”
The founders of Spotlight and its participants see their performances as not merely a reaction to Halacha, but a celebration of women sharing their artistry with each other.
“We want to uplift and inspire others. Women writing music for women, dancing and acting... it’s beautiful,” said Orenstein.
Spotlight’s flagship program, StageNight: Open Mics for Women, is a concert series that builds bridges between Israeli female performers of all kinds. Both new and seasoned artists are welcome to share their voices, and the doors are open to women from all religious backgrounds. Spotlight places an emphasis on original work, encouraging Israeli women to use their creative gifts to their full potential.
Performers from around the country flock to StageNight, which recently concluded its fifth series. The series has enjoyed the talent of women from Jerusalem, Haifa, Hadera, Jaffa, Rehovot, the Beit She’an Valley, Beit Shemesh, Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim and more.
“Every time I hear of a performer coming from a town hours away, I understand I am filling a need many women are looking for, and recognize how important music is to them,” says Orenstein.
Spotlight participants range from native Israelis to new immigrants, representing many parts of the multilayered Israeli cultural patchwork. Orenstein and Grundman believe that music is a universal language, and bringing women of all backgrounds together to share in a common experience through music is one of their biggest priorities.
“This creates a world without competition and full of love and appreciation [for one another],” says Orenstein.
Spotlight on Women sees music as a way of healing, choosing to dedicate their music to women who are suffering with health issues and all of life’s challenges.
In a world where women are constantly interpreted as sexual creatures no matter what walk of life they come from or how they express themselves, the Spotlight stage is designed as a “safe space.” At Spotlight on Women, all women can be their dynamic, vibrant selves “regardless of their religious affiliations... devoid of sexual innuendos,” says Orenstein.
Unsurprisingly, Orenstein and Grundman have backgrounds in the arts themselves. Orenstein loves to sing, dance and act, though at this time she does not plan to go professional. She feels that her calling is helping other women who need the stage more than she does. She comes from a musical family – her mother, who died of breast cancer when Orenstein was 16, studied piano at the Juilliard School in New York. Her father, an immigrant from Morocco, plays multiple instruments.
Meanwhile, Grundman was trained as a professional ballet dancer before she became religious. In her native New York City, Grundman worked as a community theater choreographer and ballet teacher for women and girls before making aliya with her family in 2000. She now mentors professional dancers in Israel, and her delight in seeing their potential fulfilled is as sweet a reward as she could ask for.
The two women have formed a very successful working partnership, bonded together by their passion for the performing arts and desire to see other women succeed.
“I can’t imagine Spotlight without Rochel,” says Orenstein.
Spotlight’s artists are not just performers; some are heavily involved with the success of the organization.
Ana Elya, a French immigrant who sings as well as plays guitar and drums, suggested the idea of a “master class” to help women hone their crafts. She teaches these workshops for Spotlight on special occasions, and hosts weekly singing circles independently. Being part of Spotlight on Women has enhanced Elya’s audience, allowing her to reach the Anglo-Israeli community.
Elya’s favorite part of teaching music is being able to share the deep knowledge that she has accessed within herself through performing and her Jewish roots. The spirituality of living in Jerusalem inspires her, and her original melodies are directly influenced by her prayers.
She began to compose only after she made aliya and started studying Torah. When Elya teaches, she witnesses women blossoming through their voices, without having to hold themselves back. She loves “becoming friends with [a student’s] inner world, with [her] most delicate and precious instrument.”
Sharing Spotlight on Women’s value of bringing women together in the name of music, Elya says that “Annie [Orenstein] and I wish to unify our strength to reach more and more women from all origins – Israeli, American, French, Spanish, Russian, Ethiopian… and put together a whole festival of female performing arts – and, hopefully, open a school.”
With all these goals, Spotlight and its artists are dreaming big in terms of what can be done for female performers in Israel, with new ideas constantly developing. Voices of Hope, their newest project, is an evolved concert series that gives Spotlight’s ever-lengthening roster of budding Israeli female artists a chance to perform for larger audiences, building confidence and success.
The first Voices of Hope event was held at a state-of-theart recording studio in Moshav Yishi, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem as well as International Women’s Day. Spotlight used an innovative method to obtain as large an audience as possible for this pilot event – the event was broadcast on Facebook Live to registered guests in Israel, the US, Canada, England and South Africa. Altogether, over 1,000 women watched the performance. Orenstein cites Voices of Hope as her favorite Spotlight event to date.
Though Spotlight on Women is steadily expanding, it remains not-for-profit, which makes it difficult for the organization to provide as much sponsorship to its artists as they deserve.
“From the very beginning, Spotlight on Women has made it a priority to support our performers financially as often as possible,” says Orenstein. However, “stipends are small and very structured. We wish we could do more!” For more information on Spotlight on Women, contact Annie Orenstein at annie.spotlight@gmail.com or Rochel Grundman at rochel.spotlight@gmail.com.