Tel Aviv sound design showcases the role of women in Jewish rituals

An intriguing sound installation at Tel Aviv’s Schechter Gallery offers a different take on religious ritual

 ONEG RABOT focuses on the role of women in Jewish ritual.  (photo credit: Dor Sebag)
ONEG RABOT focuses on the role of women in Jewish ritual.
(photo credit: Dor Sebag)

Despite the best efforts of hardliners to thwart any attempt to update Jewish religious observance, with rituals and prayer services, whether we like it or not, the way we go about these areas of life tends to evolve over time. I was, for example, very surprised to hear from Michal Oppenheim that several centuries ago, it was the norm for men and women to share the same prayer space in synagogues. In fact, a little research indicated that, for a while in the middle of the last century, there were quite a few Orthodox synagogues that adopted a unisex approach to seating arrangements at services.

The existence of a mechitzah (partition) between the main prayer area used by men and the ezrat nashim section for women applies predominantly to the Orthodox stream of Judaism, although some Conservative synagogues also keep the sexes apart.

While it is alluded to, the business of the gender divide in synagogues which, in fact, has deep historical roots dating back to the Talmudic era, was not top of Oppenheim’s artistic agenda when she devised her stirring Oneg Rabot sound and space installation currently on show at the Schechter Gallery on Chelouche Street in south Tel Aviv, under the curatorial guidance of Bar Yerushalmi. But the issue of gender roles in Jewish practice definitely rises to the surface in Oneg Rabot.

“Whether spoken, sung, read or whispered, in loud cries or in a fixed rhythm, with a waving body and stomping feet, in mute intention or spontaneous recitation, at its core, prayer is a collective, body-centered human behavior. The act of prayer, when performed in congregation, indicates a shared space in which the whispers of participants’ hearts and deepest wishes are woven together, as a power of consciousness driving their intentions forward.”

Michal Oppenheim

Prayer: A collective, body-centered human behavior

“Whether spoken, sung, read or whispered, in loud cries or in a fixed rhythm, with a waving body and stomping feet, in mute intention or spontaneous recitation,” Oppenheim notes in the explanatory installation text, “at its core, prayer is a collective, body-centered human behavior. The act of prayer, when performed in congregation, indicates a shared space in which the whispers of participants’ hearts and deepest wishes are woven together, as a power of consciousness driving their intentions forward.”

THAT IS quite an evocative description, which is powerfully augmented by the aural content at the gallery. The aesthetics ain’t bad, either. As you enter the display area, you immediately catch the dais centerpiece arrangement. The stone platform is bare other than four diminutive speakers on thin rods placed on the podium periphery and has two steps leading up it. By the way, anyone over 1.75 meters tall should exercise caution, as the partition between the two exhibition spaces at the halfway point is pretty low.

 MANY WOMEN around the world take on active roles in synagogue prayer services.  (credit: Dor Sebag) MANY WOMEN around the world take on active roles in synagogue prayer services. (credit: Dor Sebag)

The absence of ceremonial accessories leaves plenty of room for cerebral maneuvering, and it took me a moment or two to equate the raised spot with the bimah as the spot used by the synagogue for reading from the Torah. Safely traversed, you get to the rear section of the gallery, which has stone benches running along three walls. As I sit down with Oppenheim, I immediately note a sort of window box affair, or shallow trough, positioned on the ornately tiled floor in front of each of the benches.

“The idea is that while you listen, you can take off your footwear and place your bare feet in the soil,” Oppenheim explains. The rectangular protuberance contains reddish earth which I correctly identify as red loam, known here as hamra. It is a soil type I particularly like for its visual appearance, but there is a more spiritual-tangible consideration at play here. “The idea is that the earth is not a separate entity from the house of prayer,” Oppenheim continues.

I declined the offer to shed my socks and sports shoes and get a sense of terrestrial grounding while the heavenly-sounding choir sang. As I’d just cycled 60 km., I thought the ensuing aroma might not be too decorous for such religion-oriented circumstances. Oppenheim managed, once again, to surprise me by saying that she was all for body odors and other workaday augmentations. “I’m actually in favor of strong smells pervading the exhibition,” she laughs. “I thought of dampening the soil here, to bring out the smell. I don’t want this to be a sterile domain. Body odors are part of the life forces. I want these things that remind us of life in this kind of domain.”

THERE IS a yin and yang, ethereal-corporeal element to it all.

The soil, as it were, balances the celestial aspect of prayer and religious practice, Oppenheim observes. “The soil is not connected with the ground. If it was, that would create a more physical bond with the body. But if we are in a place where consciousness or awareness is the dominant factor, it is important to have soil here to remind us that we are part of the earth, that we come from the earth.”

Oppenheim believes we should maintain a firm grasp on the mundane here and now, and not get carried away with our spiritual aspirations. “We have to remember that we are part of this world, that we are not a bunch of molecules that are separate from the world. This soil can remind us of that.”

While we chatted, the sonic core of the installation did its bit and made sure I stayed focused on the main theme of the whole work. The recording features 10 female singers, featuring cantors, rabbis and other movers and shakers in their own communities and on the female side of institutionalized Jewish observance in this country, in general. The size of the vocal group was not a random choice. “There are 10 women singing here,” says Oppenheim. “I wanted a minyan,” she adds with a smile. That seems perfectly pertinent and appropriate.

The decet includes Rumina Reisin, Dafna Rosenberg, Shani Ben Or and Hila Cohen Csezla. Perusing the four’s brief bios conveyed a clear sense of the stretch of the project’s socio-religious backdrop. Argentinian-born Reisin grew up in a secular home and, after delving into her Jewish roots for a number of years and getting the requisite musical training in the process, she was offered her first cantorial post in a liberal community at the tender age of 20. Today, she serves as director of the Neveh Shechter Center for Contemporary Jewish Art and Culture.

Rosenberg also has a strong musical side to her synagogue and community-related endeavors. With a liberal-religious upbringing, Rosenberg began exploring cantorial activity and is now a leading figure on the Jewish renewal scene here, primarily as one of the leaders of the Nava Tehila neo-chassidic community in Jerusalem. The community’s inviting stated credo includes “creating musical and engaging prayer spaces where people feel comfortable to come as they are.”

Ben Or is also part of the trailblazer brigade, with the distinction of being Israel’s first authorized female rabbi and cantor. She is also director of the Ashira program, which trains composers, musicians and song leaders to serve as shlichei tzibbur (prayer service leaders) in what it describes as “a learning process that enhances the musical creativity of prayer and encourages Jewish renewal throughout Israel.”

Then there is Csezla, who hails from a religious Sephardic Jerusalem home. She is married to a woman, which she says is a major component of her personal identity. She attends an egalitarian Sephardic minyan, reads from the Torah, leads prayer services, and prepares girls and boys for their bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah ceremonies.

Clearly, Oppenheim and all the aforementioned women have a mission to change the prevailing perception of religious Jewish observance in this country to one in which the genders fill equal roles and positions.

OPPENHEIM WANTS to get the visitors to Oneg Rabot – which translates as something akin to “pleasure of female rabbis” or “pleasure of many women,” both seem relevant to the central theme – on board. As you enter the exhibition space, there is a pile of A3-size sheets with alluring graphics facing upward. There is a variety of triangular shapes and other polygons that imbues the installation with a sense of mystery and mystique,

The flipside of the sheet contains the text of a piyut (liturgical song) Oppenheim wrote for the work. It focuses on four biblical female figures: Eve, Ruth, Miriam and Hamutal. While the first three are, presumably, familiar to most of us, Hamutal is not in the same league, in terms of public profile. Notwithstanding the PR shortfall, a brief perusal of her bio reveals the reason for her inclusion in this feminist project. Hamutal was the consort of King Josiah, who ruled the roost in Judah for 30 years in the latter part of the 7th century BCE. Josiah was succeeded, in turn, by his and Hamutal’s sons, Jehoahaz and Zedekiah, with the Queen Mother having more than a little say in how the monarchs ran the kingdom.

Visitors are asked to listen to the first stanza, about Eve, and then read the text quietly and peacefully. Thereafter, we are invited to join in the chorus, before repeating the sequence for each of the other three matriarchal figures. It makes for an emotive and definitively immersive experience.

BESIDES THE sonic and visual aesthetics, Oppenheim would like us all to be a little more savvy regarding the lay of the non-discriminatory land in foreign pastures. The hope is it will open our eyes and minds to the idea of the same egalitarian approach becoming more widespread here, too. “As I progressed with my research for this project, I became increasingly aware that there is a wide gap between what we know about this in Israel as compared with what goes on abroad, particularly in the United States. There are many rabot and chazaniot (female rabbis and cantors) in the US. In fact, there may be more women who lead prayer services and communities in the US than men,” she says.

A quick dive into online historical data reveals that Ray Franck began delivering sermons to her small Jewish community way out in the Wild West of the 1890s and was regarded as the first woman rabbi. It took around six more decades for a woman to be given a seal of approval by the powers that be, when, in 1972, Sally Priesand became the first female rabbi in America ordained by a rabbinical seminary. So, without stretching the imagination too far, Oneg Rabot could be said to mark that momentous event’s golden jubilee.

AT THE end of the day, Oppenheim would like us to take in some of the sounds and sights but far more importantly, the sentiments that are woven into Oneg Rabot that we should ponder and take on board. “In Israel, we repel these ideas because of religious coercion,” she states. “There are some gifts in Jewish philosophy and identity which could empower us all, but we don’t reap the benefit of that because of the automatic resistance to opening Judaism up to women.”

Indeed, in the Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin, for example, we are told that only free adult men can act as witnesses, thus ruling out women and slaves. Women are not encouraged to study Torah either, being deemed to be prone to frivolity. And there are plenty more male-centric assertions across Jewish learning.

Oppenheim says she doesn’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but she does want us to have a rethink or two. “This isn’t about defiance. This is saying ‘Come on. Let’s all be a part of this.’ It’s like the people that come to this exhibition, women and men alike, are all part of it. We are all part of it.” 