Archive for January, 2010

Kol Ishah: Jewish Chicks Rock

January 31, 2010

Naomi Less

Kol ishah is the singing voice of a woman, and something observant Jewish men are forbidden to hear. Too bad for them, because they are missing out. They are not listening to the voices of today’s Jewish women rock musicians, something that even those of us who do not observe kol ishah did not have the privilege of hearing until recently.  Back when I was growing up there were American female rockers who were Jewish, like Pat Benatar, and there were Israeli women rock singers. Girls (and the rest of us) today, however, can look up to young American women who not only rock out, but do so to lyrics that incorporate traditional Jewish liturgical texts, make references to biblical narratives and convey authentic Jewish values and messages. Musicians like Chana Rothman, Naomi Less and Sarah Aroeste aren’t merely rockers who are Jewish. They’re Jewish rockers.

It is also exciting to see how these singers naturally and seamlessly switch between English and Hebrew in their songs. Chana Rothman, whose songs I find to be exceptionally intelligent and well written, does this especially well. This singing in multiple languages within a single song also seems to be a trend among Israeli women singers like HaBanot Nechama and Yael Naim (who sings in French, as well as English and Hebrew). I like this fluidity and breaking down of boundaries, which I have a feeling has a lot to do with the far more globalized world young people live in today.

Sarah Aroeste doesn’t sing in English or Hebrew, but rather in Ladino, having made the decision to keep this Sephardic language alive by giving its traditional songs an updated musical twist. Listen to the engaging and articulate Aroeste discuss her motivation to preserve her family’s culture and history, but in her own unique way:

As Jewish as I was growing up, going to Jewish day school and spending summers in Israel, I somehow had to compartmentalize my life when it came to music. The Canadian me listened to rock music (Culture Club, Tears For Fears, Bryan Adams…What can I tell you? It was the ’80s), and the Jewish me listened to either old-fashioned Hebrew and Yiddish folksongs, or contemporary Israeli pop tunes. It was a musical case of “never the twain shall meet.” It’s generally not the healthiest thing to compartmentalize parts of your life, even your music listening habits. So, as strong as my childhood Jewish identity was, there was something missing.

What was missing was the full integration of my Canadian self with my Jewish self. It never occurred to me that you could express the stuff of top 100 hits, like love, lust and heartbreak in explicitly Jewish music. Neither did I think that you could rock out about God, questions of faith and Jewish values like tzeddek (social justice). It is thrilling for me as a Jewish parent and Jewish educator to learn that young people today don’t even think twice about whether they can or should weave it all together.

Male musicians, like Rick Recht, have been doing this musical melding for some time now. But it is only more recently that Jewish women rockers have taken center stage. It is true that they stand on the shoulders of such giants as the seminal Jewish folk singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, but it can’t be ignored that performers like Chana Rothman, Naomi Less and Sarah Aroeste are doing something new, different and huge in its own right.

I may be a bit older than the average audience member at these artists’ concerts, but that isn’t stopping me from downloading their music to my iPod and dancing around the house to it. Heck, I’m even considering ordering one of Naomi Less’s “Jewish Chicks Rock” t-shirts, or maybe a “Ladino Rocks” one from Sarah Aroeste’s website. I’m going to pass on the tank top models, though. I’ll leave those for the real rockers to wear. That’s because they have something I don’t…beautifully toned biceps from playing the electric guitar.

The logo for Naomi Less's "Jewish Chicks Rock" project

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Draining Blood

January 29, 2010

Looks like the Torah and the Rabbis have something to say about President Obama’s recent SOTU.

There has been some pointed talk in the last couple of days about President Obama’s criticizing the Justices of the SCOTUS for their recent ruling on Citizens United while they sat there in the House of Representatives the other night as a courtesy to him. It seems that the President has committed the aveirah (transgression) of shaming a person in public. The Hebrew expression for this is to “whiten a person’s face” in public, conjuring the image of the blood draining from the shamed person’s face.

The Justices of the SCOTUS

In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal today, Georgetown Law Center professor Randy E. Barnett claims that it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the Justices, but it is not all right to do so to their faces, especially if they have not been given warning of it.

“This is not to deny that the Supreme Court may be criticized. I do it myself regularly in class, op-eds, blog posts, and in the pages of law reviews. So too should the president when he thinks the Court is wrong. But not when the justices are in attendance as a courtesy to him, seated as a captive audience on national television, while surrounded by hundreds of his political partisans…Judge not the words themselves, but their effect on the audience. The president fully expected that his hundreds of supporters in the legislative branch would stand and cheer, while the justices remained seated and silent, unable to respond even afterward.”

Barnett also says that what Obama, in his haste to strike a populist tone, said about the ruling during the SOTU was actually erroneous, but that is a topic for another post.


The point of this post is that there is something for the President and all of us to learn from Jewish teachings. Yes, Leviticus 19:17 tells us that it is our responsibility to tell someone when they are doing something wrong (“You shall surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him”), but the Rabbis expounded that “Whoever shames his fellow-person in public has no share in the world to come. He is one of those who will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again.” Rashi interpreted the verse from Leviticus as meaning that we are commanded to take a stand against sin, but at the same time not to embarrass the sinner. We can look to biblical figures like Tamar and Joseph for examples of how to successfully accomplish this balancing act:

“Tamar, who had the goods on her father-in-law after he visited her sexually, never named him as the offender, but only indicated what pledge he left with her, so that he could identify himself without being made ashamed. Joseph cleared the room before he disclosed himself to his brothers so that they might not be put to shame in the presence of the Egyptian court.” (Arnold Jacob Wolf, Sh’ma 4/77, September 20, 1974)

Bruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir of the Mishna, is also a good role model in this regard. In Brachot 10a she reminds her husband that it is imperative to distinguish between evil and the evil doer:

There was an outlaw living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir who used to persecute him. Rabbi Meir wanted to pray that he should die. “What are you thinking?” his wife Bruria asked. “Because it is written, ‘and all the wickedness shall be consumed from the earth’ (Psalms 104:35). Is it written ‘wicked’? The word ‘wickedness’ is written. Furthermore, look at the end of the verse, ‘and the evil-doers will be no more.’ Since wickedness will cease, then evildoers will be no more. You should pray that he repent.” Rabbi Meir prayed for him, and he repented.

In no way were the President’s remarks evil, nor will he be going to hell for them (and in any case, I think that “will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again,” is not intended to be understood literally, but rather is meant as a warning that one who whitens a person’s face in public is pushing himself down a slippery slope of immoral behavior from which he or she will be unable to climb up again). But it does look like he owes the Justices an apology…and they shouldn’t have to wait until next Yom Kippur for it.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Tree Talk

January 29, 2010

Wishing you and the trees a Happy Tu B’Shevat with the spoken word poetry of Danny Raphael. A shining example of the melding of authentic, traditional Jewish texts and ideas with new media and modes of expression.