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.
© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.