Posts Tagged ‘Naomi Less’

A Red Hot Yiddishe Mama

March 27, 2012

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.

Burlesque performer and Jewish educator Minnie Tonka (photo by Clint Hild)

Alyssa Abrahamson, like so many other Jews around the world, is hard at work right now preparing for the upcoming Passover holiday. But while others are trying to figure how they will retell the story of the Exodus this year in a way that will keep people’s attention, Abrahamson has a surefire audience-captivating plan. She’ll be donning her pasties and G-string to recount the journey of the Hebrews from slavery to freedom through striptease in “The Burning Bush vs. The Second Coming: A Hot and Holy Burlesque Showdown” in Midtown Manhattan.

Abrahamson, 39, is mainly known these days by her burlesque moniker, Minnie Tonka (a tribute to her hometown of Minnetonka, Minnesota). Possibly the only burlesque performer to have a Masters in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary and to have studied at other leading Jewish institutions in the US and Israel, she brings a unique Jewish flavor to her solo act, as well as to her work as one half of The Schlep Sisters duo, in which she performs with a partner known as Darlinda Just Darlinda.

Following many years of thirsting for Jewish knowledge and searching for Jewish identity after a childhood devoid of a Jewish education or bat mitzva, Abrahamson feels that she has finally arrived at the right place for her.

In an interview with The Times of Israel in a café near her home in Brooklyn, Tonka, as she likes to be referred to, said that at this point her burlesque persona is “who I am.” To her, this makes complete sense, given that for the past couple of years she has focused mainly on burlesque, after having worked full-time for five years as the Director of Arts and Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y, followed by a year-and-a half stint with Birthright Israel NEXT.

She still does some educational consulting to a number of New York-based Jewish institutions and organizations. “There’s not a lot of money in burlesque,” she admitted.

Tonka’s journey into burlesque has been gradual. “It took me three years to get down to a G-string,” she shared. “It’s kind of like public speaking — the more you do it, the easier it gets,” she said, referring to getting used to taking her clothes off in public.

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© 2012  Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Matzah Balls And Passover Treats

March 26, 2010

If you’ve been reading my blog lately, then you know that I am rather discriminating when it comes to the quality of the stuff that is being put out there about Pesach (see my post called Separating The Wheat From The Chaff). I, of course, know that some of it is meant to be light and fluffy like matzah balls (at least that’s the way they turn out when I make them with my secret ingredient: selzter):

However, the Jewish educator in me compels me to prefer more substantive creative undertakings, like those of Sarah Lefton’s G-dcast project. What a pesachdik treat it is that G-dcast is branching out beyond parashat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion) to the holidays. Here is its Passover offering that was just released yesterday:

And there’s nothing I like better than a new twist on a old ritual. Jewish women rockers Naomi Less, Chana Rothman and Sarah Aroeste have banded together as “Lights Ignite Change” to not only perform together, but also work together to hopefully shed light on important social issues. These three talented young women, on whom I wrote in my Kol Ishah: Jewish Chicks Rock post, started off last night’s Downtown Seder by lighting the candles with the traditional bracha (blessing) and also an original composition by Less called, “A New Light.” It’s a great song not only musically (ie. it sounds nice and is catchy enough for even the musically-challenged to sing along), but also lyrically and educationally, because Less has packed a bunch of traditional liturgical references to “light” into it.  For those inclined to mix it up and experiment with new practices, I would suggest that this song would be a great addition to your seder. Fortunately, with a few days left until Pesach, there is still time to learn it – just park yourself in front of your computer and keep clicking “replay” on this video…

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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.