Two weeks ago, I joined thousands of families around Israel for a time-honored ritual: the Saturday night grand finale of a month-long youth group extravaganza.
For one month each year, youth groups seem to take over the country. My kids spend a full month with their peers being led by well-intentioned 16- year-olds. The Saturday night performances signal the end of a month-long youth group extravaganza where my kids were never home, or when they were home, they were covered in paint. It is a month celebrating being young, getting just a bit older and loving group activities (needless to say, not all kids love group activities – my 10-year-old spent the month reading the Percy Jackson series instead).
But the final weekend is a blowout. Saturday night has the time honored daglanut (group choreographed flag waving), dances and plays. It is a doozy. Parents everywhere charge their cameras and their phones to simultaneously take pictures of their beloved children while checking their mail for hours as they sit in auditoriums, pavilions or outdoor basketball courts watching hundreds of kids perform. Each age group has a co-ed play, a boys’ dance and a girls’ dance.
At least I think it was a girls’ dance. I can’t be sure. Because it happened in the dark.
Perhaps not exactly what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he sang, “Dancing in the Dark,” but this has become the default dance setting in this Orthodox setting. In order to be mindful both of halakhic guidelines and what I hope is a genuine attempt to empower our young women, someone somewhere thought the best way to allow girls to dance in front of an audience of both men and women was to get creative and turn off the lights. There were dances with glow sticks, dances with neon lights and ultraviolet lights. We saw a lot of glowing gloves and sticks and masks, just not a lot of our daughters.
When my daughter was four, she took ballet. She was quite adorable. At the end of the year, we sat through her final performance. As all those little pink fluffy girls danced their dance, curtsied and got off the stage, only one remained: my daughter. Completely unaware that her twenty friends had twirled off the stage, she stood there, in the spotlight. At some point, she snapped out of her reverie and raced off the stage.
I like the spotlight being on young women. I think there is value to finding ways to encourage and empower all women – young and old to be showcased, featured, and celebrated. I think that is why dance after dance in the dark left me feeling saddened and disappointed.
I need to contextualize my frustration by saying, my daughter could care less. She wasn’t upset in the least. The daglanut remains a co-ed march/dance done fully lit for everyone to see (maybe marching around waving flags to loud music isn’t considered dancing). It is only the girls’ dances that are affected. So she was proudly, giggly, visibly part of a fifty-person flag dance and an hour later I squinted trying to guess which glowing white mask was my daughter.
I recognize that this is someone’s idea of a solution, and I’m grown up enough (most of the time) to be able to articulate frustrations while not claiming to have all the answers. I get that in some Orthodox circles this is the best solution. I understand and begrudgingly respect that someone somewhere thought this would be the best solution creating a hybrid of visible and invisible young women. But in the big wide world we’re introducing our daughters to, I want more. I want her to be able to shine, in whichever way she chooses, without neon glow sticks. For me, I’m waiting for the next generation of young women to feel both empowered and visible.
Looking at the award-winning photograph “Chayla in Shul” I wonder:
What is Chayla thinking? Here she is. Alone in this cavernous space, standing stiff, her gaze focused somewhere in the distance. Her forearm rests delicately on the parapet, as though she ought not be touching it at all.
I can almost hear the photographer gently giving instructions. “Hold your prayer book in your left hand, and put your right arm there to support it.” Chayla narrows her eyes ever so slightly, questioning, “Here? On the wall? Are you sure?”
When the synagogue is full with worshippers, this is the wall that keeps the women from falling down to the space below, where Chayla’s brothers pray. It is the wall that holds the women in, signaling the spiritual distance that stands between them and Chayla’s father. He is the rabbi who leads the service down there.
This image has gotten a lot of press recently, as winner of the John Kobal New Work Award, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for portrait photography. The winning photographer, Laura Pannack will receive a cash prize, and her photo will be on display until February in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.
Maya Benton, who wrote about the photograph for Tablet Magazine, learned that Pannack hopes the photo will convey a “positive perception of the Jewish people and of the community.” I have no doubt that it will. The image is beautiful, as is the poised eleven-year old Chayla, who is the subject. But for us insiders – who have grown up in a synagogue like the one shown here – the photo resonates in a very different way.
Like Chayla, I was once an 11-year old girl who prayed in a synagogue with a balcony. On the brink of becoming a Jewish adult, I would soon be banished from my warm seat in front of the holy ark, near my father and brother. Up above, far from the Torah, I would find a spot next to the other women. They would trickle in late to synagogue, after they finished preparing for their Shabbat guests. Catching up with friends, they would chatter while I tried to concentrate on my prayers, longing to be part of the experience unfolding in the “real” synagogue down below.
Later, as a young woman in college and graduate school, I also sat in a balcony in synagogue. In those days, I was looking for love. As I watched the young men below, I abandoned my prayers. They swayed with closed eyes, connecting to the Divine, while I, up there so far away from holiness, could not help but look down and feel empty.
Now, as the mother of three daughters, I still sometimes find myself in the balcony. I love my Orthodox synagogue; the community that it houses, its warm, traditional Shabbat space. But when the few seats in the women’s section downstairs fill up, and I head to the second floor, I am reminded of how far away we women are from the experience of communal prayer.
I hold my daughter next to me. At 10, she is just a year shy of Chayla’s age. I wonder what she thinks about what we are doing up here, and why we are so far away from her father down below. What message are we sending her about prayer and community and her place among the Jewish people?
Maya Benton believes this portrait is a successful one because its subject “evinces an air of confident composure and studious equanimity, as though she knows exactly who she is.” That is not what I see. I find it so successful because of the way it captures Chayla’s complex experience (and that of so many others). It captures the effort that is exerted to maintain equanimity in a place where you so clearly do not belong. And the confusion that comes from loving your religion, your people, your traditions, your God, but knowing – so deeply – that there is no comfortable spot for you in the synagogue space. So you stand alone, looking into the distance with a disconnected gaze, wondering: If I leave here, then where shall I go?
A new issue of the JOFA Journal will soon be in our subscribers’ mailboxes; its theme is Orthodox women in the performing arts and sports. The headline we’ve given it is “Raising our Voices”—because many of the articles deal with the topic of kol isha, a woman’s singing voice heard in public. But I think a better title might be “The Dance.” The difference is not about artistic genre, but concept. Let me explain.
A rabbi I highly respect once told me that halakha—Jewish law—is like a dance between the rabbis and the Jewish people. The rabbis are the leading partner, putting their arms around the people and guiding them this way and that. But if they are out of rhythm with the people, if both are not moving in the same direction, then the dance will fail and the dancers will be frustrated with each other.
Within this issue of the journal, one can see the dance in motion around the issue of kol isha. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, in a d’var Torah on Vayishlah, recalls Rashi’s question about the whereabouts of Dina, Jacob’s daughter, when Jacob was about to cross the river and confront his brother Esau. The Midrash tells us that Jacob had put Dina in a box to protect her, so that Esau would not lay eyes on her. However, Rashi tells us, because she had been inappropriately locked up, Dina became a yatzanit someone who “goes out,” and she fell into the hands of Shechem—to far worse consequences. Rabbi Herzfeld sees this story as instructive for the issue of kol isha, in which over-stringency has had the effect of drowning out the voices of women and girls in every context and thereby squelching their spirituality. He calls for a more nuanced view that takes into consideration the content of the singing, not just the gender of the singer.
Rabbi Herzfeld’s understanding of kol isha is presented in tandem with the voices of women who wish to pursue careers in singing and struggle with the notion of kol isha. They run the spectrum from the Hasidic women’s rock band Bulletproof Stockings, who only play for all-female audiences, to Neshama Carlebach, who, after years of conflict, has concluded that kol isha “is an antiquated, misogynistic concept that has no place in our modern society.” Neshama believes that she is following her father Shlomo Carlebach‘s conviction in stating that, for her, singing is “a holy calling.”
We also hear the voice of the young woman, Ofir ben Shitrit, who placed second in the Israeli talent competition, “The Voice,” and was consequently suspended from her religious school. We meet the Glaser sisters, who sing together both on stage and around the Shabbat table. We hear singer Rebecca Teplow proclaim, “It cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to encourage hearing the inner voice of the soul’s yearning.” For each of these musical women, kol isha is no theoretical question, but is central to how they will live their lives and pursue their chosen paths.
There are few places in the Orthodox world where halakhic issues are discussed from the perspectives both of the rabbis and of the people for whom these decisions are critical. The JOFA Journal is a forum in which the voices of women struggling with, and living joyously with, halakha can be heard. It is a place where “the dance” that is the process of halakha can take place.