Finding My Voice Through the Book of Ruth

I have always fancied myself as a feminist. When I was in primary school, I remember arguing with one of the rabbis about why Shacharit club (an early morning prayer group) was only for boys, and being super disappointed that the reason given was that only they will one day be needed to make up a minyan, although as a concession I could attend if I really wanted to. This was 1989.

Since then, whenever the opportunity has arisen to have a meaningful discussion about women’s roles in Judaism, I have been keen to take part.

That said, when it came to me actually doing anything– leading a women’s only mezumin, reciting kiddush out loud— I always shied away. The reason was twofold: firstly I can’t read Hebrew brilliantly, and secondly, my singing voice is universally acknowledged to be pretty terrible. More like a man than an angel. Ever since a disastrous solo as Mrs. Noah in a school play, I have been advised to avoid public solo singing, and I have.

So, when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to read Megillat Ruth in synagogue, my response was the same as when I was asked to take part in reading Megillat Esther. I will happily come along and listen, and have an argument with anyone that thinks women ought not to read megillah… however, I’d leave the actual performing to the others.

Unfortunately, this time my friend misunderstood my response and before I knew it, an email had gone around with Megillat Ruth divided up and I was given nine verses in the first chapter. Eeek.

If I pulled out then, I would feel like I was turning my back on the sisterhood in a very public way, and so it was that my journey with Ruth began.

My first step was to read the story. I knew the basics–Naomi, Ruth, conversion, feet– but I thought “If I’m leading a community in this I need to know the story a bit better.” So I read it through a few times, got myself very familiar with the characters, and then I started on the Hebrew.

My husband, thankfully, has been leyning since childhood and can speak and read Hebrew fluently so he set out the task of teaching me the notes. Not so easy. The tune of Ruth is fairly subtle when sang by an expert, with no obvious or memorable melody so you can imagine my struggle. Having listened to men leyning most of my life, I was surprised by the discipline involved. I don’t have brothers so I never experienced the Bar Mitzvah boy prep first-hand, and getting to grips with the mahpach, pashdach and the reveee (all various squiggles and dots which tell me when to go up, come down, pause) was tricky. Bizarrely though, I found myself quite enjoying learning the new mini language. On the way to work, I sang along with my YouTube recording of Moshe Weisblum, during the kids’ bath time I was humming the non-tune tune, and every night before bed I read through it once. May seem a little extreme, but I was nervous.

We had our first and only group practice at the Rebbetzin’s house. While it was true that my voice was nowhere near as beautiful as the other women’s voices, and did indeed sound a bit like a breaking 13-year-old boy’s voice, I got through it, I think, without any serious mistakes. Big sigh of relief.

Second day of Shavuot arrived and I woke up feeling like it was my bar mitzvah. Ridiculous, seeing as how I was one of many women reading megillah and my part was really rather small. However, it felt like for the first time ever, I was going to take an active role in the service. I had graduated from observer to participant and it was wonderful. Lots of friends and family came to hear me and, as I stood at the bima, podium, for the first time, I felt like my heart was about to burst. These were my words in my megillah in my synagogue and I was finally connected to my Judaism in a way I have never before experienced. My musical ability didn’t matter one bit, I took a deep breath and I was off. It was good and I felt proud. After having had my Jewish voice silenced by Orthodoxy for so long, this experience made two things really clear to me. We must give our girls a voice, and now that I’ve found mine, no one is taking it away! I look forward to lots more learning and leyning in the future…

Don’t miss out on the 3rd Annual JOFA UK Conference on June 28. Buy your tickets here.

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