no voice only a hand

Why I’m Still Not Keeping Kol Eesha

Every little girl wants to be a singer at some point or another. Maybe that’s generalizing, maybe that’s false, but for me it was the truest thing in the entire world.

I grew up with humble heroes like Hilary Duff and Demi Lovato in my life, watching movies about shy singer song-writers who catch the chance of a lifetime to follow their dreams and show their music to the world. I carried a stupid little journal around and filled it up with song lyrics of my own. I begged my mother for a guitar. I learned, I wrote more, and I sang as loud as I could without allowing my voice to travel through the vents. I sang at school talent shows, Christmas shows, school musicals; you name it, I was singing there.

Yes, I am one of those angsty people who can accurately attribute “getting through it all,” to music.

Well, maybe not all of it, but definitely some.

You know you’re in deep when you have to force yourself to do the things you love. When the beloved hobbies you’ve owned and tamed become your worst nightmares.

A year ago, I still would’ve called myself a musician. Creating music was a part of my every day. From summer camp, to USY bus trips, to seminary, playing guitar was a great way to make friends. Even when I got to college I kept it up. I kept writing and made sure to play whenever I got the chance, from school open mics to street corners.

I was never shy to break out my guitar and show my  newest original song to whoever would give me the time of day. I would practice in the bathroom where the acoustics were just dandy, and record crappy renditions of First Aid Kit songs on the recorder on my phone. People who barely knew me would greet me and ask, “How’s the music going?” To which I would reply, “It’s still going.”

Or something like that.

I identified as a musician shamelessly, despite my three-chord ballads and rejections from multiple a cappella groups.

I identified as a musician until the day I gave up.

I always knew about Kol Eesha (the prohibition that refers to women singing in public/in front of men) but never quite understood it. Whenever it came up in conversation I managed to brush it under the table. There was never much to say about it.

“It says it somewhere in the Gemara”

“It has something to do with modesty.”

“It’s not taken so seriously anymore.”

“I think if it’s two women or more it doesn’t count.”

And this was all I knew. There was nothing to worry about. I never considered singing in public to be sinful or immodest. I thought it was powerful, spiritual, and even holy. It was so uplifting for me to sing in a quiet room, my voice bouncing off the light fixtures. It was like flying.

When the topic of Kol Eesha was raised it was often pushed aside. A lot of people told me not to worry about it.

“It’s not good to take on too many things at once. It’ll make you hate everything.”

After years of hearing about Kol Eesha and ignoring it entirely, I finally decided to ask.

So last summer I sat down with my rabbi and I popped the question.

“What the heck is this Kol Eesha thing? And do I actually need to follow it?

I’m not a spiteful person. I understand that the Torah is full of Chokim (laws we cannot understand) and I know better than to throw the baby away with the bathwater when something seems far-fetched or difficult. I was told again and again that everyone comes born and installed with their own challenges including specific Halachot which are more difficult to honor than others. G-d does it on purpose to test us.

But when my rabbi paused, looked at me and said, “Yes, it is a thing,” my heart dropped to the floor, a thousand thoughts racing through my head.

I’m not allowed to sing? Ever? Only in front of women? And family? And one day, my husband?

Because it isn’t appropriate? Because it isn’t modest?

I’m not one to ask a question only to disregard the answer, but in this particular area, I was absolutely baffled and had no idea where to turn.

* * *

When I was in seminary I discovered a whole world of the arts that was designated “Just for Women.” Women only karaoke nights, women only concerts, and so on. Coming from public school and just a few years in a Jewish school, my life had been very much co-ed. Men and women, mixed. Talking, studying, preforming, taking the bus together.

I didn’t understand.

So when a friend invited me to an all-women’s talent night I went along to watch.

I heard stories of women who had performed on Broadway before they became religious and started performing for only women. I heard of women who had a shot at a record deal before they found G-d and His Torah and a more meaningful life in Jerusalem.

Ballerinas, ballroom dancers, beat boxers, you name it.

It seemed that most female performers possessed some revolutionary story about giving up something huge in order to pursue a religious life.

Ones which included performing on stages raised above all-female audiences only.

I could dig it.

It seemed like a nice idea, music by women, for women.

As if women producing, staging, and, writing was entirely unheard of outside of the realms of strict Halachic observance.

So I sat in the audience as each act followed the one before.

The MC announced that an improv performance was up next. Based on previous perceptions, improv-theater usually meant crude jokes thrown as fast as possible in order to keep the audience laughing and the lines rolling. It was always co-ed, risqué, and, fast paced.

Before me were two orthodox women acting out a scene from their own imaginations. The theater was packed, the audience observant.

But the jokes weren’t funny. They were safe, slow, and, somewhat poorly delivered. A few chuckles made their way around the room. People shuffled their feet and tapped at their phone screens discretely.

I felt extremely uncomfortable. The air was thick with awkward tension, like a bad comedian in a bar who covers his lack of good humor with an abundance of sex jokes and curse words.

Except the exact opposite.

These women were modest. Careful with their words. Creative within the realms of their religious boundaries. And I appreciated it. I really, really did. But I couldn’t deny the fact that so far, I was terribly unsatisfied by what I was seeing. I mumbled to the lovely friend who had brought me. She was torn as well, sitting there hoping for the same things I was.

But then, things started looking up.

A few acts later, an astounding singer took the stage. Of course, she had a story. She had a chance to sing on Broadway before she found her place in the Jewish world.

And it was undeniable. Her voice was beyond two-dimensional words on a page. She was so professional and enchanting, every note trembling with a weighty, ghostly passion I had never seen so closely.

All I could think was, I had never heard a Jewish woman sing like that before.

And she was so open and real. But modest, all at the same time.

The performance felt so special, so private. There’s something so real about opening your mouth to sing. Singing for an audience means taking your whole body, your whole soul, and laying it out for everyone to see.

Everyone sitting in the audience.

Men, women and children.

Or in this case, only women.

And there’s something extremely personal about that. Something private, something almost secretive.

Years later I reflect on that moment.

And I think about my little voice and my little songs. And I ask myself:

If Kol Eesha is an actual prohibition, one with real backing and perhaps, a real practical application, then why aren’t I keeping it?

This past year was extremely rocky for me. I toiled with this worry and confusion left over from months of pondering. I thought about music and where my place was in it.

And slowly but surely, I stopped calling myself a musician.

I stopped looking for random open mics in NYC, I stopped practicing guitar, and eventually,

I stopped writing music altogether.

Suddenly, this thing I loved so much, this huge, unfathomable piece of myself,

Felt dirty and unfamiliar.

I lay in my bed and stared at my guitar, hanging on the wall, mocking me.

My fingers softened, my strings went out of tune. I started to panic.

What happened to me? The little girl singing in the shower?

Donner the reign deer, Maria from The Sound of Music.

The first gig I ever played in Piermont, the second-place-shout-out I received at a song writer’s competition in the city.

That’s it? It’s all gone?

Of course, this was a ridiculous way of thinking. It was dramatic and immature. But I couldn’t help it. I felt deeply hurt, oppressed, and, alone.

I couldn’t get myself to play anything. I went weeks at a time without singing at all.

Where were the other girls dealing with this issue? And where were the people who had figured out the answers?

Where was the Heter? How can I find a happy medium?

These questions still taunt me as I look for a comfortable place to stand. There’s just no way I’m alone out here.

I can’t be the only girl who feels she must practice caution on the other side of the Mechitzah when the Minyan can’t keep the tune at Kabbalat Shabbat.

I can’t be the only girl searching everywhere for a reinterpretation “Kol Be-Isha Erva.”

I can’t be the only one asking how something as special as singing and creating music must forever be divided and slanted to one side.

As I grapple with these issues I promise myself to take my guitar off the wall,

And never put it back up.