- A Season of Singing: Creating Feminist Jewish Music in the United States by Sarah M. Ross
A Season of Singing: Creating Feminist Jewish Music in the United States
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016. 264 pp.
It is widely acknowledged that the feminist revolution that began in the United States in the 1960s relied heavily on music to spread its messages of empowerment and social equality. Alongside their male counterparts, female folksingers and proponents of "women's music" used their art to advance their social and political agendas. The concurrent rise of a significant corpus of feminist Jewish music is an area that has received scant attention from ethnographers, historians and musicologists, perhaps because a study that deals with the intersection of feminism, Judaism and music requires specialized knowledge that reaches across disciplinary boundaries.
Sarah M. Ross's new book, A Season of Singing: Creating Feminist Jewish Music in the United States, thus fills a significant gap in the literature on these subjects. Ross, a professor of Jewish music in the Center for Jewish Music at Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media in Germany, brings methods from ethnography and ethnomusicology, including extensive interviews from fieldwork as well as text-based literary and musicological studies, to bear on her subject. What emerges is a rich, detailed and highly accessible picture of the women and men who reshaped Jewish ritual, spirituality and identity through their music during this progressive and volatile period in the United States.
Ross's volume is organized into an introduction and four chapters. The introduction, describing the wide-ranging social, political and religious movements that gave rise to the feminist Jewish music scene in the United States and allowed it to thrive, provides essential context for the rest of the volume. Among the dramatic changes that affected the roles of women and their music in American Judaism were the increasing sense of religion as a voluntary choice rather than a mandatory inheritance; Jews' relationship to the State of Israel in the years around the Six Day War; and the U.S. Civil Rights movement and the connections between Jews and African American leaders. Changes in women's relationships to religion and spirituality, broadly speaking, manifested themselves in the Jewish feminist movement. Ross [End Page 223] identifies the work of Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly in the 1960s and 70s as foundational not only to Daly's own religion but to Jewish women as well. Daly articulated the "inherent connection between religion and gender," arguing for "religion's part in defining gender roles as depending on the construction and maintenance of the core belief in the fundamental connection between woman and nature" (p. 19). Jewish writers and activists drew on these ideas: Ross cites Judith Plaskow's work from the 1980s for its importance in providing a new understanding of women in American Judaism. Central to this new understanding was the resistance by Jewish musicians to the halakhic (Jewish legal) principle of kol be'ishah 'ervah ("a woman's voice is erotic"), which historically has restricted observant Jewish women from singing in public. Consistent with the feminist critique of patriarchal cultures, Jewish feminist musicians reinterpreted this principle, placing women's voices at the forefront of their new music.
Part One of Ross's book comprises two chapters. Chapter One surveys the biographies and core influences of the singer-songwriters (most often they are both) who were "pioneers of feminist Jewish songwriting in the United States," and who sought "through the power of their music to unite men and women in synagogue worship" (pp. 37–38). The first and perhaps most widely known figure is the late Debbie Friedman, many of whose songs have become mainstream across denominational divides. While Friedman's music has been treated in some past studies, the other musicians discussed in this chapter—Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel, Rabbi Shefa Gold and Linda Hirschhorn—are less well known outside the feminist Jewish music scene. Ross presents both traditional life-and-works overviews as well as fascinating and valuable excerpts from interviews, in which the singer-songwriters articulate their own understandings of their work. Ross...