Hello, and happy Monday! I’m writing to remind you that EthNoise! will meet this Thursday, March 7, in Rosenwald 301 starting at 5 pm. The presenter is Mili Leitner Cohen (PhD candidate, Ethnomusicology), who will be presenting a chapter of her dissertation. Although there is no pre-circulated paper for the workshop, I ask that you take the time to read through the long abstract/message from Mili below. I also want to mention the possibility that the workshop could extend an additional 30 minutes (until 6:50 pm). Those who need to leave at the regular time of 6:20 pm will certainly be welcome to do so, although the workshop will be providing dinner in lieu of lighter snacks to accommodate the extended time frame. Please don’t hesitate to email before Thursday’s workshop if you have any questions at all. I look forward to seeing you then!
I’m very much looking forward to sharing some of my work with you all on March 7th on a long overdue trip back from my fieldsite, Jerusalem. This is my first opportunity to process 18 months spent in the field, in particular some emotionally challenging work on religion and gender that will form the basis of my second chapter. There will be no pre-circulated paper, but I attach below a long abstract that will serve as an introduction and also lays out the areas in which I request your collective help.
What Women Want: The Weaponization of Women’s Sung Prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall
Every religious Jerusalemite has an opinion on the best route by which to cross the Old City on foot in order to reach the Kotel (Western Wall). Mine starts at Jaffa Gate in West Jerusalem, turns left just before St James’ Church and takes the sloping, narrow alleyways to the Roman Cardo, proceeds through the commercial square that hosts Hurva synagogue, and ends with a seemingly endless descent down white limestone stairs. Just before the route’s final turn, I perform my ritual of pausing to absorb the panorama of the Mount of Olives, Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Kotel. Today, Friday 9th of November, as I reach this east-facing lookout, the sun has not yet risen above these monuments – it is, after all, not yet 7am. At the foot of the Kotel a dense mass of people face the Wall. Thousands have gathered to mark Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new Jewish month) by praying Shacharit, the morning prayer service, at Judaism’s holiest site. Along two-thirds of the Wall’s length their backs are white, draped with talitot (prayer shawls). A sharp line divides them from a sea of black, for once packed more densely than the white-attired crowd. Though I cannot see the physical barrier separating men and women, I can see this physical and sociological rendering thereof from afar. A small patch of white and pink nestled amongst the black reminds me why I am here at this ungodly hour. I complete my route with some trepidation, passing through airport-style security to the expansive plaza with its slippery marble floor towards the sign “nashim” – women, past a few hundred Haredi men being constrained behind police barriers, and down into the women’s section.
The women’s area is usually silent but for babies’ cries and the scrape of plastic chairs being dragged over marble paving as a few dozen women silently jostle for their favored prayer areas. Men sing their prayers in small groups on the other side of the mechitza, but I barely hear them. Today, though, the women’s section is a heterophonous jumble of singing, shouting, whistling, and shushing. I weave through the tight, neat lines of Haredi women towards that patch of white and pink. I cannot yet see them, but I follow the sounds that will lead me there. Heavily American-accented voices crack as they strain their vocal chords at the top of their chest voice, more declaiming than singing their prayers. Vocal quality is a secondary consideration to decibel level because they have stiff competition this morning. Protruding over the mechitza is a loudspeaker relaying a service from the out-of-view men’s section. The rest of the women alternate between hushing at the Americans and singing responsive prayer lines to the disembodied male voice. A few punctuate their performance by engaging in ideological shouting matches with security forces. Whistles and high-pitched screams provide a ceaseless inverted drone to complete the performance.
This is the scene at the Kotel every Rosh Chodesh. The liberal American group Women of the Wall and their Haredi Israeli counter-protesters Women for the Wall raise their voices in battle and in prayer. For all of the similarities between their simultaneous services – the same melodies; the same canonized liturgical text and structure; the same participatory roles for attendees; the disembodied leaders’ voices – at this moment liturgy is not primarily a prayer practice for either group. Instead, it is leveraged as a sonic weapon of protest and conflict as each group performs its differing ideas about how women’s voices should sound in public Jewish prayer.
It is the differences between these groups’ musical practices that encode their attitudes, in particular their respective relationships to the State of Israel’s religious laws. The Ministry of Religious Services controls the Kotel and runs the space like an orthodox Jewish synagogue. Women of the Wall fervently object to this. They approach Judaism from a Western feminist perspective that presumes gender equality and integration as desirable and attainable, not only in civil life but in ritual worship too. Traditional Judaism begins from an assumption of ontological and sociological gender difference, which translates into a strict gendered division of labor whereby ritual performance is a male domain. But the Euro-American Reform movement, from where Women of the Wall derives its support, rejects this historical norm in favor of gender blindness in ritual life. We hear their rejection of Israeli religious policy, and embrace of diasporic liberal Judaism, when we attend to their American accented Hebrew, their choice of Western diatonic melodies and, most obviously, their female prayer leadership.
While Women of the Wall conduct their prayers independently and with an awareness of the presence of media, government officials, and protestors, their Haredi counter-protesters Women for the Wall listen rather than wanting to be listened to, responding to the male shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) and joining his songs as an act of private, intimate devotion rather than public performance. Their shaliach tzibbur of choice is trained in a Sephardi Middle Eastern style. His maqamic intonation aligns him with the Jewish ethnic communities with historical origins in the Middle East and North Africa that now reside almost entirely in Israel. Combined with his native Hebrew accent and the very fact that he is a man presiding over a women’s event, the sound of this group’s prayers square their identity and prayer ideology with that of the government. The unseen voice broadcast by the governmentally-funded speaker facilitates these mostly-Haredi women protestors’ prayers, but it is amplified primarily to disrupt Women of the Wall’s purportedly non-halachic prayer (that is, prayer that contravenes Jewish law).
Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with each group’s members and leadership, I present and assess these diverse women’s discourses about women’s singing voices at the Kotel, including the significance of nusach (Jewish ethnic singing style), vocal quality in liturgy, denominational/ideological conflicts, and the politicization of women’s intimate praying voices. I seek to understand why both of these groups defy the practices described by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. Why do Haredi women sing in public?1 Why do Reform women choose gender segregation in their fight for gender equality? How might we better understand Jewish gender dynamics in light of this sonically violent religious self-assertion by women? How do these groups’ respective ritual practices project Israeliness or diasporic sentiment?
In undertaking this fieldwork, I also confront my own position as an ethnographer situated ideologically between these two camps, with a personal vested interest in the issues at hand. I hope that EthNoise participants will assist me in working through my desire to convey fundamentalist religious ideologies respectfully and empathetically without unduly compromising my own authorial voice, personal integrity, or analytic capacity.
1Ethnomusicological studies have claimed that due to the halachic concept of kol isha, orthodox Jewish women may not and will not sing outside of the domestic sphere (Adelstein 2013; Koskoff 1995 and 2004; Shelemey 2009). Evidently this is not the case at the Kotel, where Haredi women sing along with the shaliach tzibbur and respond to antiphonal prayers.