Growing up in Southern California, I was a self-professed “tomboy.” I was the girl with the uncombed, unruly hair, running as fast as I could around the bases, or hurling a softball from centerfield so as to not to “throw like a girl,” as one of my brothers had warned. I wore dungarees and T-shirts on the weekend since school forced girls to wear skirts—or at the most relaxed, culottes—during the week. My shoes were always scuffed. Someone once told me I was the “least vain girl” she’d ever known. I didn’t know if she meant that as a compliment or not, but I didn’t spend much time looking in the mirror.
I also didn’t spend much time singing. Girls like me weren’t the ones who were supposed to be able to sing.
But I found my voice, unexpectedly, at Gindling Hilltop, a socially conscious Reform Jewish summer camp nestled atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. Music was woven into everything, from the prayers we sang to greet the day, bless our food, or bid the day goodbye. On Shabbat, we sang into the place where the sky and the sea met. In addition to prayers, we sang folk and popular songs about justice, fellowship, and standing up for what was right.
I’d been going to camp through my awkward years, which was the majority of my childhood and adolescence. The summer of 1974 was the summer I finally got to shed my Milwaukee brace, which I’d been wearing to correct my scoliosis. After two and a half years of soldiering through being a well-liked social outcast, aka the “least vain girl in the world,” I’d arrived at camp like a damp butterfly who’d emerged out of my steel-encased cocoon. I was finally able to wear a store-bought halter top, as well as the other mid-’70s outfits I’d pined over the last few years. I was 15 years old.
I was sitting by the pool before dinner with one of the guitar-playing counselors I had a crush on (didn’t we all?). He was strumming Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and I started to sing along. He paused and then asked me to sing louder. I must have closed my eyes because I was so self-conscious. I took a deep breath and let my voice emerge.
After the first few words, he stopped playing. I opened my eyes. He was staring at me.
“Wow, Trank,” he said. “I had no idea you could sing. Let’s keep going.”
The next Saturday morning, I stood in front of the entire camp and sang a prayer, accompanied by this same counselor. My voice belonged to someone I didn’t know. It surprised everyone, especially me. I tried to keep my eyes open the entire time and when I did, I could see the look of shock that had taken hold across the room, from the other counselors to my friends. They were all thinking the same thing.
My voice belonged to someone with long blond straight hair. Or perfect ringlets. Not the “least vain girl” in the world with a back brace and badly straightened hair. The only Jewish girls I knew who had big, beautiful voices were Barbra Streisand and Carole King.
After that summer, I kept on singing—at my Reform temple and in high school, where I became a card-carrying member of the Culver City High School theater geek squad. I worked my way up the ranks, from singing “Day by Day” in Godspell, to the lead role of Mrs. Anna in The King and I. And I kept singing at temple and at camp. My signature song was the terribly sad “Eli, Eli.” As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I felt connected to the minor notes and haunting melody, as well as the lyrics linking the ocean and prayer.
I graduated from high school and left camp behind to study theater at a school in the Midwest where it was definitely not cool to be, look, or sound Jewish. Theater became my religion during and after college; Judaism went from being central to my life to being something I only thought about occasionally.
But that changed when I became a parent. I wanted our kids to feel the same full heart around being Jewish, which was not an easy task in suburban Colorado in the late 1990s. Jewish life existed in Denver, or in Boulder, but not in our quiet little town. After my father-in-law passed away and we could only locate one rabbi who would conduct his memorial because he’d chosen cremation, I wandered into her Renewal shul for Rosh Hashanah. She led the congregation in an emotional rendition of the Shema, which I joined in at full voice from the back row. It was my reentry into Jewish music and within a few months I was standing on the bimah singing “Eli, Eli” once more. But while I loved the feeling of my voice filling the synagogue—what theater kid wouldn’t love that?—the music was lonely for me. The voices of the other members were shy. I felt like a performer, not a congregant. The experience fed my ego, but not my soul, or spirit.
Jewish life was changing in our town and a charming young Chabad rabbi and his wife arrived with their young family, committed to building a Jewish center right where we lived. We jumped in and began to be part of the small mishmash of Jewish families who also wanted to help build a community in Longmont. We started attending events and enrolled our children in the weekly Hebrew school. The way everyone pitched in and helped brought me back to my childhood and to camp, which through my SoCal Reform Jewish lens, I naturally associated with singing. I imagined joining in the Hasidic nigunim and the traditional blessings. But I learned otherwise when I sang out at the first service we attended.
We were seated in a small storefront situated between a gun-and-ammo store and a chiropractor off Main Street. Fake trees marked the mechitza in the middle of the room. I could see my husband on the other side. I sat with the women. I might have been the only one wearing pants. We came to my most beloved part of any Jewish service, the Shema. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath and let out my voice. I was the only female voice that could be heard. When I opened my eyes, I could feel looks from both sides of the fake trees.
At this point in my Jewish life, I was ignorant of most Orthodox rules, but soon found out that I’d crossed a line that was more solid than plastic leaves planted in a pot. I asked one of the women why none of them sang out loud. She kindly smiled and said these words: kol isha, the Orthodox law that forbids a man from hearing a woman’s singing voice.
I had no idea, growing up Reform, what a complicated thing singing is for Jewish women. At my childhood temple, we all sat together, voices rising in a mishmash of young and old, male and female. At camp, all our young lungs belted out as a collective yes to American Jewish identity. For me, singing has always been a deeply spiritual act and one that I feel throughout my body. There is no other feeling like it for me in the world when I’m able to hit a note with the right amount of breath and meaning. It sets my world on fire.
The women’s silence was nothing I’d ever experienced in my entire life as a Jew. But after the loneliness of my most recent Jewish singing experience, I was willing to quiet my voice to learn about this part of our shared heritage.
As I began to explore the quiet of my experience on the women’s side of the mechitza, it felt private and contained, which I suppose I was seeking during this time in my life. After I’d been trained to hit the last row of every room I sang in, or to sing on top of mountains into the Pacific Ocean, bringing my voice down to a barely audible murmur that almost matched the rest of the women felt awkward and interesting. However, since I’d already unleashed my voice, my quiet was noted, and no matter how quiet I got, I still couldn’t completely silence the melody that I felt in my body. That I was not willing to let go of. But the uncomfortable stares and glances stopped. At least for a while.
It took a few years and much hard work, but our community’s dream of a Jewish center had finally come to fruition, allowing our congregation to move away from the strip mall and into a posh multiuse development, one that could better accommodate how much the Jewish community in our town had grown. It was the first Rosh Hashanah in the new space. Unfamiliar faces filled the seats, along with a cast of characters. I looked around and was met with knowing smiles of all the others who had participated in this new phase of Jewish life in Longmont. A sense of collective pride filled the space.
As I sat on my side of the room, I thought about my father and how he’d been a part of building the Jewish community where I grew up. He and one of my uncles had literally poured the foundation of the temple we attended. I felt very connected to him and knew he’d be proud of my part in helping to build the Jewish life here. When the ark opened and the hazzan began the first notes of the Shema, that emotion in my body rose up and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t stifle it. I let my voice out in full “back row” mode. I kept my eyes closed but could feel the stares and uncomfortable shiftings; I could feel the “who does she think she is?” I stared back, eyes wide open, wondering why anyone on either side of the room would judge my right to sing in celebration with God.
The looks were from people I cared about, even loved, from the youngest children, to grandmothers; from a slight tensing in the rabbi’s back, to complete strangers. But mostly, the sense of disapproval came from my side of the mechitza and that hurt the most. The moment passed, but the difficult mix of emotions, from anger, to confusion, to shame had settled in my heart.
When I raised my voice above the rest, when I let what was inside of me reach up into a holy space, without meaning to, I realized I had made the choice to use my voice as a weapon, a beautiful weapon. I might as well have sat with the men, or pushed over the fake trees that separated us. I wanted to be heard. I wanted all of us to be heard. The mistake I made was in assuming others felt the same way I did.
My voice, the one that found “the least vain girl” on the top of Malibu hill that one summer evening decades earlier, had found me again, but this time instead of being filled with innocence and wonder, it had become an object of defiance and ferocity. I’d broken the rules and despite my affection for the people and the place, I knew I’d do it again because that is what being Jewish means to me—raising my God-given voice in praise and song. A voice that was not welcome. I left shul that night knowing I’d never raise my voice in song again in that space because despite how beautiful it was, or felt, my voice would only serve to deepen a divide, much more than fake trees between rows of seats.
For now, I listen to a camp playlist and sing along to the Jewish songs of my youth. I can hear my voice among the many, all of us young and hopeful. I close my eyes and remember that time when, at the strum of a guitar, or a chord on a piano, was all that we needed to join together in song to celebrate our shared identity. I yearn to find that space again.
I’ve heard about a Jewish adult choir at a nearby Reform synagogue. I’ve emailed the director. Will that fill the void left behind in Malibu? I don’t know, but I’m willing to try. Again.
Lisa Trank is a Colorado-based writer who attended Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps for eight summers, from 1969-1977. Her work has been published in the Saturday Evening Post, Kveller, the University of Denver Journal, Tiferet, as well as a number of anthologies.