The past two years have seen a surprising explosion of music from a new generation of young ultra-Orthodox women. While coronavirus has pulled the plug on women-only concerts for now, they are using YouTube, Instagram, and Spotify to inspire other women while staying true to their core beliefs. And if you look a bit closer, you just may see the cultural revolution taking place underneath.
For centuries, Jewish women have observed—and struggled with—kol isha, the prohibition against a man hearing the voice of a woman singing. The Talmud in Tractate Brachot, in a passage discussing the minimal levels of modesty required to recite the Shema prayer, states that a woman’s voice is sexually arousing and therefore forbidden. The boundaries of this assertion have been questioned and analyzed in every generation since. Now, in a world where music is everywhere and social media is ubiquitous, even those who adhere strictly to the letters of the law are starting to explore where the ruling’s boundaries really end.
“As a kid, whenever I told people that I wanted to sing professionally, I was told that it just wasn’t done,” said Nechama Cohen. “People would say it was forbidden, but it was really important to me. Then in high school, I went to speak with our family’s Rav [rabbinical adviser] about it to hear what he thought. After a few minutes of hearing what I had to say, he said, ‘you need to sing. The world needs it.’ And then I started figuring out how to do this.”
Cohen released her first album, Heartbeat, eight years ago—when she was 20—with a note on the cover stating that her music was for women and girls only. “When I first started, I just knew that I wasn’t supposed to sing in front of men,” said Cohen, who lives with her husband in Lakewood, New Jersey. “But as I learned more, I understood that that the prohibition is really for the man, not the woman. It’s his job not to listen, it’s not my job not to sing. There are also different opinions about whether recorded music has the same rules as live music. The women-only prohibition is not to put a stumbling block for men by singing live music in a place where they can’t avoid it.”
Heartbeat was a big success. “I was surprised that the feedback was so overwhelmingly positive,” Cohen recalled. “Women started coming up to me and thanking me for doing this, saying they needed more.”
Kol isha can be somewhat of a polarizing topic even among Orthodox Jews. “While there are many communities where women would not rely on certain leniencies, there is plenty of room in the Halacha to support these women’s reasoning,” a teacher at a modern Orthodox women’s seminary in Jerusalem commented. He added that his mentor said that “when it comes to live singing, the Halacha is objective. But when you aren’t aren’t seeing her live, it becomes subjective: Does this arouse unclean feelings or not?”
That Haredi women are suddenly everywhere online, with their own brands of music, modest fashion, and kosher cooking, isn’t as surprising as it may seem. “Younger Haredim are more modern, and more exposed to Western culture, than their parents’ generation,” said Lee Cahaner, a researcher in the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There are many reasons for this, but part of it has to do with new career options for women. Until 20 years ago, most Haredi women learned to be teachers, a profession that encouraged them to represent and pass on the values of the community. But then the colleges and seminar programs responded to changing needs by offering training for other occupations, like business, technology, and design. This had a profound effect, as women began seeking career advancement, working in mixed environments, and becoming exposed to new ideas.”
These Haredi women, said Cahaner, are “pioneers” in their various fields.
“My music—and my mission in life—is about inspiring other women,” said Chaya Kogan, a 32-year-old singer living in Rehovot. “Growing up in a Chabad family, I didn’t always relate to the Hasidic Jewish music that was available then, but there was nothing else available that was kosher. I dreamt of making original Jewish music that was modest, modern, and beautiful.”
Kogan, who grew up in Australia and Israel, spent nine years living in Moscow on shlichut before moving back to Israel three years ago. It was at that time that she started singing live for groups of women. In February 2019, Kogan catapulted to stardom when her video “Hakol Mimcha” went viral, attracting more views on YouTube than any song by a Haredi female had before. She has since produced several other covers with nearly 200,000 views each, and has become one of the best-known singers in her field.
But traditional values and family come before success, Kogan said: “My first job is being a mother, and my five children come before my career. My husband, father, and brother listen to my music and are very supportive, but my music is only for women, from my heart to theirs, and my goal is to inspire as many women through my music as possible. Although YouTube is a public platform and anyone can watch anything, I would prefer that men don’t watch my videos. On every video I write ‘for women and girls only’ and I hope that men respect my wishes. According to Halacha, if I write specifically that the music is for women and girls only, that’s enough. If, in spite of that, a man decides to watch it, it’s his business. I feel that I have a shlichus [mission] in life, and this is part of what it takes to do it.”
While most people are “very supportive and appreciative of what I’m doing,” said Kogan, “some people don’t agree with me uploading my videos to YouTube. I’m always willing to discuss things in a respectful manner, but if I see that people are expressing themselves in a disrespectful manner, then I don’t respond. When I see that someone wants to understand, then I explain what I’m doing and how it works according to Halacha.”
Despite her popularity, Kogan is uncomfortable with the idea that her videos helped pave the way for younger singers. “I never saw it that way,” she said. “‘Hakol Mimcha’ came out at a time when women were just starting to get the guts to put out music videos. The only difference was that my video was the first one to be produced on a very high professional level.”
Esther Freeman has a somewhat different perspective. “I’m 36 now, and I’ve been performing since I was 19,” she said. “Women have been performing in front of women for many years. What’s different now is that social media platforms have made it easier for women to find a platform. Before YouTube, frum Jewish music producers wouldn’t distribute women’s albums, so there was no channel as accessible.”
Freeman was raised in a Chabad family in Miami, where she grew up singing and dancing in school plays. “I knew a lot of secular music, but I didn’t like the messages they were sending,” she said. “Now, my dream is to show Jewish girls that they can make their own music with holy messages and express their own voices.”
Freeman recalled a moving moment after a concert a few years back in Crown Heights, Brooklyn: “After the show, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I want you to know that I’m very Hasidish, but I’ve always found it difficult to pray. But when I hear you sing, I feel like I am praying with you.’ For me, this is a statement of beautiful, modest femininity in the world. We are singing to connect with each other, ourselves, and God, not to be sexualized like so many celebrities. We women need to shine our light to bring redemption to the world.”
For 25-year-old Shaindy Plotzker, the decision to sing on stage came after a deep internal battle. “I had been working behind the scenes, recording Jewish music for various organizations and events since I was in my teens, but I never showed my face publicly,” she said. “I wasn’t sure that I was comfortable with going public, and quite honestly, I didn’t know if there was a place for or a need for religious female singers—but one day, a wise person told me, ‘God gave you something for a reason, you don’t have the right to keep it yourself.’ She planted a message in my head, but although I started to think about putting my music out there, I was still really unsure about the idea.”
Plotzker managed to ignore the message until she woke one morning in the summer of 2019 unable to speak. “At first I ignored it, but it didn’t go away. I was diagnosed with vocal nodules, growths on the vocal folds, and I had several very scary months when I was going back and forth to doctors, not knowing if I’d ever be able to speak again, much less sing. But I try to live life knowing that everything has a reason from above, and I understood that God took my voice away for a reason. So last January, I promised Hashem that if He would give me my voice back, I would use it to inspire girls around the world. Two months later, when I finished my voice therapy, I went and opened the Instagram page for my singing career.”
Her singing career is less than a year old, but Plotzker’s Instagram account now has more than 10,000 followers—all women. The photo- and video-sharing social media app has a setting that allows users to limit who can follow them, and Plotzker has spent tens of hours filtering men out of what she calls her “Insta-family,” with whom she shares music and personal moments.
“I try to use my singing to do good in the world, because I believe that’s why we’re here,” Plotzker said. “It’s important to me to use my platform to spread messages of hope, positivity, kindness, and the power of a smile. I’m always careful with how I act and dress because I understand the power behind my actions and I want to always maintain a positive influence. Although it is a very strong challenge, I choose to see beauty in the laws of kol isha, and I am grateful that they allow me to connect to women in such a special way. It means so much to me when women tell me that their daughters view me as a kosher role model. I think it’s so important for girls to see religious women performing in a kosher way, and for them to feel empowered to follow their dreams.”
Zev Stub is the founder of Bagels.TV, a Jewish video and music portal.