Growing up in Brooklyn, Chana Raskin was exposed to different genres of Jewish music from a young age. With family lineage traceable all the way back to the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad branch of Hasidism, the Raskins always had a particularly special relationship with wordless Jewish melodies known as niggunim. Most often made up of rhythmic sounds (“lai-lai-lai” or “bim-bam,” for instance) instead of lyrics, and sung or hummed in groups, niggunim were composed by Hasidic leaders, often hundreds of years ago.
“My father loves niggunim and he would always sing them. We grew up with Chabad music,” Raskin said, adding that as one of eight children, singing niggunum was a family affair. “We used to sing a lot at the Shabbat table, on motzei shabbat [when Shabbat ends on Saturday night], and we would always play these Chabad niggunim albums.”
These melodies, which provide an intense spiritual experience to all participants that aims to elevate the soul, are sung at Hasidic gatherings. They are sung by men and women alike, but separately; Orthodox men are prohibited from hearing women singing, for reasons of modesty—a prohibition known as kol isha. (There are more lenient opinions from some rabbis that exclude singing in mixed groups from the prohibition.)
While professional recordings of Hasidic niggnum in a male voice exist and many people will listen to them outside of traditional gatherings, to date, no full album of professionally recorded Hasidic niggunim in a woman’s voice exists—even though in Orthodox Jewish law, there is a debate about whether kol isha extends to recorded female voices.
This is about to change with the release of 35-year-old Raskin’s album Kapelya, which comprises more than a dozen Chabad Hasidic niggunim sung by Raskin, who uses the name RAZA when performing. The album features vocals from an additional circle of 21 women including a small group of female instrumentalists who come from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and are not exclusively from the Chabad movement. The only man to feature in any capacity on the album is Joey Weisenberg, a well-known Jewish musician-composer who does not sing on the album, but appears as an instrumentalist on some of Raskin’s tracks. Weisenberg also produced and musically directed the entire project and album with Raskin. Other men were also involved in the making of the album, including male recording engineers and filmographers.
While many Orthodox women do not sing in public due to the prohibitions against men hearing their voices, Raskin does not mind performing for mixed audiences and created her album for anybody who wants to listen to it—including men, if they would like. “My hope is that women in the various communities I am connected to, including the broad-spectrum religious community, [such as] the Hasidic community, will get to listen to this music,” she said. “I hope that women will start singing and listening and know that they can and are invited to start singing and listening more deeply to this music as their own.”
The first single from Kapelya is slated for release on Dec. 13, which corresponds with the Jewish date of the 19th of Kislev—an auspicious date in the Hasidic calendar and is often considered the Rosh Hashanah of Hasidism—with the full album slated for release in February 2023.
A successful crowdfunding campaign for Raskin’s album in July this year cemented her status as a trailblazer in the world of Hasidic music, where the voices of women are often scarce. It is hoped that the story of these niggunim will resonate with all people across the spectrum of Judaism and the recordings of women singing niggunim will empower a new generation.
“My family, everyone has been so extraordinarily supportive. My parents and siblings got together and sponsored a track on the album. There is one niggun on the track [called ‘Klimovitch’] that is from the place where my mum’s parents, my grandparents, came from,” said Raskin. Many niggunim originated from the city in Russia, which is home to a vibrant Chabad Hasidic community, but the niggun recorded by Raskin is the only one called the “The Klimovitcher niggun.”
This album is also a part of Raskin’s personal healing journey. Just over eight years ago, she sustained a minor traumatic brain injury, which completely changed her life. “I spent two years in rehab and recovery. Much of the last couple of years has been cognitive rehabilitation. Music has been a really big part of that. Humming and music and stillness has been my healing,” she said. “During the past many years of recovery, music and singing has become a haven, a teacher, a place where I could just be. And that has been the deepest learning, the wisdom of rest, of quiet, of listening, that has informed all the music on this album.”
While Raskin has always been musically inclined, she had never considered herself a musician by trade. However, in the years since her injury, she began teaching music more regularly and consistently. During her recovery, Raskin facilitated musical singing experiences for groups of mainly women, but on occasion from mixed audiences, called Raza circles. “Raza is an Aramaic word that means ‘hidden,’” she explained. “When I started the circles it was about uncovering or discovering a sound that felt hidden, even from me. I heard a whisper sometimes in my mind. I started the circles with the hope of trying to get to the sound … Even though I was still physically and cognitively struggling, I needed to do something that would nourish my soul. I did monthly circles open to all and eventually also weekly circles for a dedicated group of musicians—all women. That’s when I officially deep-dived into the niggunim.”
In recent years, the interest in creating new Jewish music has been largely driven by Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, founded by Weisenberg. The institute hopes to encourage the creation of Jewish music that resonates with many audiences. Raskin’s album is one of their projects. Rabbi Deborah Sacks Mintz is Hadar’s director of tefillah and music, where her role involves creating opportunities for communal music and song. Through this role, she supports emerging artists and prayer leaders, partnering with the Rising Song Institute in the cultivation of new Jewish music.
“The artists that we work with come from myriad diverse backgrounds, cultures, lived experiences, and reasons for creating music in the first place. [At Hadar] our goal is to cultivate Jewish life through that diversity of song and to find the spiritual underpinnings of that music,” she said. “One of the core features of much of the music at the Rising Song Institute, at its essence, is that the music brings together the old and the new. And many of our artists—myself included as a composer—explore what that looks like through ancient texts paired with new melodies and voices, and these are important contributions to the soundscape of Jewish life.”
As niggunim are traditionally sung in groups, to create Kapelya, and be authentic to the genre, additional singers were required for the recordings. A core group of seven called the RAZA ensemble, composed of female singers and instrumentalists including Sacks Mintz, and spearheaded by Weisenberg, formed to support Raskin as she recorded the tunes. In addition to this core group, another team of women called the RAZA Circle were also involved. “[These women] created the real fire and power of this record,” said Sacks Mintz.
Sacks Mintz is not surprised that Raskin’s journey led her to this recording project.
“I had been hearing about Chana Raskin for many years, as myself a woman who loved to foster communal singing experiences. I couldn’t go anywhere in the Jewish world without someone bringing up her name and asking me if she and I had ever sung together,” said Sacks Mintz. “I found her journey of excavating and exploring and unearthing the treasures of her own voice as a woman incredibly inspirational. Something unique that Chana is bringing with her musical traditions, is that she breathes old melodies to life with new voices and new perspectives. And that’s particularly exciting and courageous.”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.