The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Ochilateinu: New Contexts for Religious–Spiritual Musicianship among Observant Women in Israel

The first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen the exponential growth of a female-only religious Jewish musical landscape in which Orthodox women find musical expression. In 2021 one could attend tens of women-only events during the High Holiday season combining musical performance with participatory singing, from women-only selichot concerts before Rosh Hashanah to women-only hakafot sheniyot after Simchat Torah; these peak events build on shared year-round musical practices including communal singing at religious girls’ schools and seminaries, women-only readings of the scrolls of Esther and Lamentations, and a growing cadre of female musicians performing at private events and recording religious music for female audiences. Some of these performances have even seeped into the public sphere: in 2013, religious teenager Ofir Ben Shitrit made the Israeli news when she was suspended from her school for appearing on reality singing programme The Voice; in 2021, religious singer Narkis sang at the Miss Universe contest in Eilat.

Drawing upon recent scholarship that addresses self-cultivation and modesty in women’s religious lives, this paper surveys the musical lives of Orthodox Jewish women in Israel, seeking to understand how spiritual-musical practices--whether framed as concerts, prayers, songwriting or private listening--form a creative and dynamic space for Orthodox women to experience connection to the divine, to reimagine and embody community, and to renegotiate the norms of synagogue prayer, while observing gender segregation and adhering to spiritual and religious norms of experience, spiritual excitement, and what is considered appropriate music. I argue that musical performance and consumption, which fall in a grey space between religious ritual and entertainment, serve as an important arena within which women can create, share and experience new paradigms of spiritual selfhood and community while not positioning their practices as an explicit challenge to established Orthodox social and religious norms.