I'm taking singing lessons. This is what I discovered about my voice, Judaism, and women's lives.
This past year, I decided to start taking singing lessons. It is something I have wanted to do since I was a kid. That and take drum lessons, learn the accordion, and other musical pursuits. I have played piano my whole life and dabble in song-writing, but I’ve never taken any of it too seriously. I mean, sure, I watch women like Sara Bareilles, Carol King and Alicia Keys obsessively, completely in love with the whole persona of the singer-songwriter at the piano. These are among my favorite people in the world. I occasionally channel these amazing women at family get togethers but not with any seriousness or professional knowledge. But it wasn’t until I turned fifty and entered this whole process that I’ve been writing – freeing myself from all the old ideas stuck in my head about who I am or should be – that I decided to listen to the voice in my head telling me that this is what I want to be doing: learn to really sing.
My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Minna Bromberg, is a beautiful coach who combines vocal techniques with spiritual insights, self-acceptance wisdom, and the occasional pause for therapy. I am a bit surprised at the things that have emerged from this practice. For instance, I was very reluctant to sing in my head voice. It felt wrong, or fake. Minna told me that this is a common criticism leveled at women – that women who switch registers are deemed “shrill”. What a painful reminder of Hillary Clinton and and Lindy West and women like her who dare speak in ways that our patriarchal society disapproves of. The mocking of singing women reminded me of the many ways in which girls in high school who dared to sing were often labeled in many disparaging ways – arrogant, full of themselves, spotlight-happy, fake. Wow, I thought, contemplating the many, many ways that our culture has for keeping women down, and silent.
It is a process for me to allow my own voice. I’m afraid of lots of things – my voice cracking, going off key, sounding ridiculous, and more. The singing lessons become a regular exercise in exorcising my brain from negative thoughts about my own voice and self.
As I practice, Minna tells me that I rush my endings. I don’t “land” as powerfully as I start. That, I discovered, is a pretty consistent assessment of many aspects of my life. But it also forced me to ask me why I do that. I discovered that I often do that when I’m speaking in public as well – rush to the end of the sentence, skip the end of sentences. I actually do that often. I realized that part of me is scared that I’m boring people, that I’m speaking too much or too long, that people have to leave and I better get to the end fast. It also feels like a layover from adolescence, where everyone always speaks too fast, especially towards the ends of phrases. I was surprised at how much I’m still doing some of that.
The more I dove in, the more I heard my father’s voice in my head. He has a great intolerance for “bad speakers”. The worst thing a person who has the stage can do, according to him, is talk for too long. Or be boring. We spent a lot of Shabbat lunches listening to my father’s analysis of the rabbi’s speech, and more than anything else, the analysis was based on these parameters: too long, too boring. I definitely internalized this criticism in my life, and it has become a tendency to sometimes talk too fast, and not leave enough space for the ends of sentences.
Mostly, it’s the fear of taking up that space in public, that audio space. Like I don’t deserve to be there. Like I’m wasting someone’s time. Like I’m irritating. These are feelings that have stayed with me for a long time. Even as I continued on my path anyway. I speak often, in many types of venues, and have spoken at conferences and institutions around the world. Despite my father’s warnings in my head, I have been able to overcome that and get on with my teaching.
But not the singing.
It was surprising to me, too, how many similarities there are between speaking and singing. How the entire act of getting one’s voice out – and all the fears and anxieties associated with all that – finds different expressions. Although I’ve managed to overcome most of my fears around the speaking, when it comes to singing, I’m still catching up.
Interestingly, one of the key places where the speaking and singing intersect is in synagogue life. Singing and speaking are the two primary activities of the religious Jewish leader. My father is not a rabbi but he layns and does hazzanut. His father, David Maryles, was a famous cantor in New York in the 40 and 50s, but tragically died at the age of 39 when my father was an impressionable 12, and a proud member of the boys’ choir. As a result, everything having to do with leading services become intertwined with masculinity, Judaism, and correct living.
I grew up with all this, listening to my father recite his weekly Torah portion before going to shul. But of course, it was beautiful but inaccessible. As an Orthodox girl, our purpose was to observe, not to lead. To cheer others, often from behind a curtain or lattice wall. We could sing around the table, but not from the bima. I wrote about some of my journey vis a vis my father’s version of Jewish masculinity in my book, The Men’s Section. My many years of involvement with women’s tefilla groups and later the partnership minyan movement were part of my way of reclaiming the Torah reading, until that wasn’t satisfying for me anymore.
In the Reform movement, the connection between singing, speaking and shul is even more pronounced. Whereas in Orthodoxy, the (male) rabbi speaks but lots of other people lead the service, in Reform shuls, the rabbi does it all. During my two years of involvement studying for the Reform rabbinate, I found this both electrifying and difficult. For the first time in my life, I led communal services (as opposed to partial bits), and occasionally played piano at Shacharit. I did a poor job, and in retrospect used to play too fast and rush the endings. But the experience woke me up.
But I had a lot of trouble with the entire persona of rabbi-centric religion. That entire rabbi-knows-all persona, which is exactly the kind of dominant masculinity that I grew up with, was too confronting for me. It isn’t what I want at all.
Moreover, I am having a lot of trouble grappling with the role that singing plays in our religious leadership across denominations. Because on the one hand, music is beautiful and soulful. But on the other hand, it is also a tool for emotional manipulation. A person who can run a good kumsitz can get participants to do his bidding. I’ve been there. More than that, the idea that the person who sings best and speaks best knows best is one of the most terrifying dynamics in the Jewish world. Singing well actually has nothing to do with a person’s character. Neither does speaking. Our community is plagued with charming, charismatic, singing sexual abusers. There may even be a connection between these things. I found this whole encounter triggering on a regular basis. The more I was being inculcated into the musical-all-knowing-spiritual leader, the more I needed to run for the hills.
Nevertheless, despite all those experiences, and my ultimate decision that the rabbinate is not for me – neither is shul these days – I decided to come back to singing. And Minna has been a phenomenal, wise guide, in so many ways, and I’m so lucky to have her. Singing is at times triggering of all memories, and simultaneously an opportunity to release old scars. It is all that. And all mine.
I often ask myself the painful question about what life path I would have chosen had I not been so wrapped up in harmful messages during my teens and twenties. Would I have gotten married at the age of 21? Would I have moved to Israel? Would I have stayed religious for so long? I am starting to grapple with the real answers to some of these things – not with regret, God forbid, about my amazing family, but with a look to the future. Especially about my work. Indeed, the biggest question I have is about what work I would have chosen had I been in touch with my actual self. Had I had a real mentor in my life who was guiding me in a healthy way. I’m redoing 23 years old as a 51-year-old, reclaiming my right to do what I want with my life, even now, even in the middle-aged body with the achy knees and belly fat. I’m doing it. Step by step. Possibly embarking on a new career. Most certainly getting back to the piano and singing.
Also FYI: I am super-eager to start a women’s band. A group of women around my age who love English-language feminist pop music, who play instruments, and who love to sing. If you’re interested in this, please find me! Elana@lionessbooks.com
Watch a very, very unpolished and early exercise in which I sang Billy Joel's Lullabye at the piano, playing all by ear.
Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author, activist, educator, speaker, consultant, and book-publisher. Her latest book, Conversations with my Body: Essays on my Life as a Jewish Woman, is available at Lioness Books, www.lionessbooks.com/shop Follow her blog at www.conversationswithmybody.com