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Performing hasidic music, these women are transcending gender and the Orthodox-liberal divide

(JTA) — As a child growing up in the Chabad hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Chana Raskin was immersed in a male soundscape. Her father brought her with him to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, where men would sing the melodies, passed from generation to generation, known as nigunim. Those sonic memories tap into family tradition and a spiritual community beyond herself. Yet these sounds were missing from her adult experience of conventional Orthodoxy. Following a minor traumatic brain injury, Raskin began a personal healing journey and found comfort in these melodies. 

During this process, she felt the need to share her knowledge with women who, like her, did not have access to the restorative communal potential of the nigun. The often wordless songs are traditionally sung exclusively by men, and are central to the synagogue experience — itself a primarily male domain in the Orthodox tradition. 

“A few years into his journey, during a particularly dark week in December 2017, three different women reached out to me about bringing women together to sing,” Raskin recalls in an essay. “I remember thinking: Yes. (Pause, breath.) Yes, let’s do it.”

The result was the RAZA circle and the the album “Kapelya,” the first recording of hasidic nigunim performed exclusively by women. On Thursday, Aug. 10, Raskin and the RAZA ensemble will have their premiere in New York City at the JCC Manhattan to celebrate “Kapelya,” which was released in February.

Produced by Hadar’s Rising Song Records, “Kapelya” is a collaboration among Raskin, women artists from non-Orthodox Jewish backgrounds and the musician Joey Weisenberg, the founder and director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute. With this project, Raskin proposes a new meaning and aesthetic for hasidic nigunim. She breaks many barriers, exploding audience expectations of these traditional melodies and using them as a vehicle to transcend gender divisions, Jewish denominations and musical genres.

Although the album contains only women’s voices, contrary to convention, Raskin did not label it, nor her performances, as gender specific, contrary to the norm in the Orthodox female art scene I researched for my forthcoming book, “For Women and Girls Only” (NYU Press, 2024). She wanted the music to be available to anyone who wanted to connect with it. 

The nigunim that the RAZA ensemble recorded and will perform belong to Chabad-Lubavitch’s sacred soundscape. While they can be sung, separately, by both genders, nigunim are associated with men because of their centrality to their collective spiritual practice. These old Jewish melodies have come to exemplify masculinity, tradition, mysticism and ecstasy, all elements of hasidism’s roots. 

Because of the religious injunctions of tzniut (sexual modesty) and kol isha (prohibiting Orthodox men from hearing women singing), hasidic women traditionally sing in still more strictly gender-segregated spaces, only for other women. They have developed a distinctive soundscape, different from that of their male counterparts, and one in which nigunim have not played a major spiritual role. 

In this context, women performing and recording nigunim for a mixed audience is both an innovation and a provocation.

While the media coverage of the album’s release emphasized the innovation of “giving voice to women,” I argue that by celebrating the voice of women in the male tradition of nigunim, Raskin’s project transcends both gender boundaries and the divide between Orthodox and liberal Judaism. At the concert, even if women lead on-stage, all genders and denominations can participate in belonging to Jewishness through sound infused with spirituality, healing and tradition. To emphasize the spiritual aspect of the project, the album’s booklet offers a short description of the origin and meaning of each nigun, a dedication and transliterations and translations of the prayers. The project puts hasidic music in the hands of women and bridges the divide between Orthodox and liberal Jews, who can meet in a shared domain of song, representing both rebellion and connection. 

The album’s originality resides both in the new meanings it gives to hasidic music, and in the novel aesthetic it provides for nigunim. Listeners are treated to collective improvisation and refined vocal and instrumental arrangements, accompanied by instruments or sung a capella. The album surprises in its vocal and instrumental colors, with percussion, guitar, flute, cello, shruti box, kaval, mandolin and octave mandolin. With these unusual instruments, the performers create unique relations with place, time and sound unprecedented in the nigun genre. 

The success of RAZA Circle’s album (Thursday’s show is sold out) points to the growing number of North American Jews, both observant and secular, who are searching for new ways to connect with Jewish tradition, prayer and spirituality while transcending conventional norms, expectations, and processes in their very different circles. This project showcases not only women’s voices, but the yearning of both Jewish men and women for opportunities to satisfy their thirst for community, something that their respective religious authorities have failed to provide.

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Air Canada cancelled two flights to Tel Aviv due to the Iranian missile attack—leaving some travellers to seek alternatives, or consider postponing their trips

After a weekend overnight shutdown of Israeli airspace, during which time Iranian missiles and drones attacked the country, Canadians ware cautiously optimistic that travel to and from Ben Gurion Airport will resume regular schedules later this week. Air Canada cancelled departures from Toronto on Saturday and from Tel Aviv on Monday—the latter despite the airport […]

The post Air Canada cancelled two flights to Tel Aviv due to the Iranian missile attack—leaving some travellers to seek alternatives, or consider postponing their trips appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Harvard University Wants Antisemitism Lawsuit Dismissed, Denies Injury to Students

Students accusing Israel of genocide at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, Nov. 16, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Lawyers representing Harvard University in Massachusetts have requested the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by six Jewish students who accused the school of ignoring antisemitic discrimination.

According to The Harvard Crimson, the university said in a court filing that a lawsuit, as well as a period of discovery during which its conduct would be thoroughly examined, was not necessary due to the “tangible steps” it has taken to combat antisemitism in just the past few months. Additionally, the school argued that the civil suit, led by graduate student Shabbos Kestenbaum and Students Against Antisemitism, lacked standing.

“Without minimizing at all the importance of the need to address energetically antisemitism at the university, plaintiff’s dissatisfaction with the strategy and speed of Harvard’s essential work does not state a legally cognizable claim,” said the motion to dismiss, as quoted by The Crimson. “Consequently, the amended complaint should be dismissed.”

Harvard University recently received an “F” grade for its handling of antisemitism in a first-ever Campus Antisemitism Report Card issued by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, students have stormed the campus calling for the destruction of the Jewish state, terrorizing students and preventing some from attending class.

In November, a mob of anti-Zionists — including Ibrahim Bharmal, editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review — followed, surrounded, and intimidated a Jewish student. “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” the crush of people screamed in a call-and-response chant into the ears of the student who —as seen in the footage — was forced to duck and dash the crowd to free himself from the cluster of bodies that encircled him.

In February, a faculty group posted on social an antisemitic cartoon which showed a left-hand tattooed with a Star of David dangling two men of color from a noose.

These incidents, and more, are currently being investigated by the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is probing Harvard’s handling of skyrocketing instances of antisemitic intimidation and harassment on campus.

Proclaiming that Harvard “failed Jews repeatedly,” Kestenbaum told The Crimson that he would not stand down.

“Harvard’s meritless motion to dismiss our lawsuit only proves our point: It has never taken the concerns of us Jewish students seriously, and has no plans to start now,” he said in a statement. “We will continue to apply maximum pressure in both the court of law and the court of public opinion … We hope that donors and prospective students follow closely.”

No Ivy League school earned better than a “C” in the ADL’s landmark report, a grade awarded to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Four others — Columbia University, Brown University, Cornell University, and the University of Pennsylvania — received “D’s” while Harvard and Princeton University both received “F’s.”

“Every campus should get an A — that’s not grade inflation, that’s the minimum that every group on every campus expects,” ADL chief executive officer Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement announcing the report. “They deserve a learning environment free from antisemitism and hate. But that hasn’t been the experience with antisemitism running rampant on campus since even before Oct. 7.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Israel Sets New Standards for Saving Wounded Troops in War

Israeli soldiers scan an area while sirens sound as rockets from Gaza are launched towards Israel, near Sderot, southern Israel, Oct. 9, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The Israeli army’s chief medical officer told a recent gathering of NATO and allied officials about the striking success of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in saving injured soldiers during the war against Hamas in Gaza.

According to IDF Medical Corps chief Elon Glassberg, the army has brought the time between the moment of injury and seeing a senior medical practitioner to under four minutes, and in many cases under one minute. One reason for the speed is that the IDF has changed its strategy for treating wounded soldiers from the typical field hospitals to which soldiers are evacuated and treated — and in serious cases transferred via helicopter to a hospital — to a system that brings doctors to the battlefield with soldiers.

The new system has, according to Glassberg, more than 670 doctors and paramedics embedded within combat groups in Gaza. As a result, wounded soldiers are given immediate care.

Additionally, the new policy calls for airlifting every wounded soldier to a hospital via helicopter, which are on standby at all times and outfitted to be like flying emergency rooms, staffed with surgeons and intensive care doctors.

The IDF has conducted over 950 such operations in the helicopters, according to Glassberg, bringing approximately 4,200 soldiers to hospitals. In the field, 80 soldiers were saved due to quick doses of plasma and 550 had bleeding stopped before the flights.

Of course, helicopter times to hospitals vary and are not predictable on the minute. The current time from moment of injury to arriving at the hospital stands at one hour and six minutes. This is in comparison to an average time of two hours and ten minutes during the 2014 Gaza War, also known as Operation Protective Edge.

The new processes by the IDF are saving lives. According to Glassberg, the current rate of death among wounded soldiers is 15 percent. In Gaza today, however, 6.3 percent of soldiers who are injured end up succumbing to their wounds, showing how quick action is key in ensuring the injured soldiers can return home after the war — or, in many cases, back to the battlefield.

Glassberg also pointed out how the IDF is continuing to learn how to best protect soldiers in the future. For example, he noted, a majority of deaths occurred due to injuries to parts of the body that are not protected by bulletproof vests. Therefore, Israel is already discussing new vests to give to soldiers to lower the casualty count.

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