Orthodox Jewish Women Can’t Sing In Front of Men. Instagram Is Changing That

The balance is a fine one, and the scrutiny microscopic—one wrong move, and you’re easily dismissed. When a popular Orthodox women’s magazine reached out to interview Kosman, she was excited: Finally, some attention in the community publications for women’s music! But after the profile was written, a magazine editor emailed: The staff had watched her latest music video, and found it “disturbing,” the editor wrote somberly. The sin: The video’s background dancers had hems above their knees—not according to community modesty standards. The story was killed.

With or without external stamps of approval, though, social media has allowed these women to take their messages into their own hands, and push boundaries, too.

In my sister-in-law’s latest song, “If you wanna be,” she and rapper-poet Rochel Sam channel Lady Gaga in modest clothing—gilded thrones, white wigs, bright lipstick, boxing gloves and punching bags—angst, materialism, and spiritual aspirations collide. “I thought to myself, let me choose something from the Ethics of the Fathers,” Kosman says, referring to a rabbinic text. “It’s a preachy text, so I thought it would go well with rap.”

Unlike most of her colleagues, Kosman—who now does podcast production, because “music doesn’t pay”—chooses not to label her songs as “for women only.”

“I’m not responsible for how people use it,” she says. “I label it ‘kol isha’ instead of ‘women only’—for me, it’s like, allergen information. I’m not going to tell who should and shouldn’t listen to it.”

Kosman’s collaborator, Rochel Sam, is a single mother of three. She speaks to me via video chat from her car, her baby sleeping in the back seat. She’s wearing bright red lipstick and a mustard yellow beanie, a clip-on auburn bang of hair peeking out of the hat.

Sam was always a rapper at heart, growing up in a Lubavitch Hasidic family in Milwaukee. She has a slightly different take on the religious music industry.

“I don’t like the toxic positivity vibe, ‘Have hope, God is here for you,’” she says. “It’s overused, and there’s not always hope. I am upset with what God has done to me in life. But I couldn’t keep going without my faith, too.” She goes on, “I feel like rap is this constructive genre to channel those emotions, a medium where the anger can be most palpably conveyed.” Now, Sam is asked to perform at Sabbath tables and conferences for rabbis’ wives; one ladies’ charity dinner in Crown Heights found her performing a rap on stage with a nursing newborn in her arms, her long wig and nursing cover swaying with her.

Sam’s forthcoming song is on domestic violence; breathlessly, she dives into the rap on the video call with me: “‘Pave that road to a place she didn’t know exists, the one where she deserves all the happiness.” And then, as if awakening from a reverie, she cuts herself off: “Sorry if I’m too intense there,” and a laugh.

For Jessica Roda, the Georgetown professor, the religious women’s musical industry embodies a broader change in the community. “It’s something bigger than just a change of music,” she tells me. “It’s a change of how women can be, what women can do. A lot of these women were artists who didn’t fit into the traditional role model. They were in the margins, but the margins are coming much more to the center.”

Rap seems to be growing in popularity among young religious women, as a platform for poetry that is considerably sharper, and that may be deemed not singing, according to Jewish law, and therefore music that men can listen to.

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