Raising Their Voices

With its women-only audiences, the Professional Women's Theater is the answer for female vocalists once torn between their passion and religion.

Delia Spiers, a petite 25-year-old Londoner with a pixie haircut and a soulful voice, was well on her way to a professional singing career when her decision to become more religious led her to study at a women's yeshiva in Jerusalem and, in January, to give up singing in front of men.

Spiers spent two years singing with jazz bands in London and another two years performing her own songs on the city's acoustic music circuit; she released a short album, "Scarlit," last summer. When she first heard about "kol isha" (literally, "woman's voice"), the Talmudic prohibition against men hearing women sing, Spiers was "terrified" of the concept and couldn't understand it at all. But as she immersed herself more deeply in Judaism, she said, she began to internalize the concept and realized that she no longer wanted to share her music with a male audience.

"I got to a point last year when every time I was performing in front of men - it could be once a week - I was finding it very painful. I would find myself crying after a gig," said Spiers. "I just felt so exposed."

Spiers, who composes her own words and lyrics and describes her musical style as "soul folk acoustic," is convinced her decision was "the right thing for my neshama [soul]." At the same time, she admits, it can be hard to turn down gigs from people she knows back in London - offers she sees as tests from God - and she would have an easier time paying her rent if she were willing to continue performing in front of a mixed audience.

The challenge of adhering to principles of traditional Jewish modesty like kol isha while earning a living from one's art is precisely what spurred Adena Kozak, an immigrant from New Jersey who has performed with professional dance companies here and in the United States, to found a group called Professional Women's Theater last year.

The organization runs "Wanna Be A Star," a talent competition for and by women that is modeled on televised contests like "American Idol," and Kozak, 24, hopes to get enough funding - an estimated $130,000 a year - to turn the group into an agency for female performers in Israel. Professional Women's Theater plans to use the competitions as a way of scouting for talented professionals like Spiers, one of eight winners of this year's contest, and then get deals for the top artists to play at women-only venues across the country.

The group's Web site succinctly states the dilemma that women like Kozak and Spiers face, and that Professional Women's Theater is intended to help resolve. "Whole women should not be torn in two," reads the site, "between their passions for the performing arts, and their love for God and His Torah."

Kozak, who grew up in a modern Orthodox home, found dancing in coed companies before mixed audiences to be uncomfortable, but felt she had no alternative. Many of the existing women's performance groups in Israel did not adhere to the same standards of quality she was used to, she discovered - and decided to change that by starting her own. She notes that while the group was created to help resolve problems arising from religious constraints, it is open to all women, about 100-150 of whom have performed in the contests over the past two years.

"When a person's at a crossroads, they have to decide - where do they go within our community?" said Kozak. Too often, she added, "They either choose to not do what they love or not to be religious anymore." Kozak, who manages to provide overall direction for the group in between her first-year medical school classes at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, hopes that Professional Women's Theater will give religious women another option and show the world that performing only in front of women does not have to be a compromise.

Indeed, some performers say the welcoming vibe from all-female audiences helps them pour themselves into their art.

"I feel that you could be more real, because when you sing, you sort of expose some inner part of you, and I think you can do that honestly and truly only in front of a women's audience," said Yael Gil, another "Wanna Be A Star" finalist. Gil, 24, is in her third year at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where she studies in the classical vocal department.

However, limiting performances to women also has disadvantages other than the difficulty of earning a living.

"It's hard for us to sing in front of women only, because we gave something up," said Hadassah Lee, a self-described "Chinese-American Jew" who was born in Taiwan, grew up in Seattle and lives in Jerusalem. Lee, who converted to Judaism two years ago and no longer wears pants or short-sleeved shirts, said she has only recently made peace with her decision to stop singing in front of men.

"I mourned for it and I struggled and I didn't want to show up for these things at all," said Lee, 33, about all-female performances. She would like her music - she has put out two CDs of her own songs, including one about her conversion - to have a wider audience because she wants "to show how strong women are and how talented women are" and to inspire others with the spirituality she has discovered in Judaism.

Relentless rapper

Not everyone who takes part in "Wanna Be A Star" performs in front of women only. Take Ashara Bina Attia, a 30-year-old religious woman from Los Angeles who raps in English, Hebrew and Arabic - a language she spoke at home with her Egyptian-born parents - about subjects including God and the environment.

Her dark curls dangling out of the front of her high-piled turban-like headscarf, Attia engaged the audience at a recent "Wanna Be A Star" performance with improvised verses urging listeners to stop using disposable products and to recognize everything from "a king on a throne" to "a dog chewing its bone" as manifestations of God.

Attia learned how to rap at what she calls a hippie gathering in Australia in 2000, and hasn't really stopped since. She is convinced anyone can do it once they get past the fear of embarrassing themselves in public, but doesn't have the desire to develop a music career herself. She gets invited to gigs by people who have heard of her, but she actually makes her living as a special education teacher.

Some people who don't know what Attia raps about, only that she does, have told her to stay away from the genre.

"I've been told, 'Rap? That's like ghetto music, a Jewish woman shouldn't be doing that,'" said Attia. But like Spiers and Lee, Attia is taking a secular music genre and infusing it with religious themes. Or as she puts it, "I'm lifting up the sparks in hip hop."

Although she is unlike many of the performers in that she does not restrict her shows to women, the sentiments Attia shares in her rapping are, in a sense, the driving force behind the talented women clamoring to both adhere to their principles and pursue their dreams.

"I release my spiritual forces / I am unlimited and unbound," raps Attia. "I go forth with zeal and enthusiasm / I go forth with a mighty spirit / to do the things that ought to be done by me."