On Friday, November 1, the annual fundraising concert for the Ezra LeMarpeh Organization headed by Rabbi Avram Elimelech Firer was supposed to have been held at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv. President Reuven Rivlin was invited as the guest of honor. Tickets were marketed by the Zappa company at prices ranging from 365 to 1,005 shekels. There were plans for staging a gala tribute to the songs of beloved singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi, accompanied by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and moderated by Eyal Kitsis of the popular satirical television show, Eretz Nehederet. The motto of the event was supposed to have been a line from one of Artzi’s songs: “Yesterday was good, and tomorrow will be too.”
Alongside Artzi, who was invited to grace the evening with his presence, the following list of participants was advertised: performers Avi Singolda, Eli Yatzpan, Eliad, Guy & Yahel, Harel Skaat, Yehuda Eder, Ishay Ribo, Mosh Ben-Ari, Edan Haviv, Elai Botner and Ohad Shraga’i and the Ma Kashur trio. Ladies and gentlemen, you have read this list correctly: Eighteen men, zero women. Because the rabbi said so. Elai Botner was even asked to appear without Adar Gold, his regular backup singer who is a woman. Artistic director Haim Shemesh said on the television show “Good Evening with Guy Pines:” “The rabbi requested that we respect him in this matter of women not singing in the performance” – because the ultra-Orthodox hold that men experience sexual arousal upon hearing a woman’s voice. “In one of our first production meetings we were told that the rabbi would have difficulty if we wanted women to sing. I didn’t think twice and I forged ahead. It’s a pleasure for me to honor the rabbi.”
However, he should not have forged ahead because this is precisely how shameful capitulation to demands for exclusion and humiliation of women in the name of ultra-Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism looks. There was a public outcry. It began in social media then spread to print and broadcast media. Artzi said he hadn’t known, he expressed reservations about the performance and announced he would “try to persuade the rabbi.” Eder cancelled his participation. Botner announced he would not perform without Gold. Mosh Ben-Ari said he would reconsider, as did Tzion Baruch from Ma Kashur. The dynamic was that of a chain reaction and from the moment it began it was clear how it would end. It is untenable for a gala concert to be held in the heart of Tel Aviv, in which women are forbidden to perform - Tel Aviv, a symbol of secular and liberal existence where only last week plans were announced to launch public transportation on the Sabbath.
Let's be clear. The ridiculous prohibition against women singing, with the disgusting injunction: “A woman’s voice is nakedness,” is a late, sick invention of fanatical ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible and even if it did, there would be no reason to abide by it in 2019. Singing has been a basic and pleasurable human activity since the dawn of history. Biblical stories are studded with women who sing. It is impossible to imagine the history of Hebrew song without the contributions of such women as Shoshana Damari, Yaffa Yarkoni, Naomi Shemer, Esther Ofarim, Chava Alberstein, Ofra Haza, Yardena Arazi, Yehudit Ravitz, Nurit Galron, Rita and many, many others. The disgraceful phenomenon of silencing women is spreading and it must be stopped.
The responsibility for doing so lies on the shoulders of non-ultra-Orthodox citizens, at every level – VIPs who are invited to appear at events, producers who bow to primitive demands from people with money, ticket-purchasers and of course performers. Keeping a low profile must be replaced by increased awareness. Male musicians who are cast in performances with many participants are responsible for checking whether female singers have also been invited. Beyond the fight against the imposition of religion, this is an issue of solidarity with professional colleagues whose ability to earn a living is being negatively affected by their gender.
Firer and his ilk can be offered one – and only one – solution: They should eschew events intended for the general public, especially any event at which they want to raise funds; the only problem, after all, is with them. Therefore we can be encouraged by the secular awakening that has put the brakes on holding the event in its original format. But it is also important to draw conclusions and not to fall asleep again. For tomorrow really to be good, too, it is necessary to curb the slightest as well as the grossest violations and stop the erosion. As Artzi counsels in one of his songs: “If we don’t slow down, look, and pay attention to details, we will not, will not, will not reach a new land.”
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