1. Introduction


Women were significant players in shaping Jewish culture in the past but they remained excluded from the "text" of Judaic studies because they did not produce written texts (1). Today, however, perceptions such as that Jewish women did not pray are being contested, as the female involvement in communal prayer, even in the Middle Ages (when the status of women was at its lowest point), is uncovered by new research (see, for example, Hauptman; Taitz; Weissler 1991 and 1995). Moreover, the identity of "Judaism" with the subcluster of behavior called "religion" excluded non-religious areas from studies of Jewish societies in the past (Sacks 1995:4). The examination of gendered behavior as it functions in a total socio-cultural environment, not just in the domain called "religion" (Sacks 1995:5), is therefore a goal towards an anthropological study of Jewish women "as subjects, as actors, not as symbols or objects that are acted upon" (Sered 1995:206).

Musical performance, particularly singing, is a field of action outside the domain of "religion" in which Jewish women acted affirmatively throughout history. In a broader historical and socio-cultural perspective one can retrieve documentation about assertive Jewish women making music. However, written documentation concerning this phenomenon is meager and available data is reduced to the oral traditions that were recorded by modern ethnomusicologists.

A fundamental issue in the role of women as music makers in Jewish culture is related to the Talmudic dictum (Berakhot 24a): "the woman’s voice is indecent" which appears in regard to the prohibition of a male to recite a blessing or any other prayer while hearing a woman singing. Maimonides expanded this prohibition to any circumstance in which a woman sings (Schreiber 1984/5:27). Thus, as a rule, Jewish men are forbidden to expose themselves to a woman singing anywhere, anytime. In modern times the question arose if it is possible for a man to listen to a the voice of a woman singing even on the radio or on a record (Yossef 1954/5, responsum no. 6).

Subordination, and even humiliation, as a fundamental condition of women in traditional, i.e. "orthodox", Jewish societies, derives from the androcentric view of Judaism as a text-oriented religion. Despite the Talmudic segregation, Jewish women continued to sing in the framework, and seldom outside, of their communities, developing their own, rich song repertoires in vernacular Jewish languages. Their active voices became, therefore, a latent threat to men in public and intimate spaces. Evidently, the enforcement of a strict sexual segregation in the realm of singing led to the development of physical and temporal spaces where musical performances by women were carried on, away from the eyes (or rather the ears) of men. This segregation remained rather theoretical, as men were constantly "exposed" to transgressions of the Talmudic dictum, even if by accident.

The Judeo-Spanish or Ladino folk song of the Sephardi Jews is one the richest and most vibrant Jewish repertoires which reached the twentieth century in full blossom. This repertoire has its roots in medieval Spain, although it was considerably expanded and transformed in the five hundred years that elapsed since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The repertoire comprises songs from different genres. One of the most venerable among them is the romance, an epic-lyric ballad. The Sephardi romance and songs of other types were transmitted by Sephardi women in Morocco and throughout the Sephardi settlements in the Ottoman Empire (Weich-Shahak 1998).

"La muerte del duque de Gandía", Sephardi version of an old Spanish romance, sung by Berta Aguado
(wav file 244 kb.)

We emphasize here the survival of the romance among Sephardi women, because of the "problematic" subjects it treats in many texts, such as female infidelity, incest and rape.

"El hermano maldito", Sephardi version of a new Spanish romance on the topic of incest,
sung by Dora Gerassi
(wav file 164 kb.)

According to Weich-Shahak, the plots of many romances sung by Sephardi women include assertive female characters, though the actions of these characters are generally triggered by their male counterparts. Sephardi women could identify themselves with the ambiguous roles of the imaginary female characters of the ballads; they are carriers of action. and at the same time they are fully dedicated to their men.

If Sephardi women were subordinated to men’s authority, and if men’s authority expressed in religious texts ruled out the listening to the voice of women in general, and to their songs of "obscene" content in particular, then what was the social mechanism that allowed for the continuous practice and the survival of the Sephardi folk song among women? The answer to this question is the subject of the following paragraphs.

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