Kol Isha (A Woman’s Voice)
Sharon Goldman, a New Jersey-based singer-songwriter, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, has created in Kol Isha (A Woman’s Voice), a remarkable song-cycle in which she writes eloquently and sings beautifully, from a liberal and feminist perspective, about being a questioning Jewish woman.
Goldman’s role as a questioning Jewish woman is established in “The Tribe,” the album’s opening song, in which she explains who she is, the traditions she was born to and feels bound to, and the lines and limits “I knew which I could not cross/For the survival of a people,” until she meets the man who would become her second husband – and asks, “Could I meet him as a woman/Not as a member of the tribe?”
Later, in “Kol Isha (A Woman’s Voice),” the album’s title song, she reveals that her questioning began to formulate as a 12-year-old girl, seated silently behind her shul’s mechitzah because only men’s voices were allowed to be heard in the synagogue. As someone who wanted to sing, and who knew the melodies, she longed, in vain, to lift her voice during the service.
One of the most telling songs is “The Sabbath Queen” in which the perfect image of the Sabbath queen hides the reality of the hard life experienced by an Orthodox Jewish wife and mother in a rigidly traditional household.
Goldman draws on biblical imagery in a couple of songs, most notably “Pillar of Salt,” which is based on the story of Lot’s wife. Goldman notes, with more than a hint of resignation, that she was “a nameless wife and mother” in the Bible legend, “that no one hears her voice.”
And, in two songs, “Jerusalem (Yerushalayim)” and “Land of Milk and Honey,” Goldman sings of her complicated relationship with Israel – a loving relationship rooted in ideals, but tarnished by contemporary realities.
Goldman’s songs – with their lovely melodies – are arranged in traditional folk styles. A couple of songs have a distinctly Middle Eastern feel in the arrangements thanks to oud player Brian Punka and percussionist Cheryl Prashker.
Kol Isha (A Woman’s Voice) is a very special collection.
The most recent albums by the Klezmatics was the superb in-concert set, Live At Town Hall, released in 2011 but recorded in 2006, and the Grammy-winning Wonder Wheel, featuring the Klezmatics’ wonderful settings of newly discovered Woody Guthrie lyrics on Jewish themes, in 2006. So, it’s been much too long since we’ve had a new album from perhaps my all-time favourite klezmer band.
In many ways Apikorsim/Heretics is a return to the kind of progressive Jewish cultural albums the Klezmatics were making in the first half of their now 30-year history: superb material drawn from both traditional sources and their own imaginations, matched by brilliant singing and playing.
Apikorsim/Heretics is an album of contrasts. On the one hand, there are songs like “Zol shoyn kumen di geule (May Redemption Come),” a joyous longing for the coming of the Messiah, and “Ver firt di ale shifn? (Who Guides the Ships?),” a contemplative song about God expressing religious concepts that could be embraced by the most fervently Orthodox Jews. On the other hand, there are songs like the equally joyous title track celebrating a completely secular lifestyle that rejects all of the restrictions of an Orthodox lifestyle.
There are also songs of class struggle, including “Der yokh (L’estaca),” a Yiddish translation of a Catalan song, “Kermeshl in Ades (Party in Odessa),” whose joyous music is in contrast to the bitter subtext in the lyrics, and “Vi lang? (How Long?),” which challenges workers to rise up and overcome their chains of oppression.
Among the most poignant songs are “Tayer Yankele (Dear Little Yankl),” a traditional Yiddish song about an economic migrant or refugee who went to Istanbul looking for a better life, only to be murdered, and “Der mames shpigl (My Mother’s Mirror),” about the realization so many of us have as we age about how much there is of our parents in ourselves.
One of the most infectious songs on the album is “Shushan Purim,” which celebrates the tradition, practised by some, of getting so drunk on the holiday of Purim that you can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman – but, then, waking up the next day, Shushan Purim, with a horrible hangover. The music to the song was composed by Klezmatics’ trumpeter Frank London, while the lyrics were written by Canadian author, humourist and Yiddish scholar Michael Wex.
While all the songs are sung in Yiddish, the CD booklet includes English translations of the lyrics, so there is no language gap for non-Yiddish speakers.
As always, the lead singing of Lorin Sklamberg is a delight throughout the album, as is the playing of each of the Klezmatics. As well as on the arrangements to the songs, their playing is featured on several great instrumentals, including violinist Lisa Gutkin’s “Der geler fink (The Yellow Finch),” clarinetist Matt Darriau’s “Three-Ring Sirba,” and Frank London’s “Green Violin.”
An earlier version of this review was posted on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches blog. https://frfb.blogspot.com