Devorah Schwartz is fixing her lapel mic.
Decked out in a blonde wig, a full face of makeup, and a long-sleeve high-neck gown made by a Hasidic designer in Brooklyn, Schwartz is ready to step onto the stage.
Her audience? Only women and girls, who purchased tickets for her virtual concert, which features a team of Rockette dancers.
A decade ago the idea of an Orthodox Jewish woman pop star was something out of a wild fantasy. While a secular young woman with dreams of a singing career might start a YouTube channel, try to land an agent, and book gigs at local venues, in the Orthodox Jewish community, being a woman with musical talent is more complicated. Here, traditional laws of modesty dictate that men are forbidden from hearing female singing—kol isha, which translates to “the voice of a woman” and is taken literally.
As a teenager in Monsey, New York, Schwartz taught voice and dance at a local religious girls’ performance school. She felt she had hit her ceiling—until she decided to study with vocal trainer Steven Schnurman, who told her, “‘You have a classical voice, you can be an international star.”
Schwartz laughed at him at the time. She was a newlywed, and her husband was a student in the Lakewood Yeshiva, roughly equivalent to university for religious men. “I just didn’t look at it like a choice,” she tells me in an interview from her home in Jackson, New Jersey. “My songs would never be sung at weddings, would never be played in stores, like the men’s songs. It’s sad, but that’s a choice I’m making.”
But Schnurman believed in her and encouraged her to pursue singing despite the challenges. When Schwartz started posting her songs to Instagram—with a disclaimer, “for women and girls only”—it was then everything shifted. At first she received pushback from community members. “People were like, ‘What are you doing? It’s kol isha,’” she says.
“It was very hard for me. I had to figure out how to feel about that,” she says. “My husband kept reminding me: ‘You are allowed to create kosher things. People will take anything from you and turn it into something that it wasn’t. You just have to live your life and ignore people.’
“I had gotten a lot of online harassment in the beginning because what I was doing was so daring and so different and so new,” Schwartz says, adding that she learned to immediately block accounts that harass her, creating a “curated” community online. “But now there is such a boom in the industry, people are used to it…they appreciate it.”
Three years later Schwartz now has close to 20,000 followers on Instagram, a series of music videos, a packed calendar with concerts, and a vocal lessons practice, in which young girls in long pleated uniform skirts and button-down blouses practice singing Beyonce’s “Halo.”
Much of Schwartz’s motivation is what she sees as a responsibility to a future generation of religious women. “If you look at pop stars today—it is not about the music,” she says. “It’s all about sex. But I have a different mission—to empower young girls and women. Can we give them something fun, pop, where they don’t have to go and watch and listen to the other music out there?”
Orthodox Judaism has always sent mixed messages to girls and young women interested in the performing arts.
As early as pre–World War II, theater was encouraged in Polish Jewish girls’ schools as a form of fostering self-esteem and creativity in young women, but it had to be done in strictly female spaces. This practice continued through the 20th century, when in some ways Orthodoxy became even more stringent: Beyond the school years, a talented (and trained) female voice was rarely heard. For nearly a century, then, these women have been faced with an agonizing dilemma: What do you do when you are born with a gift—but you are religiously forbidden from using it fully?
I first encountered this question when I met my sister-in-law, Franciska Kosman, who’s been singing and producing music since she was a young girl.
Kosman grew up in a rabbinic family in Moscow, where she was surrounded by a vibrant cultural scene. “Music was my second language,” she says from her home in Philadelphia. “But I always knew I had a cutoff when I would turn 12. As soon as I would be bat mitzvah and considered a woman, I would not be allowed to perform in front of men anymore.”
In the last decades, many young religious women were told that voice was a hopeless pursuit at worst, a secret hobby at best. “People didn’t look at it for women as having a career,” Schwartz says. “They always told us, ‘You only have half an audience.’”
But with Instagram, young religious women could begin taking initiative and performing and publicizing their own music online.
According to Jessica Roda, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who is writing a book about Orthodox Jewish women’s performance art, Instagram was a perfect platform for women’s music. “It became known as a necessary tool for building a business, and even in the most conservative of communities, social media is permitted for the sake of building a business,” Roda says. “That’s really interesting because art became business.”
The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated this change, with virtual performances becoming the norm.
“COVID actually showed everyone that once you go international and you perform virtually, even if it’s half of the market audience, the world is big,” says Schwartz, whose recent Hanukkah concert sold thousands of tickets. She added, “The men’s songs are just not going to cut it. Women want to listen to female voices.”
This past year Schwartz recorded a music video with another Orthodox woman singer, Bracha Jaffe. The song is a woman’s prayer for children, in a mix of English, Hebrew, and Yiddish: “Will I ever be a mother? Will that blessing come my way? Will I stand by the candles with gratitude and pray?"
The song was in collaboration with a community fertility organization that had previously commissioned the song from a group of popular male singers. This practice has become bizarrely common in many pockets of the Orthodox community: Where women’s voices and even their faces are deemed immodest, men fill in, not unlike Shakespearean plays in the 17th century.
The male singers’ video faced backlash on social media for misappropriating a mother’s experience, so Jaffe suggested that she and Schwartz do a cover of the song, a version for women and by women. Their rendition has almost 300,000 views.
That led other nonprofit organizations to take note of Jaffe and her peers, and their music videos—until then produced on an amateur’s shoestring budget—started to take off.
“There are a lot of messages that only a woman can give over, okay?” Jaffe says in an interview from her home in Long Island. “A woman is the only one who can talk about motherhood firsthand.”
Jaffe, a 33-year-old mother of five, grew up in Brooklyn in a cantorial family. She took voice lessons from age 11. “It was unheard of at the time in our circles—girls didn’t take voice lessons then. But my parents were modern thinkers, and it was about what made me happy.”
While a pregnant newlywed in nursing school, Jaffe started performing on stage at local women’s events. When a friend convinced her to use social media for her music, she promised herself she would make “strict boundaries”—she started a private Instagram account, where she could moderate her following closely.
“I have this constant struggle,” she says. “People say: How do you put yourself on a public platform if it’s not modest? I say: How do I not, if I want to reach people?”
Now, five music videos and 12,000 followers later, Jaffe says she has young Orthodox Jewish women reaching out frequently with songs they’re writing. “I want to help girls sing and produce. Maybe my next step is to start an Orthodox female record label.”
“I think the men are very surprised at how the women’s music industry is not only booming, but interfering with their market,” Schwartz says, with a smile and a wink.
But no matter how hard these women performers try to play by the rules, the walk is painful at times.
Once, Schwartz was invited to perform at a girls’ summer camp. When she arrived, the camp director told her to remove her eyelash extensions—they were “too much”—and told her that she did not like the dress she had chosen. The staff then went around the camp collecting alternative clothing for their performer to wear. “I had to wear someone else’s dress,” Schwartz reflects, years later. “They offered to send me home with a check, but I decided that my name and reputation was more important than that. I’m not going to allow something like how I look get in the way with connecting with these girls.”
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 Rachel 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, Rachel 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, even while 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 about 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 with, “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 is therefore music men can listen to.
In the last year, one Orthodox woman who goes by the name Youngrizze (her real identity remains unknown) has been putting out songs that poke deeply at religious womanhood.
“This just talking,” she raps in a mix of English and Hebrew, “I’m not singing / Putting thoughts to a beat.” Her lyrics are such clever riffs on Talmudic texts—considered a male domain in most of the community—that one YouTube commenter wrote, “No way a female wrote these lyrics.”
Where some find the power to rebel in their music, others find spiritual ecstasy. In a suburb of Jerusalem, rabbi’s wife and mother of six Judith Gerzi is striking an Adele note in her newest song, “New Day.”
“The light seems bright, but oh, now I’m falling,” she croons, a gospel-style choir swelling in the background. “When I remember how we were, it feels like it’s still December.”
“My whole family was musical,” she tells me over Zoom as her young daughter climbs on her lap. “My mother loves opera; my grandfather was a cantor. But I was in denial that I was passionate about music.”
Gerzi had resigned to never exploring music due to religious limitations. “I honestly thought that it would be something that I would just be in pain over, my whole life.”
But after struggling with infertility, Gerzi found herself turning to song for solace—with her rabbi husband’s support.
She performed in a local synagogue event for women, and a woman came up to her crying afterwards. “She held my hands and said that she could see how much I meant while I was singing, and she had gone through so much pain too, and she was angry with God, but when she heard me sing, she started to pray. That was the moment when I realized: This is what I’m supposed to do.”
Gerzi’s musical genre is far from orthodox. “I’m a rebbetzin,” she says, using the Yiddish term for a rabbi’s wife. “But my style of music—it’s gospel-y, blues, jazz, soul. I was worried, Why is God giving me this passion for a music that’s not really the norm in the Jewish world?”
When it came to promoting her music online, Gerzi says the internalized modesty culture was difficult to overcome. “I had a time where I felt I can’t post it,” she says. “I had this idea in my head, that I was going to find a cartoonist to illustrate me, with a fake name, and that’s how I would put my music on YouTube. It was a painful thought. I wanted to be able to have an audience, under my name and face.” Gerzi ended up consulting with her rabbi, who encouraged her to put her music out there with a disclaimer that it is kol isha.
“It took me years to actually do it,” Gerzi says. “I don’t want to sing in front of men, I never wanted to. I just needed a stage, in front of women, and social media gave me that. It was a game changer.”
Bracha Jaffe is sitting at a piano in the afternoon light, singing a cover of Naomi Scott’s “Speechless.”
“I won’t be silenced, you can’t keep me quiet.”
The camera pans to show Yaeli Vogel, an Orthodox visual artist who is shown painting; another woman plays the violin, another the cello.
“Written in stone, / Every rule, every word. / Centuries old and unbending. / Stay in your place, Better seen and not heard. / But now that story is ending.”
The camera shows female hands holding a prayer book, a finger following the words; images of the Book of Esther, the story of a Jewish woman who saves her people by stepping up to power.
It’s a popular contemporary song—from a Disney movie, no less—adapted by a religious woman to fit her textual tradition, a woman who is navigating the precarious balance of talent, female visibility, and observance.
Jaffe leans into the piano, then leans back—swaying as if in prayer—her eyes closed shut, her voice letting go: “Don’t you underestimate me, / ’cause I know that I won’t go speechless.”
Earlier in an interview, Jaffe—like all the other singers—reminded me that her music is in no way feminist. “I’m just putting professional music out there the same way as any man would,” she says, before pausing.
“I really believe, very deeply, that when we experience redemption, music will be a part of it,” Jaffe says, her voice breaking from emotion. “And women, women will play a strong role.”
Originally Appeared on Glamour