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It’s not over till the lady sings - says Stern

  • Gilad
How did I get to be in the situation of being one of three complainants against my own Jewish community? Ninety per cent of South African Jews probably think that muzzling women is looney, but 90 per cent also feel that we Jews shouldn’t wash our dirty linen in public. I agree. So if I agree, why am I, a shomer shabbat Orthodox-ish Jew, litigating?
by GILAD STERN | May 25, 2016

The truth: I never imagined it would go so far. I thought the SA Jewish Board of Deputies would back off at the last minute. I was gobsmacked that they didn’t.

Stopping women from singing is part of a recent extremist trend in some Jewish sects. About eight years ago, Orthodox protesters in Jerusalem burned buses which displayed adverts with pictures of women.

On airline flights to and from Israel, male ultra-Orthodox passengers often refuse to sit next to female passengers. In Beit Shemesh in 2014, the ultra-Orthodox-controlled municipality posted signs warning women to use alternate pavements, for reasons of “modesty”. 

But the most popular of the past decade’s assaults on women’s status in the extremist Jewish world, has been the idea that a Jewish man should not hear a woman’s solo singing voice. Like wildfire, this new meshuganeh craze spread. And in some places, the Jewish secular authorities, instead of saying: “Suit yourselves fellows,” started saying: “Okay, no problem, we won’t let women sing.”

In South Africa, the Jewish Board of Deputies instituted a ban on women singing solo at annual Holocaust memorial ceremonies, even though the event is a secular one, not a religious service.

A Cape Town rabbi suggested that women singing would lead to the breakup of marriages.  The rabbi suggested that “the singing voice of a woman is an erotic stimulus”, and that Judaism opposed “promiscuity of the mouth”. I’m not making this stuff up; these are actual quotes.

The Chief Rabbi (Warren Goldstein) in a recent e-mail to the Jewish community said: "A woman's singing voice is regarded by the halacha as being private in the same category as her unclothed body."

So I ask: When we hear a female colleague at work sing "Happy Birthday" to another colleague, do we really imagine that anyone in their right mind conjures up a vision of the singing woman's "unclothed body"? Does a woman singing Hatikvah at Yom Hashoah fall in this category?

The Chairman of the Association of Holocaust Survivors in Johannesburg, Don Krausz, says: “Considering the unfathomable tragedy of the Shoah, the idea that men can find time for sexual arousal through hearing women’s voices in song and prayer on such an occasion is not a religious consideration but is blasphemy! Such men do not deserve our consideration; they can abstain or take tranquillisers.”

I agree and ask: Is this type of speaking by rabbis acceptable? I think it's much more "problematic" than a woman singing at a Holocaust memorial ceremony.

 I’d like to call on the Jewish Board of Deputies to stop muzzling women, to stop litigating, and instead to rein in the public airing of lewd or misogynist sentiments by rabbis, and other paid or elected Jewish officials.

The SA Constitution sees race discrimination and gender discrimination as the same. The Board of Deputies would never dream of defending the rights of people who demanded that blacks not sing. 

The Board knows that racial segregation is unthinkable in contemporary South Africa. But women singing somehow seems more trivial. So they kowtow to the ultra-Orthodox, and silence all women, so as not to inconvenience a handful of men.

The Board rejected compromise proposals, and its reason was always the same: “We seek to be inclusive.” It argued that if a woman sang, some rabbis would not attend. 

We pleaded with the Board: How about if at the very end of the Holocaust memorial ceremony, just before the final item, which is the singing of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, any men who don’t want to hear a woman singing can slip out quietly and a woman can lead the singing of the national anthem?

If they had agreed to that, our lawyers told them, we would drop our court action. The Board said: It’s not dignified to ask the men affected to take a short stroll. 

Obviously, this is a big principle issue for them. It is for us too.

It’s not lekker to be litigating against my own community. Having the Board, and the Chief Rabbi maligning me and my co-complainants in mass e-mails to the whole Jewish community is pretty rough. And we have to endure the bitter Facebook and Internet trolls who rant that by criticising the Board, we are collaborating with anti-Semites and BDS.  Get a grip, fellows! 

But I’m comforted by the following:  In 1976 the Jewish Board of Deputies hosted a banquet to honour apartheid Prime Minister John Vorster to mark his visit to Israel. I was among the leaders of a Jewish student boycott of the banquet and a public protest at the banquet venue. 

We didn’t relent. The Board got it wrong then and landed up on the wrong side of that piece of history. We can do better now. Discrimination against women is a tired relic. Like apartheid. Time to help it go.

My 90-year-old mother-in-law Daisy Goldstein asked me last month: “Why are they stopping women from singing at the Holocaust memorial? Didn’t Hitler kill as many women as men?”

My late Mom, Sylvia Stern loved to sing. A lifelong synagogue-goer, she raised her voice in song. Nobody’s going to tell my Mom to shut up. Sing 

6 Comments

  1. 6 Belinda Silbert 25 May
    Thank you Gilad Stern for following through with defending us from this scandalous injustice!This has been a dark moment in South African Jewish History. I am deeply disappointed by the perpetuation of second-class citizen status for women in Judaism. The maxim of "equal but different" is often trotted out. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth because this is mere apologetics. Let us as women decide how we need to be honoured and respected. Let us stand up and have the courage to assert that we do not wish to have have patriarchal beliefs about how we need to behave in order to be "modest"
     be imposed upon the mothers of our nation. This "gag-order" has left me feeling empty and despondent about our future as a Jewish community in South Africa.
  2. 5 Kathryn Peck 25 May
    Well said! 
  3. 4 Mel Miller 25 May
    Viva Gilad Stern, Viva!
    thank you for your quiet, realistic and Real approach to something as natural and decent as all our voices raised in praise and harmony. 
  4. 3 Charles Silbert 27 May
    I fully support Gilad's protest. What I find puzzling is that there does not appear to be any consensus among Orthodox Jewry worldwide on certain issues such as the time frame for Conversions, the opinion on fertility as to whether a child has to convert or not if born by certain fertility methods and women singing in public.
  5. 2 yitzchak 31 May
    1)If it is a majority opinion that women should be seen but not heard,what is the problem?
    2)If secularized,femininist,reformed,egalitarian progressives want to commemorate the Holocaust,with women singing, there are alternatives from the mainstream and you were not forced to participate.
    3)Unfortunately all religions are a tad overbearing with the second sex.Try a Catholic mass,or a moslem prayer session.Why the fuss now over a ceremony with strong religious overtones.
    4)Finally there is no transgression of Our Constitution which is explicit:  advocacy of hatred.... and which constitutes incitement to cause harm".I don't see that.
    It seems to me that this whole sad episode represents more of an attempt at political protest at the wrong time and since the liberation theologists at SACRED are so keen to upend Jewish values why don't they look at other religious denominations.
    The suspicion over libertarian progressives in the Jewish community are confirmed and I'm sure a separate ceremony at Temple David would have been adequate.
    Any ways it's all subjudice...
     
  6. 1 Judy Yacov 05 Jun
    Enough of the horny Rabbis making such disgusting comments.  Is their libido so close to the surface that they get aroused at anything that moves or sings?  Thank you for remembering the protest against Vorster.  We really did get on the wrong side of history for a while.  I just hope people don't try to forget how many of us were always on the right side of trying to abolish apartheid.
     

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