Book review of For Women and Girls Only: Reshaping Jewish Orthodoxy through the Arts in the Digital Age

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The following piece is a book reivew of For Women and Girls Only: Reshaping Jewish Orthodoxy through the Arts in the Digital Age.

Ben Rothke

In the early 20th century, it was not easy to be an Orthodox Jew in the United States. Trying to work and be observant of Shabbat was challenging. That struggle created the notion of a hashkamah minyan where a person could pray early on Shabbat morning in the synagogue and leave early enough to make it to work on time.

The options for Orthodox women wanting to pursue avenues in song, film, dance, and music were almost nonexistent if they wanted to stay observant. In fact, the theme of the classic 1927 movie The Jazz Singer was about choosing between the father’s tradition and a son’s entertainment desires. 

A century later, much has changed. Many synagogues still have a hashkamah minyan, but that exists mainly for those who don’t want to endure the often lengthy services starting later. For those women whose aspirations are in the arts, they find there is no conflict between that and halakhic observance. 

For Orthodox women who wanted to pursue the entertainment field, the Internet and the COVID-19 pandemic created a combination of factors that significantly expanded their opportunities for artistic expression. That notion is brilliantly detailed in For Women and Girls Only: Reshaping Jewish Orthodoxy through the Arts in the Digital Age (NYU Press) by Dr. Jessica Roda, assistant professor of Jewish Civilization at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

The book delves beyond the politicization of women’s bodies, images, voices, and stories; it shows the role of the digital age and the arts in our everyday lives, positionalities, and ways of defining publicity and privacy. Many ultra-Orthodox women have used those opportunities to create a subindustry of music and film within the Orthodox world.

In their research, Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper detailed the growth of the Satmar community in Brooklyn after World War II. Under the leadership of the Satmar Rebbe, they were able to “change without changing” and regrow into one of the most potent political and religious groups in the state of New York. Roda details how these women were able to “change without changing” when it came to music and entertainment. Had their approaches been too subversive, they would have had much more pushback from rabbinic authorities and community leaders. 

Roda writes of what she calls the kol ishah industry. The Talmud states, “Kol ishah ervah”―a woman’s voice is nakedness (Berakhot 24a). This is based on a verse from Song of Songs: “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is comely” (2:14). Rashi explains that a woman’s singing (but not spoken) voice is attractive to a man and is thus prohibited to him. The literature on kol ishah is extensive and could fill volumes.

In addition to the halakhic issue of kol ishah―and it is a significant one―generations of Orthodox Jewish women had been taught and inculcated with the notion to be private and non-public based on two verses in Psalms: “The royal princess… is led inside to the king” (45:14-15). As such, Orthodox women in media, performance art, and the like were seen as an anathema. 

Aside from Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’s appearance at Madison Square Garden in November of 1973, one is hard-pressed to find an Orthodox Jewish woman appearing in a large public amphitheater. And her event was an educational one, not entertainment, for which there is no prohibition of a woman speaking in public.

In this engaging book, Roda shows how ultra-Orthodox women have managed to deal with the conflict of integrating Halakhah that limits their spheres of public performances with their desires for entertainment as self-expression and the opportunities that the Internet and social media afford them. 

Roda presents several arguments in the book. The first is that religious women, in the face of changes in the arts and technology, are redefining the act of being public and private and engendering social change in their societies. She also argues that the significance of technology and the arts in creating a new sense of belonging has redefined conservative religious communities beyond the local. 

On the subject of Internet censorship, John Gilmore, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, famously said that “the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Similarly, with perceived restrictions from rabbis and Jewish law, these women have dealt with it, succeeded, and routed around most objections. The many women entertainers and writers portrayed in the book show no conflict with their desires and fealty to Halakhah.

This also begs the question of why most ultra-Orthodox rabbis are not opposed to these innovations. The truth is that in more insular communities, such as Kiryas Joel and New Square, there has been pushback. But to a degree, it comes down to a combination of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the fact that Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter (now X) have essentially been considered marketing and business tools in the Orthodox world that rabbis and rebbes have deemed acceptable. 

Roda shows how to effect change in Orthodox society and how these women did that. R. Aharon Lichtenstein observed that Orthodox society prefers evolution rather than revolution. The women portrayed in Roda’s book kept their heads down and incrementally worked on change on the local level until critical mass was achieved. At that point, it was embedded and almost immune to protest. 

At the educational level, this is the approach Sarah Schenirer took when starting the Bais Yaakov school system as well as what singer Shaindel Antelis did as a pioneering female singer. 

The protagonist in The Jazz Singer was given the choice between tradition and expression. Roda shows that women no longer need to choose. She writes how Dobby Baum, Franciska Goldschmidt Kosman, Bracha Jaffe, and other Orthodox female entertainers use their natural talents to pursue their passions without compromising Halakhah.

The digital world democratized entertainment opportunities for Orthodox women. In the past, their opportunities were limited to summer camps and high school plays. Now, they are making a living, raising money for charity, and appearing at performing arts centers with thousands of seats. Witness the Shaindy Plotzker concert in April 2024 to benefit EFRAT with orchestra seats priced at $500. Or witness Franciska Goldschmidt Kosman, who used her talents to create a body of music to assuage the pain of Israelis going through the Gaza war. 

Roda here interviewed women in their roles as singers, musicians, producers, studio owners, dancers, filmmakers, and actresses who are using the arts as an economy. While the arts might be considered a liminal practice existing in peripheral spaces―and, therefore, unrepresentative of broader societies―in these frum communities, they nevertheless reveal important changes in the making of publicity in conservative religious circles.

The Orthodox female art worlds encapsulate the contradiction between ultra-Orthodox women’s need for privacy and the publicity of the arts. They offer alternative ways to understand religious norms that demand privacy and artistic norms whose raison d’être dwells in publicity. 

The glass ceiling for ultra-Orthodox religious women in the entertainment sector existed for the longest time. However, it was social media and the Internet, condemned by many rabbinic leaders, which ironically were the mechanisms these religious women used to break that ceiling. 

The Orthodox entertainment scene was long dominated and controlled by men. In fact, “dominated” may be too kind of a word. There were absolutely no women in any leadership roles in the Orthodox music industry since the men were the alpha and omega of the industry. It’s not that women were actively excluded from membership in the way some country clubs in the past excluded women and people of color. Rather, they were not in the equation. 

These subversive technologies transformed how these Orthodox women could create an alternative entertainment market outside of the public, male-dominated one. In 2024, these women have countless commercial channels to sell and distribute their music.

The barrier these religious women long faced was that they had to battle the notion that women did not perform in front of men and the general public. It would seem to be an intractable problem. Yet with some ingenious Talmud-like logic, they slapped the disclaimer “for women and girls only” on their videos and transferred the onus onto the men. However, creating a large-scale space like that was helped within the Internet and social media framework. 

The combination of the Internet, social media, and Zoom created an underground railroad of sorts, allowing these women, dedicated to Halakhah, to succeed. 

This is not just for the arts. A large cadre of Orthodox women are giving workshops and classes on topics that are still taboo in the general realm. Had women such as Fally KleinLeah Richeimer, and others asked rabbinic leaders if they could use a synagogue to give lectures on intimacy, sexuality, and relationships, the responses would likely have been no. Yet Zoom allowed them to do this. These video-telephony systems enabled them to create a space where they could operate within Halakhah but outside the public sphere, often stealthily, free from rabbinic oversight. 

In 1994, Sadie Plant, director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick in Britain, coined the term cyberfeminism to describe the work of feminists interested in theorizing, critiquing, and exploiting the Internet, cyberspace, and new-media technologies in general.

Roda expanded on that and coined the term cyberfrumenism to describe how Orthodox female celebrities have used social media to empower themselves. Cyberfrumenism, when used in cyberspace, allows them to reveal their faces, bodies, and voices, and more specifically, their private social, cultural, and artistic lives, which have been stereotyped by the public sector media and made invisible by the public ultra-Orthodox media. 

Most of the Orthodox female artists would not consider themselves feminists. This is in part due to the pejorative nature the term has in Orthodox circles, combined with the notion that feminism is a modern concept perceived in many ultra-Orthodox circles as something meant to undermine Halakhah. 

Feminism is a weaponized and fraught word in the Orthodox space. Many women who effect change in this space do not concern themselves with labels. They keep their heads down and quietly effect change outside of any spotlight. One of those is Rifka Wein Harris, an artist and jeweler whose daughter excels in music and has appeared in kol ishah videos.

Wein Harris’s education through post-high-school seminary was in the Bais Yaakov school system, and Roda described her effort to rectify this change as a subversive one. Yet even with the seditious nature of the term, Wein Harris and others in the kol ishah industry, at the end of the day, show their unwavering fealty to Halakhah.

Until the early 21st century, the voices of women and girls were not commonly recorded commercially to prevent men from accessing them. Because the kol ishah industry resulted from a paradox between religious authority’s proscriptions and individuals’ practices, its success encourages us to consider the changes to authority in religious settings brought about by the digital age. 

It has also created female celebrities who are becoming role models in music production, performance, and women’s cinema. One of those celebrities is the singer Shaindy Plotzker. As to her celebrity status, witness this video where she surprises a terminally ill fan at a summer camp for sick children. 

It’s not that all of these women have been met with universal acclaim. Due to what seems to be their subversive behavior, more than a few of them have relocated from more insular, ultra-Orthodox communities to more open ones. In Brazen: My Unorthodox Journey from Long Sleeves to Lingerie, Julia Haart writes that she left Monsey, New York, because she felt it was far too oppressive and limiting for her. Ironically, singer Dobby Baum and author Chany Rosengarten relocated to Monsey, a community they called more diverse, inclusive, and modern than where they came from. 

As to female artists who found the Orthodox world oppressive and limiting, the book has a chapter on those who left Orthodoxy and brought their talents to the world of secular entertainment. Many from Boro Park and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, used their native Yiddish fluency and brought it to plays and cinema. 

Within a few years, social media and the Internet transformed the world. That was not lost on Orthodox female entertainers and writers, who used them to fill a much-needed vacuum. In For Women and Girls Only: Reshaping Jewish Orthodoxy through the Arts in the Digital Age, Jessica Roda has written a fascinating and engaging work that details how these women achieved that. 

The Talmud states that Moses went and sat in the study hall of R. Akiva and did not understand what they were saying. His strength waned as he feared that his Torah knowledge was deficien t. When R. Akiva arrived at a discussion, his students said, “My teacher, from where do you derive this?” R. Akiva told them, “It is a halakhah transmitted to Moses from Sinai.” When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this, too, was part of the Torah that he was to receive (Menahot 29b).

If someone from centuries past were to be transported to the entertainment stages of New York City and New Jersey and saw Orthodox women singing, dancing, making movies, writing, and more, they would not recognize them as traditional Jewish women. And they’d likely go apoplectic.

These women are doing this in a manner conducive to Moses’s laws and bringing his word to the world. And as Roda has eloquently shown, this should put everyone’s mind at ease.

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He blogs about information security at The Security Meltdown and is the associate editor of the Information Security Journal: A Global Perspective. He writes technology book reviews for Security Management, and reviews of books on Jewish thought for The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Press and Times of Israel.