A Season of Singing: Creating Feminist Jewish Music in the United States. By Sarah M. Ross. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2016. ISBN 9781611689600.

Reviewed by Rachel Adelstein

A Season of Singing

Sarah Ross’s carefully researched ethnographic study introduces the reader to a powerful, yet under-studied sub-genre within the world of contemporary Jewish music. Beginning in the 1960s, American female Jewish singer-songwriters composed and performed music that addressed questions of gender inequality in Judaism using themes and characters from Jewish liturgy. Ross tells the story of this feminist Jewish music through extensive interviews with composers and performers, as well as a thorough, detailed analysis of music and lyrics. She explores a variety of ways in which several of the more prominent female singer-songwriters in this genre have used music to reconcile feminist philosophies with the rituals and traditions of an historically patriarchal religion. For many readers, this may be either an initial introduction to this repertoire, which has received little scholarly attention to date.  For others, it may broaden their appreciation of feminist Jewish music beyond the handful of the most popular songs (many by Debbie Friedman) that are sung in progressive synagogues.

Ross’s ethnography and analysis is deep and thorough, providing substantial information and insightful commentary to engage readers of all levels of experience with feminist Jewish repertoire. Her research broadly encompasses the use of audiovisual recordings, journalistic sources and online research, as well as more traditional ethnographic methodology such as interviews and printed secondary sources. (In the interests of full disclosure, my 2013 Ph.D thesis appears among her secondary sources.) Her ethnography is selective, showing conversations, e-mail correspondence, and telephone exchanges with relatively few singer-songwriters, rabbis, and cantors; however, she presents her chosen interviewees in a complex and multifaceted light, allowing their personalities to show on the page along with Ross’s own continuing relationships with them. Ross sets these distinct voices in conversation with each other as well as with herself, revealing a network of mutual support, influence, and debate among women singer-songwriters spread across the distance of geography, varying religious identities, and feminist philosophies. She further sets the voices of the women who compose and perform feminist Jewish music in conversation with their own work, analyzing the lyrics of selected songs against a background of feminist midrash (narrative elaborations on stories from the Torah) and ritual innovation. Ross’s blend of ethnography and textual analysis is confident and easy to follow, and it is a pleasure to read the work of an author who handles these two different types of inquiry with equal assurance and skill.

However, as well-organized as the book is in its individual sections, it suffers from a serious structural flaw, at times showing too many signs of its origins as a doctoral dissertation, especially in its overly mannered introductions of and transitions between points of argument. Constructions such as, “This chapter has provided the historical, cultural, and political context for feminist Jewish music. The following chapter seeks to give an ethnographic description of the feminist Jewish music scene that spans the United States” (p. 76), come between the reader and the otherwise well-presented material of the book. Ross’s expertise in the politics and artistry of Jewish feminist music is considerable, and her presentation is often both scholarly and humane. Unfortunately, carrying the structural requirements of the dissertation as an academic exercise into the more narrative format of a monograph obscures the depth of Ross’s expertise and gives her prose a clunkiness that may discourage the educated, but non-expert reader who would most benefit from reading this book. Better editorial support might have helped to reduce this problem as well as to fix some of the spelling errors that mar the final chapters.

These structural issues do not represent the overall quality of Ross’s work, and the reader will be rewarded with a study that provides a serious original contribution to the ongoing scholarly conversation about Jewish liturgical music. Taking seriously a repertoire that has largely been ignored in a field that privileges male musicians over female musicians, Orthodoxy over the progressive movements, and secular and para-liturgical music over the music of ritual and liturgy, Ross highlights current developments in religious music, demonstrating that progressive Judaism is a living, evolving tradition rather than simply a static artifact of recent history. As such, Chapter Three is an especially rich section of this book, blending a discussion of feminist Jewish music as a modern form of midrash with meditations on the role of feminist music in ritual, the value of ritual innovation relative to the feminist reimagining of extant ritual, and even feminist re-conceptions of the Divine. Ross’s work is strongest in this chapter; her blend of ethnography, social observation, and musical and cultural analysis is more balanced here than anywhere else in the book. She frames this work on her chosen subject material with questions that speak to the place of this repertoire in the ritual lives of Jewish American women who are not necessarily insiders in the feminist Jewish music scene.

The sound of the repertoire that Ross describes comes from American folk, rock, country, bluegrass and jazz, as well as Native American and New Age-style chanting.  These musical styles lend themselves more to group singing or to a stage performance than to a worship service.  As such, Ross raises the question of how and whether feminist Jewish music can exist in a normative worship setting. She also asks, “what makes popular music religious music” (p. 195), though she gives only the bare bones of an answer. These questions are worth taking seriously, although they are beyond the scope of Ross’s book. She poses them and then wisely leaves them open, inviting future scholars to take them up in further research. Although A Season of Singing is not a perfect work, it is something perhaps more valuable—an invitation to a debate about women’s musical activity in the progressive Jewish movements within as well as beyond the United States.

 

Rachel Adelstein, Independent Scholar