Some women making names for themselves by singing just for women
By Chandrea Serebro
Who would have guessed that the voice currently being played on a trendy Brazilian Radio Station and the woman behind many popular songs available online belongs to a Russian born, South African religious Jewess with seven kids who sings in five languages? She should be a national treasure for women all round, because Chana Opert’s musical career is so humble, yet the image of achievement, and, at the same time, imbued with multiple layers of deeper meaning and religious significance.
It was clear from early on that a musical future lay in store for Chana, after she first started studying music on the piano and choir and harpsichord at the tender age of five in her birthplace of Moscow. But at 15, Chana began becoming more religious, so she moved to Israel without any family, to study at seminary and continue her musical studies in piano and guitar. A budding musician, she played in numerous productions for women only. But then, when Chana got married and started her family, her musical career came to a halt.
“I carried on playing the piano, wherever my life took me. In Zimbabwe at the Bulawayo Conservatory of Music, in Durban with a private tutor, and through Trinity College, but ultimately I felt that this was not the right time in my life to pursue my musical dream. I embraced having my children, serving the communities we were living in, and living my life fully.” She never felt a lack, but deep within her the inner musician would not be forgotten. And the defining moment in Chana’s life as a musician came at the age of forty when she tried out recording a song at the home-based recording studio of a friend. And just as surely as she knew when she was five in Moscow, Chana knew, with great humility, that something new was about to begin. “It was an incredibly elevating experience, the most wonderful feeling that I was longing for. When I was singing into this microphone, nothing else existed.” When one of Chana’s friends heard the song and told Chana she should consider making a CD, that she had an “amazing voice”, Chana was humbled by the assertion, but taken with the idea.
The rest fell into place from there, with a great deal of hashgacha pratis (Divine providence) guiding the process. Bil’vavi – A Sanctuary in my Heart, Chana’s debut album, came out only seven months later, a collection of traditional Hebrew songs with a new arrangement, and 350 copies were sold across Israel and Europe. “I wanted to see what I could achieve. And the feedback was so positive, people kept on asking me when am I doing my next one.”
The ball kept rolling, and while the follow up CD was “quite an undertaking to produce”, Chana had found the musician inside of her and she could not be stopped. “This time, I knew that I wanted to add more of my own songs. I love writing new melodies, and my favourite is to take Tehillim and put them to music. Tehillim really inspire me, I read a Psalm and immediately start humming it to a tune, and so the creative process begins to flow. On my second CD there are 5 songs that I composed, and I also use the texts from the Prophets and some Tefilot. I think that if I bring Tehillim to people in the form of a soulful song, I will get them to sing it, to actually pronounce the holy words of David HaMelech (King David).” And this is what makes her music not only more meaningful, but sincere. “Besides for holiness, the depth of King David’s messages is immense. Tehillim speak of the faith, the bitachon, that David HaMelech had, throughout all of his trials and tribulations. And that message, to never despair, to never lose hope, to know that Hashem is always there for every one of us is the message I want to get out there to my audience.”
And this is probably why performing for women still gets the adrenalin going for Chana. “There is a soothing and persuasive power in a woman’s voice, a mother, a sister, a wife, a mentor, a friend. It’s easy to get your message across, especially when I sing for women in an intimate setting. But even when there is a large audience, women tend to feel the power of community, togetherness, on an almost tangible level, and it feels intimate, almost therapeutic. The love and feeling of sisterhood is palpable, and this creates a fertile ground for teaching ideas, getting women inspired and empowered.”
Chana’s songs and both of her albums are currently available online. For more information, visit her YouTube channel: Chana Miriam Opert, or www.facebook.com/chanamiriamopert/ or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Breindy and Matt
When Breindy met Matthew, a music producer who was running a small record label at the time, at a Friday night dinner at a friend’s home, it turned out to be that happily ever after moment – both romantically and creatively, that is. They began chatting about Breindy’s music, about the songs she had been composing since she was a young girl, and from there, the friendship and professional rapport they developed led them eventually to produce an album together. After the release of the album, the two got married, started performing together, and became “Breindy and Matt” – the musical duo which performs the soulful tunes of Jewish sounds, exclusively for women.
Breindy and Matt has become a local hit among women, and their unique story adds a sense of mystique and Divinity to their act. While operating within the strict confines of Judaism – “We perform for women only because we are Torah observant, and follow the halacha” – still, their mission is “to break boundaries, grow outward, and reach many women of different backgrounds”. “Even though our music can only be performed for women, it is not made specifically for women. We don’t have a female audience specifically in mind when we’re making music. Rather, we try to let the music take us to where it needs to go, and to develop each piece in a direction that we feel drawn to.” Breindy explains, “I think it’s very important for women to have an opportunity and space to perform in the arts. Despite the many challenges, there are organisations in Israel and America that are very passionate about giving women a forum to showcase their artwork. Music that is only performed for women is certainly a niche, but there is a growing consciousness around it, and for us to contribute something to that feels like a great privilege.” Yes, says Breindy, perhaps this religious dictate poses a sacrifice in terms of “performance and reach”, but what is important is that Breindy does not see it as a “sacrifice to the actual music”. “The music we compose is an expression and product of us, who we are, and our experiences,” but which at the same time expresses the nuances within the Jewish tradition and history. “Our music is usually put to Hebrew words of Psalms or prayer, or often to no words – niggunim. Sometimes having no words can unlock the depth of a melody and its harmonies. On the other hand, we have always related to the original Hebrew language of the words that we do use. There is so much locked into them – the ambiguity and how they hold so many different layers and understandings within them. At the same time, for listeners who don’t understand the language at all, it becomes an open canvas on which to project whatever one feels.”
Creating their own events in which to perform in intimate settings – get-togethers in homes, at restaurants, and at women-only events – live performance is pivotal to Matt and Breindy’s brand of music. “We love performing as it is a way to engage and to share our music. Live performance, as opposed to working in studio, is a whole different perspective on what we do as it gives the audience an experiential taste on what inspired certain songs, and some history and stories behind the music.” And the response that they have garnered is profound, with people rushing to attend these intimate soirees and really connecting to the music in a deep and personal way, with the music going “beyond the realm of spoken communication”.
“After an unplugged show we once did, a lady with tears in her eyes told us how she hadn’t heard those words since she was a young girl, sung to her by her grandmother. I’m not sure the exact emotions that were evoked in her, but in turn I was very touched that she expressed this to me.” This personal affectation is one of the driving forces behind Matt and Breindy, giving them both “huge satisfaction” in producing their music (they are currently working on their second album) and fulfilment when seeing their music move people. It is also an achievement to see their creative process culminate in new work. “Recording this album has drawn from many different times, places, and aspects of both of our lives,” and while this adds the personal touch in such an authentic way, being the master of all elements of this creative process is not always smooth sailing. “It is difficult to organise and market our shows on our own, and yet the fact that we have complete control over them has also been an advantage – we are able to design them exactly how we want and aim to create an intimate and warm atmosphere conducive to the type of music that we play.” For more information, visit: breindyandmatt.com or facebook.com/breindymusic
Unattainable dreams and star-studded success, showbiz and no business, love and war are all common themes of Broadway musicals. They also are the threads in the life of Caroline (Cohen) Pakter – the young aspiring singer who dreamed of playing Les Miserables, only to give it up for what she believes in. Caroline grew up with a love and passion for music and drama, following in the family footsteps of singing and dancing. Hers is a story destined for greatness, and in pursuit of this she enrolled in Musical Theatre after High School. She went on to understudy the lead role of ‘Eliza Doolittle’ in ‘My Fair Lady’ in the West End, the start of what was a promising career for Caroline, a career which was fast becoming a dream come true when at only 23, Caroline was offered an audition for a lead part in Les Miserables.
But at drama school Caroline had her first taste of a Shabbos, which inspired her curiosity to learn more about her heritage. She went on a trip to Israel, and slowly the seeds of doubt that had sprouted began to grow within Caroline. “My battle between life on the stage and a new found love of Shabbos began at University and continued through my first job on the stage. It was meeting some inspiring rabbis that brought home to me how I wanted to live my life and who I wanted to emulate.” Realising she was on the wrong pathway, heading in the wrong direction, Caroline left the theatre to pursue a life dedicated to Torah and Shabbos, turning down leading roles in Mamma Mia, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, and Summer Holiday at the same time. During this course of time, Caroline’s sister, Louisa, had also become Torah observant, and she ran a dance school in London. Caroline joined her, teaching singing to the girls, and together they put on women-only shows.
“I took on singing for women only while studying at seminary in Israel, after a conversation with Rebbetzen Tziporah Heller. She advised me that if I wanted to marry the kind of guy I was looking for, I would have to undertake to stop singing for mixed audiences before I even began the dating process. I felt ready to do both.” For Caroline, this sacrifice, which for any aspirant actress or singer would signal the death of her entire career, this was a way to impact the lives of her audience in a way that she wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. “There is something incredibly powerful about singing for women, and I love being able to uplift people though music. It brings Jewish women together regardless of their levels of yiddishkeit. Of course, the standard of performance is lower, but then I was dispensable before, and I wasn’t impacting people’s lives as I do now.”
Still, it was no small sacrifice. “I never missed singing in front of men – I just missed singing. In deciding to perform for women only, the opportunities open to me suddenly became much more limited.” And while this limit on her creative being weighed down on her, Caroline knew that at the same time as she was experiencing this professional and creative roadblock, she was also on a path that was taking her further from her ultimate goals. “I was on a path that encouraged me to become more selfish and self-serving. I realised that it would not matter to me later in life how many shows I had been in, but that I would have regretted moving in the wrong direction for so long.”
Having changed her mind-set to embrace her new reality, Caroline soon realised that this new way of performing afforded her new opportunities. Caroline released her first album, ‘We Believe’, in 2006 and she is currently working on a second one. She has travelled extensively, performing her show ‘Showbiz to Shabbos’ around the world, and in Manchester with her South African husband and children, she has produced three shows with women and girls in the community. “In my Showbiz to Shabbos show, I speak about my own journey and quest for more meaning and spirituality in my life which adds another dimension to the performance. It is not merely for entertainment, but can move people to make positive changes in their own lives. When I tell people my story of having given up my West End career – the glamour, the fame, the fortune, the lights, I remind them of what I have gained. Through becoming observant, I have discovered spirituality, truth, wisdom, direction, and unconditional friendship.” For more information, email: email@example.com