On January 2, 2020, Neve Schechter and the Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts awarded the first ever prize for contemporary Israeli art to musicians Maureen Nehedar and the members of the band A-WA. Given Israeli news with its seemingly never ending reports that document the exclusion of women in the public sphere, the prize committee decided to recognize talented musicians who are women. The award reinforces The Schechter Institutes’ mission of promoting an egalitarian Judaism that embraces a wide array of voices. Read below for singer and composer Maureen Nehedar’s speech.
Maureen Nehedar’s statement upon accepting the Neve Schechter and Rabinovich Foundation Award for Original Israeli Creative Work, Thursday, 2 January 2019, at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv:
I’m so happy and moved to accept the Neve Schechter and Rabinovitch Foundation award for Original Israeli Creative Work. It is a great honor to be part of the chain of generations that have acted and continue to act on behalf of the Jewish people and sustain the Jewish people from within. Over the years of my career as a musician and an artist (over 20, if you were wondering), I’ve had the privilege to entertain many people from all walks of life with songs and content that I’ve brought with me. I’ve given a voice to a generation whose own voice was not heard in general culture or given a central place in the public discourse. I’ve seen the wonder and happiness in their eyes, when they discovered songs in Hebrew and Persian being played on the radio. I saw them stand up straighter. I’ve seen the happy reactions from people from different places of origin — East and West — who have enjoyed the traditional Persian music and my original music at concerts and on the albums I’ve put out. These people understand that this culture belongs not only to one particular group within the population, but to all of us — and that is how it should be viewed.
My personal journey within this music has not been aimed at launching a protest or waving any sort of banner. I just wanted to express longing that cannot find relief, a longing for the voices that I heard in my childhood and which were left behind in the move to Israel. I have been so happy to discover that so many people identify with this longing through my personal commentary and that so many understand the importance of this moment in which we are standing.
I want to thank the members of the Judges’ Committee — Shiri Lev-Ari, Giora Eini and Einat Kolb Rezintzky — for choosing me, as well as the wonderful band AWA, which is being awarded the prize for the first time. Many thanks also to Romina Resin, the head of the Neve Schechter Center, and the faithful staff. I’ve had the honor to be the guest of the Center several times and each time it has been a wonderful experience. Thank you for seeing me, for hearing me and my work and for not turning a blind eye to it.
Today, as women are being excluded from Jewish and Israeli music and pushed to the cultural margins, it is particularly significant that, for the first time, the prize is being awarded to four women.
I want to connect my words with a wonderful figure who appears in Parshat Vayigash, which we will — very appropriately — be reading this coming Shabbat.
Almost completely hidden in the meeting between Yosef and his brothers in Parshat Vayigash, which ends with the revealing of Yosef’s identity and the bringing of all of his father Yaakov’s family to Egypt, we find a female character with superhuman qualities, the character of Serach bat Asher. Out of Yaakov’s 54 grandchildren, she is the only granddaughter mentioned. The brothers, who found it difficult to tell Yaakov that Yosef was alive and who were afraid that Yaakov would collapse upon hearing the news, asked Asher’s daughter, Serach, the little girl who was close with Yaakov, to tell him this news in a song. In response to that song, Yaakov told her, “My daughter, death will never rule over you because you have revived my spirit.” She is even numbered among the 10 righteous individuals who entered Gan Eden alive — the only woman among them.
Serach bat Asher was not only a woman with a timeless capability; she was also the only woman to know the secret of redemption. That same secret was known to the Fathers and passed on to the sons of Yaakov, including Asher who “passed along the secret of the redemption to Serach, his daughter.” I see her as someone who lifted up the people, who led as a wise woman, and who made firm decisions. Due to her long life, she was the only one who knew the secrets of the past and who possessed the keys to the future redemption. According to the tradition of the Jews of Babylonia, Serach was exiled to Babylonia with the destruction of the First Temple, settled in Isfahan in Persia and later disappeared — the same Isfahan where I and my fathers’ fathers were born.
In addition to being prophets, Serach and Miriam were both wise women who were accepted by and led their societies, alongside the male leaders of their eras. They were also both musicians who sang and played instruments. It is interesting to note that no musical abilities are mentioned for the Fathers or for many other important figures.
Not only did the people not push them aside or fear them for their abilities to express their voices in many areas, including music, they respected them greatly and saw them as an integral part of the Jewish people at that time and today, alongside other special female figures I haven’t mentioned.
As I understand the matter, the people of the Tanach understood the power of a message delivered through music, how such a message can, as Yaakov said, revive the soul and save one from spiritual and physical death. Everyone wants to hear the song of their own heart, as that’s the safest place, the most fundamental, like a lullaby. Someone who does not consider what has occurred over the generations of his or her own family and in general will feel a sense of detachment.
They understood the relationship between spiritual strength and the eternal nature of the Jewish nation, those same wise women who let their voices be heard, not only in words, but also in song and melody.
Thank you very much
Following are the welcoming remarks of Romina Resin, Director of Neve Schechter.
This is very emotional for me. That I am here this evening as the new director of this beautiful and important institution is thanks to my being a woman in Jewish music.
I was born into a secular Jewish family in Cordoba, Argentina. Every night before I went to sleep, my father would sing to me sweet songs from the Israeli soundtrack of that time and, every morning, I’d go to a school of music that was full of South American folklore and sounds from around the world. One day before my 12th birthday, my aunt and uncle told me that in the Masorati synagogue (like the one we have in this building, downstairs), girls were invited to prepare for a Bat Mitzvah ceremony. I went to the meeting and, in this case, there was an experimental group that — for the first time —would allow girls to study, read from the Torah and lead services. The beautiful words in the exotic language, the mysterious and spiritual music and the golden gates of the Ark enchanted me and I remained in that environment throughout my teens, as a student of Jewish thought and culture.
One day, the synagogue’s cantor left and a new, young rabbi arrived, who had heard of me as a girl who loved to sing, learn and pray and, in no time at all, I became the first ever female cantor in that city. Despite the fact that this was unusual, it felt natural to me to be a woman out on stage in the Jewish world. Fast forward, life goes on, and I’ve been living in Israel for the past 10 years. Since arriving here, I have been trying to understand the unique and complex Israeli reality, which is sometimes wonderful and sometimes painful, and seeking opportunities to act within and strengthen places in which to be a woman who learns, speaks, creates and prays that which is in her soul in front of those who want to listen is a natural and normal thing.