Voices are raised in song everywhere from Broadway to school musicals, but it’s a brand-new experience on the stage at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy. For the Orthodox school’s two student performances of Les Miserables last week, boys and girls sang together for the first time.
The change was a small but significant act of harmonizing Jewish law with community norms, said Joshua Levisohn, headmaster of the Rockville school.
At issue is a Talmudic dictum known as kol isha — that the voice of a woman is sexually suggestive to men. From that ruling came a halachic (Jewish legal) restriction on women singing in public. The school has always followed that ruling, and has restricted girls older than fifth grade from singing in public.
So what caused the change?
Rena Fruchter, who leads the school’s dramatic arts program and directed last week’s performances, said “an unfortunate incident” caused the change.
Last year, Berman Academy invited Olney Theatre Center’s National Players to perform Animal Farm, based on George Orwell’s book.
“There was no mention of music in the publicity,” Fruchter said.
But there was music. And, more problematically, there was singing, including women’s solos. By the time Fruchter and other school administrators realized that, the audience was seated and the performance was underway.
“We had to do some fast thinking,” Fruchter said. “But there was nothing to do.”
So she asked the performers to stop the show.
“The majority of the people would have been comfortable to stay,” she said last week. But letting the play continue would have ignored the authority of the rabbinic ruling and contradicted one of the school’s most important values.
The incident started a discussion within the school community about kol isha. Levisohn took the matter to Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, the school’s posek, or halachic authority. Breitowitz consulted the legal books for precedents and issued a ruling.
He based it on another Talmudic dictum that holds, “multiple voices are not heard distinctly.”
In a letter to Berman Academy parents, Levisohn wrote: “Rabbi Breitowitz has decided that it is appropriate to rely on the [multiple voices] principle as the policy of the MJBHA and for mixed group singing (boys and girls together) to be permitted… .”
So when the 21 students performed “At the End of the Day” and “Look Down,” they sang as an ensemble. (Another 15 students were on the crew.) Because the law forbids girls to have solos, boys were not allowed to either.
Cast member Eleanna Weissman, a 10th-grader, said the ensemble singing was a new experience for her and the school.
Senior Zev Shields said that singing with girls exposed him to “skill sets that I didn’t know existed. They sang high harmonies I didn’t know were possible.”
When the group launched into “Do you hear the people sing?” they could answer “yes” for the first time.