PHOTOS: From left, Jennifer Gwirtz, special guest Jessaiah Zuré and Leora Troper rehearse Kol b’Isha/Voice Within Woman. Cast member Janet Goulston is not pictured. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis. Below, Jennifer Gwirtz.
BY DEBORAH MOON
Kol b’Isha/Voice Within Woman will have had a much longer gestation period than expected when it premieres April 28 (see details below). Conceived before the pandemic, the choreographic meditation on female voice, visibility and silence was due to debut in May 2020.
In 2018, Jennifer Gwirtz began the Kol B'Isha project with a cast of Jewish women over age 50. The company continued to explore remotely when the 2020 premiere was canceled due to the pandemic.
“I’m a deep-dive kind of person, so being able to take that time, especially with all the complications that life brings, has been good,” says Gwirtz. “It was a blessing, in a way, to be canceled. I spent 2020 and most of 2021 researching and experimenting. In some ways, that early pandemic period was a kind of staycation residency for me that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Kol Isha, literally voice of a woman, is considered an injunction against men hearing women sing in many observant communities. While Kol Isha mainly affects observant groups, Gwirtz realized that it has significant reverberations beyond Orthodox communities.
“This piece evolved bit by bit over the last five years as a way to process my relationship to my Jewishness as a woman,” she says. “As the daughter of two vocal music teachers, the sense of being silenced when in Jewish community was something I’ve always noticed.”
Gwirtz grew up near Philadelphia, where she studied ballet and attended Jewish day school. She loved studying Hebrew, Torah and commentary.
“I had a traumatic experience at the Kotel in my early teens, after which I walked away,” she says. “That was more than 30 years ago.”
In 2018, her daughter asked to study to become a bat mitzvah, and Gwirtz discovered Congregation Shir Tikvah. She credits Rabbi Ariel Stone for loading her up with books on women in Judaism as an inspiration for her “pandemic residency.” Rabbi Stone will lead the panel discussion on Kol Isha that follows the May 1 performance.
Last fall, Gwirtz returned to Philadelphia to take care of her parents and to be with her mother until she passed away in December.
“So I’ve been thinking about Jewish women as elders in the community and how, as we age, our voices become so instrumental in creating community and making change,” she says. “Singing is how we are present in Jewish practice, whether that is leyning, davening or speaking.”
The Saturday night performance, after Havdalah, will be recorded. A video will be available for streaming, though details are not yet available.
Kol b’Isha/Voice Within Woman
WHAT: A dance about the radical Jewish female and an exploration of the voices of older women.
WHEN: April 28, 8 pm; April 30, 9:30 pm (preceded by Havdalah at 9 pm); May 1, 3 pm with post-performance panel discussion on Kol Isha, the prohibition against men hearing women sing.
WHERE: Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave.
TICKETS: $12-$20. tickettailor.com/events/pwnw/
This piece is made possible by Performance Works NW, Regional Arts & Culture Council, Women’s Giving Circle of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Ronni Lacroute and Congregation Shir Tikvah