Rabbi Judah Dardik's sojourn from New Jersey to the Bay Area will be celebrated this weekend at Oakland's Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation. But it is his sister who will take center stage.
Both Dardik and his sister, Shimona Gotlieb, were raised in what Dardik called a "loosely traditional" household. But while Dardik's path to Orthodoxy was relatively smooth, his sister's path was markedly different. Those differences will be elucidated in her performance at Beth Jacob at 8 p.m. tomorrow. The concert, for women only, is free for women over the age of 12.
Named after her grandfather, Gotlieb uses only her first name professionally. Shimona translates as "God heard my prayers," the singer said in a recent phone interview from her home in suburban Tenafly, N.J. Her name, she added, portended the internal struggles that characterized her path from loose observance to Orthodoxy.
"There were serious issues for me when I was thinking about following an Orthodox route," she said. "My view was that Judaism had a patriarchal center and that women were consigned to a secondary role." Those opinions gradually began to change when Gotlieb began to delve deeper into Jewish studies.
In part, she was drawn into the Orthodox lifestyle because her husband, whom she had originally dated in high school, was following an Orthodox path. But, although the two of them discussed their plans for the future, Gotlieb was still reluctant to give up the secular lifestyle.
"I always wanted to be a cross between Judy Collins and Madonna," she said, half-jokingly. "My life was supposed to be about going on tour to lots of exciting places and playing in all sorts of different clubs and venues. To me the Orthodox lifestyle didn't seem to reconcile with my artistic dreams."
To Gotlieb's great surprise, she was proven wrong.
"First of all, the whole concept of thinking that men and women are inferior or superior to each other according to Jewish tradition isn't really a valid perspective," she explained. "It's really like comparing apples and oranges. What I will say is that there is a level of spirituality to Jewish women that is both unique and under-appreciated. I think women have a very profound sense of God and the everyday miracles of life through the process of childbirth and child rearing.
"Now, that doesn't mean that a professional Jewish business woman or a Jewish woman without children can't be deeply spiritual — but it does mean that they have that potential," said Gotlieb, who is in her 30s and the mother of two daughters and a son.
A graduate of Barnard College, she performed while she was still an undergraduate, according to her brother, writing the song for the college's centennial celebration as well as performing in the New York area.
Years later, while attending a Chabad women's convention, she was asked to perform.
"She was so well-received that she decided to move ahead with an album," Dardik said, adding that the women's concert may be the first event of its kind at his synagogue.
Gotlieb, who doesn't want to look back on her life "with pangs of regrets from not fulfilling her artistic dreams," said she has found a way to incorporate her religious practices — including keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath — while making music she hopes has a direct impact on audiences. The singer and songwriter focuses on a "niche" market — Jewish music — and then carves out her identity further by incorporating themes often overlooked in that market: spirituality and Jewish women.
In her new CD, "Eden's Rivers," which was literally being burned this week, according to her brother, the music ranges from soulful ballads — some on women's themes — to "simcha songs," for dancing to at Jewish celebrations.
One of her songs is dedicated to Hannah, the biblical figure who prays for the birth of a child. The prayer is one that has remained unchanged for 2,000 years, and one that Gotlieb said is a telling example of Jewish women's innate spirituality.
"The old saying is that prayer goes from a Jewish woman's mouth directly to God's ear," she said. "That's something that appeals to the religious person and the feminist in me."