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Woman's Voice in the Balance of Creation
Sirens and Women:
One night, the five-year-old daughter of a good friend came to sleep over because her parents were going out, and the baby-sitter didn’t show. As I was putting her to bed, she asked me for a story. I have put her to bed several times since she was a baby, and I always make up a story or a song for her, the way my own father did with me when I was her age.
The only thing I could think of was this beautiful building Palácio Das Sereias in Porto, Portugal. Two giant sirens flank this beautiful house and it overlooks the Douro River on the site of the medieval Jewish quarter. I was there during the Passover intermediate days (Chol HaMoed) 5767/2007. Filmmaker Jorge Neves from Alfândega-Filmes, one of the founders of Ladina (a non-profit society dedicated to rescuing the memory and culture of the Portuguese Jewish people) and an active member of the Jewish community in Porto brought me to this unusual house, which is now a home for aging nuns.
There was something magical that morning when we stood outside of the Siren’s Palace during Pesaj in Portugal, it was a sunny day with a crisp breeze overlooking the beautiful river. I could feel the history of Porto’s rich Jewish heritage coming back to life through the recapturing of memories, places and noteworthy figures.
That night as I told Ayala the story that came to mind, her eyes were growing wider and wider. She named the fisherman and the girl. She was most definitely NOT falling asleep! But by the end, she said, you should really write this down so that other people can hear it. This is a great story.
In thinking about it later, I realized that the Palácio was only the starting point that brought out other elements I have been thinking about and dealing with in my work. Through this fable, they came together in an unconscious manner. I am a professional singer specializing in Sephardic music, and the first connection comes through my group’s name, Flor de Serena or Siren’s Flower, a name chosen years ago.
Another connection is the title of one of the most famous Ladino songs, La Serena, which talks about a young woman living in a tower by the ocean. The seeker/sailor comes to her and begs to stay with her, so she isn’t cursed by sleeping alone.
I was inspired to search out the meaning of Siren.
Sirens have a beguiling reputation with fearful overtones. As mythical beings, they lure sailors with their beautiful singing from their perches on rocks jutting out of the ocean. As the ships approach, they are dashed on the rocks and lost. With tragedy the siren is left alone, and the sailor dies because of his lack of caution.
Sirens were originally conceived in Greek mythology as women with a bird’s body, but later the fish-woman imagery of the mermaid became more common. This combination of bird-fish-human is very significant because it brings together sky, sea and land. This is a creature that has dominion of all the realms where there is life on our planet.
Sirens are also described as women who are seductive, tempting, dangerous or harmful. They symbolize the danger of woman’s sexuality and the irresistible nature of some women over men. A Siren’s song refers to a call that is difficult to resist but that will lead to a bad result if heeded.
In his Notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote the following on the siren:
The siren sings so sweetly as to lull the mariners to sleep; then she climbs upon the ships and kills the sleeping mariners.
In 1917, Franz Kafka wrote in The Silence of the Sirens:
Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.
Clearly we are faced with a deep fear of woman’s expression and sensuality. This myth gives us an insight into an element that is present in the subconscious of our society. Woman’s song and beauty equal man’s destruction and death.
It seems to be related to the Jewish law (Halacha) of Kol Isha. This law is one that I wrestle with since I am an observant woman who is also a professional singer. Kol Isha (woman’s voice) says that a man may not listen to a woman solo singing, unless it is his wife, daughter, mother or sister. Singing is considered to reveal a very intimate part of the person. Hearing a woman’s singing may sexually arouse or entice a man, so he must refrain from listening.
The consequence of this underlying subconscious theme is that many women are afraid to develop their expressive capacities because they fear appearing to be enticing, alluring, beguiling and ultimately dangerous. My question is can we turn this around? How can we take the sensuous power of woman to be a gift and not something to fear? Why has this most powerful aspect of woman been demonized and taken to be a negative trait?
The beauty of a femininity is connected to new life, passion and love. It can be seen as a dangerous allure, or a mysterious and powerful aspect of the polarity between masculine and feminine energies. Women’s acknowledgement of the power in their voice and their use of it in a meaningful way can be healing for them and the men who hear them.
The story of the sereias came to me in the last days of the Omer, the forty-seventh day. It was the evening of May 19, 2007. When I went to the Omer calendar I discovered it was the night of Hod she’beMalchut (i.e. dignity in sovereignty). I decided to do an Internet search on teachings on the meaning of that specific day. On www.ritualwell.org, Jill Hammer describes the energy of Hod she’beMalchut as:
When Esther stands in the throne room before the king, she is wearing royal robes–literally, she is wearing malkhut. Though Esther is not born a queen, she achieves dignity through her willingness to take dramatic action to save her people. She has not chosen her position of power, but she knows that her
position must be used for the benefit of others. She is an exemplar of Hod she’bemalkhut–the acceptance of power. We are most like her when we ask ourselves how we can use our own power and privilege to serve God and our fellow beings.
I was amazed. Without being aware of it, the story that came to me as I was trying to put little Ayala to sleep, was exactly connecting to the Omer we had just counted when the sun had gone down. And so much of my work deals with the importance of women accepting their power, using their voice and taking dramatic action for our people.
In this volume I put together a series of pieces that will lead the reader to delve inside and find their own voice, their own power and their own essence. It is not an easy journey, at times it is very lonely and there are many setbacks. But, the sweetness of those moments when one’s voice blends with the voice of creation is what gives strength and propels the next level on the journey.
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rd Winning Writing
Jewish Life, Learning, Legacy