4. Cross-gendered musics of the Mediterranean:
confusing Self and Other in Jewish modernity and postmodernity


The feminine sacred embodies a remarkable degree of agency, so remarkable, indeed, that I cannot pass over it in this article without remark. The agency of the feminine sacred, moreover, provides a means of making a transition from the sacred to the secular, from the traditionality of the past to the break with tradition from which modern and postmodern Jewish Mediterraneans have formed. The feminine sacred, as we have experienced her here and as the Kabbalists imagined her, was always active and never passive, as some might expect a metaphor for the feminine to be. Not only does the shechinah enter the ritual spaces of the Sabbath, but she transforms them. Not only does her presence serve as a catalyst in the community, but it comes to embody the community, giving it new identity. This active presence has become even more intense in the Jewish Mediterranean at the end of the twentieth century, where the feminine presence has opened new spaces and identities in the popular musics of the entire Mediterranean, but especially in Israel.

For reasons that are well known (cf. Stokes and Davis 1996), Mediterranean popular musics play a powerful role in the confusion of gender categories. The unraveling and complex reformulation of gendered presences in popular music generally draw attention—from ethnomusicologists and a consuming public—because of the ways they defy convention, particularly religious restrictions on sexuality and on the presence of women in the public sphere. Women singers and musicians are at once embraced and scorned, and their subversion of religious and national identities is at once welcomed and feared. Women pop stars are able to contribute to the reconfiguration of religious, ideological, and national identities in the Mediterranean not least because they actively reconfigure traditional gender and sexual identities. Women may sing from the margins of Mediterranean society, but their song is heard most profoundly at the center.

It is hardly surprising, then, that women singers dominate some of the most significant moments in the formation of modern Mediterranean popular musics. Here, of course, I think of singers such as Umm Kulthum and Warda, but also of the women whose presence was inseparable from the earliest stages in the histories of zemer ivri (literally, "Hebrew song") and even in the historical imagination some bring to raï (Gross, McMurray, and Swedenburg 1996; Virolle-Souibès 1988; Virolle-Souibès 1993). Jewish women singers, because they occupied positions at several margins removed from the center—that is, as public musicians, as well as non-Muslims and non-instrumentalists—contributed most actively to the confusion of gender and tradition at the center.

The first modern Israeli popular singer was Beracha Zephira, who was born into a Yemenite-Jewish family in Jerusalem in 1911. Zephira’s career as a singer, which took various detours through ethnic and art musics, expressed a sort of national dialectic, even conflict, with her traditional Yemenite identity on one side and an extraordinary level of cosmopolitanism on the other. In her songs Beracha Zephira drew upon her "own" Eastern and Yemenite traditions, but she also collaborated with the most distinguished European immigrant composers during the early years of Israeli statehood. Her modern Jewish identity, therefore, depended both on her classical training—she studied drama with Max Reinhardt in Berlin—and on the expectations that Yemenite music embodied something classically Israeli because of its ancient modernity. It is precisely this conflict and the musical identity it opens that offer the most to a comprehensive study of the musical representation of gender in the Mediterranean. Beracha Zephira, together with Shoshana Davari, was the first in a line of female popular singers who opened up this space and problematized the ways in which gender took its presence in the public sphere of Israeli society (for a comprehensive study of Beracha Zephira, see Flam 1986).

Women singers acquired the power to open up this space because of their double otherness, or even a double doubleness, to draw upon the W.E.B. DuBois’s provocative modeling of the African presence in America. It would not be enough simply to be Yemenite or to participate in the resistive Easternness of Israeli popular musics, such as musica mizrakhit (literally, "eastern music"; see Halper, Seroussi, and Squires-Kidron 1989, and Regev 1996). Musica mizrakhit integrates both male and female imagery, and it includes its own brand of bounded Mediterranean internationalism. Male singers, such as Zohar Argov, sometimes win considerable fame in musica mizrakhit, albeit within a prescribed Israeli context. The Yemenite-Jewish singers who have most problematically opened public spaces for the feminine presence in Israeli popular music have done so because of a more transcendent cosmopolitanism, transcendent, that is, because of gender in the Jewish Mediterranean.

The first of the two Yemenite-Jewish singers I should like to place in the modern genealogy initiated by Beracha Zephira is Ofra Haza. In her meteoric worldbeat career, Ofra Haza has done, one might argue, a little bit of everything, ranging from straightforward authentic Yemenite songs to stylistic compromises of musica mizrakhit to recent explorations of religious and Holocaust themes. It is not the details of this cosmopolitanism that are most compelling, but rather the way an overt gendering of these issues functions, a gendering that juxtaposes them in a particularly contested public space that speaks to Israeli national identity. The question raised in Example 10 therefore becomes "Whose Refugees?", for the song moves back and forth—or in-between—Hebrew and Arabic, and the song itself overtly uses the techniques of Arabic popular song, especially layali.

Ofra Haza: Innocent – A Requiem for Refugees

Verse 1

The heavens mourn the fields
and the war’s refugees.
The longing stares from the eyes
of the runaway children looking for hope.
There’s no father, no mother, no mercy...


Oh...my God... I want to be wherever you are...

Verse 2

I want to sacrifice my life for you, my son.
To whom will I cry?... Every day, every night.
I have nothing but your silent sigh...

(English translations from texts in both Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic)

The most complex gender issues in Israeli popular music are those raised most recently, indeed, in spring and summer 1998, by Israel’s entry in the "Eurovision Song Contest," Dana International, a singer of Yemenite and Sephardic ethnic heritage. After a controversial path to winning the right to represent Israel and buoyed by her own nationalistic and sexualized rhetoric, Dana International won the Eurovision Song Contest in Birmingham, England on 9 May 1998, thereby unleashing an incredibly complex response to her victory and its significance for religious, national, and international identity in Israel (see Example 11).

Dana International in the Israeli press on the eve
of the Eurovision Song Contest victory Ma’ariv (8 May 1998, p. 13)

Dana International is a transsexual, born a male and currently a woman. In the paradox of tradition she embodies very consciously a male and a female presence, and even this is not lost in the controversies surrounding her representation of Israel in the most important popular-music contest in the world. In her public statements, she herself admits to the opening of a new space in Israeli society: "We have become two nations and, it’s true, for many people I have come to represent freedom, democracy and the right to live how individuals want to live" (Sharrock 1998: 22). In the signature tune that is accessible as Example 12, Dana International musically represents this new public space—this new site for a Mediterranean Jewish community—through an extreme hybridity of styles, ranging from musica mizrakhit to the unison sounds of an Arab takht in musika al-’arabiyyah, perhaps of the sort in which her Eastern Mediterranean ancestors may have played. Her appeal as a singer crosses borders and confuses boundaries, and she has been greeted by both contempt and acclaim in many areas of the Mediterranean, not only in Israel (cf. Swedenborg 1997).

Dana International sings "Dana International (Airport Version)"

The song begins with a boarding announcement for a flight from Saudi Arabia airport to Monaco, but the flight eventually lands at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. The symbolism of the "flying carpet" for Jewish emigrants from Yemen in the 1950s is clear because of the deliberate use of Arabic. The sexual language is at once highly explicit and full of double entendre that depends on wordplay between Arabic, Hebrew, and English. The exact path of the flight is confused by references made to journeys that might be diverted to Mexico or Paris. Dana International, nonetheless, in this song at the end of the CD, returns like the Sabbath bride from exile.

Women musicians, indeed, women performers, have provided the framework for the argument in this article. I think it important, however, to observe that these women singers are not necessarily, or even primarily, performing "women’s repertories" or "women’s music." Instead, they are performing as historical narrators, as the chorus in a Greek drama, or, in keeping more specifically with the subject here, as the singers at narrative moments in the Torah, for example, when the journey of the exodus comes to a halt for poetry and song to historicize it. The narrative presence of these women singers lies "outside the historical text," on the other side of Jewish history itself, but it is precisely this position that endows them with their keen knowledge of the whole. It empowers them, moreover, to map Jewish experience on the history of the Mediterranean itself.

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