L ooking for an outlet to unleash her creative side, Leslie Ginsparg decided to attend her first women’s open-mike event during a trip to Israel 10 years ago. Though she and her friends have always loved performance, their strict observance of kol isha laws have kept them away from public venues where men would be able to hear them sing, she says.
"I was so inspired by seeing these women on stage – a lot of them coming from very restrictive haredi backgrounds – that on the day I got back from Israel I signed up for guitar lessons," says Ginsparg, who is an assistant professor of Judaic Studies and History at Touro College and is completing her doctoral degree at New York University.
Her growing interest in performance was piqued, and by 2004 she had written several songs of her own. Yet she had no place to play them.
"Why couldn’t I host an open-mike in New York? Why not?" she remembers thinking, as she set out to do just that. "It was lucky to have people around me who were very supportive."
That same year, she established Girls’ Night On, a female-only performance venue frequented by women of all ages, from pre-teens to grandmothers, she explained. Ginsparg estimates that only about 30 percent of performers are even kol isha observant; other women just gravitate toward the comfortable environment. Similar to her attitude in the classroom, she aims to foster a sense of confidence in young women.
"It’s my same basic interest in women’s education, women’s development, in giving women opportunities – to develop themselves to express themselves, to have voices, to re-envision themselves in a broader context," Ginsparg says.
Many of the singers and musicians have formed their own bands, and she was particularly excited when some of her Touro students organized their own open-mike event, following in their professor’s footsteps. "One of my proudest moments as a teacher was when one of my students called me and said, ‘We are going to do an open mike night at Touro, will you perform?’"
"I’m not a rebel, I’m not a renegade. I’m not looking to talk anyone out of observance or out of the community," she says. "It’s just that I find that women don’t take advantage of the opportunities they could have. Probably that’s something global."
Running strong: Ginsparg recently ran the ING half-marathon in Miami with a skirt over her yoga pants. "Five years ago I never heard of [Orthodox] women doing marathons," she says.
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