My Life As An Orthodox Jewish Female Orchestra Member

“They’re having auditions for a community orchestra. It’s a women’s orchestra. They don’t play on Shabbat,” my teacher informed me.

It sounded too good to be true.

I had trained for years as a clarinetist, earning my degree in clarinet performance. I loved music, I lived and breathed it, playing classical, jazz, learning to compose, learning the theory behind it.

When I became observant, I put my musical ambitions on the shelf and focused more on learning how to be Jewish, how to observe the mitzvos and how to function within this new community, this new world.

Thanks to the guidance of my mentors, I did keep playing, finding miscellaneous gigs to keep my skills from atrophying. Though I enjoyed the challenge of playing in new and unusual settings, I missed classical playing.

I missed Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mahler, Holst. I missed connecting with other classically trained musicians. I missed the inside jokes and nerdy references that only come with deep musical knowledge.

This yearning led to me signing up to take lessons through the local conservatory’s continuing education program. The weekly lessons were wonderful, but they were not simple.

On a musical level, I had to face the reality of how much work I needed to do to regain what ground I had lost. Something as simple as breathing became a source of frustration as I couldn’t seem to ever relax enough to take the deep breaths necessary for the full, rich tone I wanted to produce.

On a personal level, it was challenging to find the time to practice in between the laundry, shopping, dinner prep and cleanup, baths, homework, and the time I wanted and needed to spend with my family. Even getting to the lessons sometimes took a considerable amount of childcare logistics, since my husband was sometimes working during the lesson time.

Despite these obstacles, I was relentless. After so many years, I was tapping into a fundamental part of myself, rediscovering how essential this was to me.

But as this renewal occurred, I struggled with where to perform. The school’s recitals were on Shabbat, so that wasn’t an option. I didn’t have any musical connections in town, which led to feelings of isolation and frustration.

And then my teacher heard about this orchestral opening. I hadn’t even dared to dream that I would get to play in a serious orchestral setting again.

Shabbos had always been an impossible barrier to that possibility. Most professional-level orchestras (not that I’d be on that level, but hypothetically speaking here) play regularly on Friday and Saturdays, so I always assumed that that was the trade-off I made for my life as an observant Jew.

But here was the impossible possibility, suddenly made available to me.

I played my audition well, and I knew that even if I didn’t get the position, I could be content with that knowledge that I had tried my best.

But I did get the position.

Instead of being elated, I was exceedingly nervous and insecure. After all, I hadn’t played in an orchestra outside of the frum community for at least thirteen years. And before then, my experience was only in a little midwestern college that no one had heard of.

Would I make a fool of myself? Would I know how to be a real musician? Would they see me as a fake, a fraud?

It turns out that orchestral playing is kind of like riding a bike. After I got over my initial fears, I settled comfortably into playing again. But playing the music was the easy part, it was playing as a religious Jew that was an entirely new experience.

At one of the first rehearsals, a Friday night concert was announced. Disaster! I didn’t think this would be an issue! How would the conductor react when I told him that I wasn’t available, ever, for Friday night concerts?

At the end of that rehearsal, the conductor came over and asked me how I was liking the orchestra so far.

“Oh, I’m so happy to be here,” I replied, “It’s really wonderful. There’s just one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I can’t play on any Friday night concerts. It’s my Sabbath.”

He paused for a minute, considering me and this new, unexpected information.

“You’re really that religious?”

At this point, the other clarinetist, who was Jewish herself, remarked, “Bob, her name is Rivki for crying out loud! Of course she’s that religious!”

Mortified and amused, I confirmed her candid assessment. “Yeah, I’m really that religious.” I held my breath in dread.

“Well, okay, we’ll have to get a sub for you then.” replied the conductor, and that was it.

This fall will be my third season playing with the Cleveland Women’s Orchestra, and I’ve already navigated a few interesting scenarios, including a concert the day before Pesach, a big fundraising concert during sefirah, plus various food and drink related questions.

I get to be the go-to person for questions about all things Jewish, which I enjoy because it gives me the opportunity to contemplate my life and religious practice from a completely different perspective.

I still pinch myself that I am able to be an observant Jew, a busy mother and community member, and still get to seriously play music and use this skill that Hashem gave me. I know that there will likely be conflicts that will arise, like a major concert being on a holiday, for example, but I am grateful to be in a position where that is something I get to navigate.

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  • Avatar photo Karen Wagner says on July 31, 2018

    Your journey is so interesting. You have done amazingly.
    I am in a similar position but in a different field. I am a makeup artist and after having spent years doing wedding and special occasion makeup I decided to follow my dream and retrain in sfx film and tv makeup. I have spent the last five years since I left my college trying to get work on productions.i have had some wonderful jobs but Of course I have had to miss out on many great opportunities due to Shabbat or a Yom Tov. It is frustrating but I dont want to give up trying as it is a true passion and I love working too much. I struggle the whole time to get jobs but with a worry at the pit of my stomach that after chasing a job I will asked to work on a shabbat or that it will be a Yom Tov and I will have to turn it down. Not easy having a passion and not compromising my religious beliefs.


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