(Artwork: Ilan Block)
“If You Have a Talent – Share it With the World!”
A Conversation with Ricka Razel
Ricka Razel began her performing career in a family band as a teenager. Decades later, the now religiously observant mother-of-eight has returned to the stage – now playing only for female audiences. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Ricka to learn about her remarkable, inspiring and colorful journey.
As a teenager, you were the singer in a band together with your brothers, appearing on Israeli television. However, you stopped performing for a significant period of time after that. Why didn’t the band continue?
There are multiple layers to the story. We had played as a band in high school, but my brothers Aaron and Yonatan later became more religious, and so they were not comfortable with me being a female singer performing in front of a mixed crowd. But besides the religious angle, our band was something we did as teenagers, and as we grew older our lives moved on in different ways. We all went to the army after high school, and I actually got married while in the army when I was 19. Soon after that I had my first child, so as a young mother my family quickly became my main focus, and music was left by the wayside.
Did you find it difficult to no longer be performing music?
The band had just stopped by itself, but when Aaron and Yonatan started performing again a few years later it was very hard for me. We had always performed at weddings together, and now I couldn’t join them; when they would be up there performing I felt very left out. I love them, and would love going to their concerts, but I felt that I wanted to be on the stage, sharing my music with the world! Baruch Hashem I was very happy in so many aspects of my life. My family had grown and I had eight kids. I was also running a real estate business, so I was very busy. But when I reached my forties I experienced a kind of mid-life crisis. I told myself, “I’m going to be a grandmother soon, my life is basically over; I need to follow my passion!” I knew that my real passion in life was to write music, and I began to go back to my songs.
How did you return to music after a twenty-year hiatus?
I slowly started writing music again, recording one song a month in a studio. I had all kinds of beginnings of songs – a chorus here, a verse there – and it was such a great experience to be back in that creative space, always thinking about the music. At this point, I was still working my day job; I had a large family and it was the main source of income for our family. But my head and heart had shifted from real estate to my music. I would be showing people around apartments, but would find myself rushing them from one room to the next, I was just trying to finish the meeting!
I had to make a big decision – would I perform in front of men or not? This question forced me to grapple with religion in a way I had never done before. When my daughter was in first grade I began covering my hair, as I felt I wanted my kids to grow up in a religious environment. But I had chosen to observe Judaism in an external way, without really making a deep internal choice. Now I was facing a religious question that would have a major impact on my life. If I decided to not perform in front of men, I would be pigeonholing myself to a small niche of religious women, which meant I would get only five to ten percent of the performances that I could get if I would perform for everyone. I wrote a song about my struggle, Rak Rotzah LaShir, expressing the conflicts of just wanting to sing. We all experience religious dilemmas where we feel pushed, and it was a personal journey, but one that ultimately deepened my connection to Judaism. I made my decision that I would only perform in front of women. I started to perform, and I loved it. I remember one night when I performed together with my brothers in Zappa, a music club in Jerusalem, when I released my album. I remember coming home that night and having a moment of clarity, that I had to give up my day job and focus on the music.
Tell us about your experience performing for American Jewish women as part of the Momentum program.
It is so amazing! My mother is American, so I have a huge place in my heart for Aliyah and olim, and I love helping people explore the Land of Israel. Whenever my aunts and uncles would come from America to visit us, I would always be the one to guide them around Israel and show off our country. Momentum is a program for American Jewish women who come to visit Israel, many for the first time, to strengthen their connection with Judaism. I was asked to join a group, and the trip was honestly one of the best weeks of my life. It was so special to join these women for their first visit to Yerushalayim, their first visit to the Kotel, and their first time going to a mikvah. I carried my guitar with me the whole time, and the singing brought the group together in an amazing way. Music has the power to connect people in a deeper way. Anyone – even those without a strong Jewish background – can sing Am Yisrael Chai. It created so many beautiful moments that brought the group together.
I saw one of your Instagram posts about how music helped you connect with daily prayer in a new way. Can you tell us more about that?
I wanted to use music to help make tefillah more meaningful and accessible for women. I created an app called Mitpalelet, where I recorded the whole Shacharit with songs from many kinds of musical traditions. I live in Nachlaot in Yerushalayim, which is home to so many fascinating communities, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic. I also incorporated other tunes, like ones I learned when I lived for a year in Jersey City in America. It is often hard for women to find time for davenning, and so I made this app so that when you are driving to work or are with the kids, you can listen to tefillah in the background to be able to connect in that way. I would love to add more tefillot to the app, such as Hallel.
What is your message to young women who have a passion and talent for music?
A huge change has happened compared to when I was growing up. There are now so many musical opportunities and events that are geared to women. There are also so many platforms to share your music online. I think that music is a great way to share a message with the world, to connect with yourself and to connect with G-d. If you have a talent, bring it out and share it with the world!
Having decided to only perform in front of women, I now feel that there is something pure and wonderful about the women-only space. In the general music scene, the media is often looking for flaws in the musicians and their performances. The religious media, on the other hand, is trying to bring good in the world, and thank G-d, I am very happy to be performing in this beautiful environment. I hope that I will be able to bring my music outside of the religious community too, to women in general. So many of us have similar experiences, face similar issues, and want similar things from life; to be loved, to have a family. I think that there is so much to offer as a woman singing and connecting with women together.