Life and Times of the Hida: New Insights into a Rabbinic Legend

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THE PACKED HOUSE

By: Rena Matalon



She could have been performing in front of sold-out stadiums. Instead, Kineret, the premier Jewish female singer who performs only for all-women audiences, uses her voice for much more than a song. That packed house? That’s her home on Shabbat.

She stood frozen outside P.S. 13, staring at the cracks in the schoolyard tar. She could hear the carefree squeals of the fourth graders as they jumped to avoid the dodgeballs at the other end of the yard.

There were harsh sounds, too, barreling down from somewhere over her. But maybe, maybe, they weren’t real. Maybe this was just a nightmare. But the voice was too familiar. It was her fifth grade teacher, Mr. Levy. And though she didn’t dare pick her head up and recognize that the sounds were real, she could hear Mr. Levy’s voice rise when he said things like “suspension,” and “revoke,” and “application.”

Eric was standing next to her, trying to hide his smile. For once, someone else was getting berated. His white pupils and white teeth popped out from his face in smugness. “Arrrgh!” she thought, “But it’s his fault! He said nothing would happen! He was jealous! I would be moving on to Louis Armstrong while he would be stuck in Rego Park. He wanted to see the goody-goody Jewish girl get in trouble. I never did anything like this before. I didn’t know! Arrgh!”

Savta Sarah’s Home

She was only 10-years-old, but Kineret’s future had already been mapped for her. Her mother was a world famous singer who had been invited to perform for the Shah of Iran, together with her equally talented musician father. Their band had also been invited to play for the Queen of England. And all the while that her parents were globetrotting to concerts around the world, Kineret lived with her grandmother in Israel, where together they enjoyed Shabbat and kept kashrut. For Kineret, her grandmother’s home was an oasis of serenity and Jewish tradition.

Kineret’s grandmother had immigrated to Israel from Morocco, where she came from an important family of rabbis and kohanim. Their lineage could be traced back to Ben Ish Hai, as her great grandmother’s family had come to Morocco from Iraq. And while Kineret’s grandmother, Sarah, remained true to her heritage, Kineret’s mother was swept up by Israel’s secularist movement. She met Kineret’s father, from Italy, as they were both rising stars in Israel’s music industry.

Shortly after Kineret turned six, her parents had news: they would be moving to New York to advance their careers. Plucked from her grandmother’s home, Kineret and her parents landed in Queens. There was no more Shabbat or kashrut, and Kineret was placed in public school.

“When I was in fifth grade,” Kineret recalls, “I was given an application to Louis Armstrong Middle School for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. It was a new school that would be opening in Queens for children who were musically gifted. In my public school, I had starred in the school production, was in the school band, and the talents I had inherited from my parents were recognized. Those who went to Louis Armstrong would graduate and attend Manhattan High School of Performing Arts, and from there go on to Juilliard.”

For years, Kineret would go to sleep, dreaming of accepting her Grammy award in front of a large crowd. Her audition, which would determine her placement within Louis Armstrong, was scheduled for the end of her fifth grade year. It was then - only a week before her audition - that Eric, one of her classmates, convinced her to come play baseball in the schoolyard instead of going to class. And she was caught.

As punishment for skipping class, Kineret’s teacher revoked her application for Louis Armstrong and gave it to another student. Playing hooky was a serious offense.

For 12-year-old Kineret, it was the end of the world.

A Brand New Script

“Hashem had other plans for me,” Kineret says. “Instead of Louis Armstrong, I was assigned to the worst intermediary school in the district, Rego Park. The school was known for its drugs and crime, and my mother went into a panic. She knew she couldn’t let me go to such a place. One of my neighbors had twins who went to the Yeshiva Academy of South Queens, headed by Rabbi Zalman Deutscher.”

With no alternative, Kineret’s mother conceded. Kineret would be headed to the Yeshiva Academy.

That’s when Judaism once again became part Kineret’s life. Rabbi Deutscher convinced her parents to let her attend Camp Sternberg in
the summer.

“It was one Shabbat there that brought me back. I was walking out of my bunk house, and Hashem set the scene for me. There was a beautiful sunset, and girls were walking in beautiful clothing to the Shabbat shul. They started to pray out loud. I sat there in a daze. ‘This is Shabbat,’ I thought. ‘What kedushah!’ Then, the girls stood up and made a long chain, from the shul to the dining room. I saw that the chain didn’t break, and knew that I wanted to be part of this.”

It wouldn’t be easy for Kineret. Her parents would not accept her desire to be a religious Jew. To them, she was giving up a lifetime of fortune, fame, and stability. For the next six months, she lived on fruits and vegetables until her mother agreed to kasher the kitchen. Then her mother agreed that the family could have a traditional meal on Friday nights. But for her parents, that was the only sign of Shabbat in the home. For two years, Kineret would spend the rest of the day alone in her room.

When Kineret was in high school, her parents’ careers would take them to California.

“My mother wanted to pull me from here and bring me with her to L.A. so I could become famous. But I chose to stay.” Kineret boarded with the family of Rabbi Noach Eisen Olbaum, a revered posek halachah, while attending Shevach High School in Queens.

Kineret’s decision to stay in New York also meant she was on her own financially. After high school, she went to seminary and took a job. And then, at age 18, she returned to the stage.

Why Sing?

“I had a tremendous yearning to give musically, but the Jewish market is very limited. I could only now perform for women. Rabbi Nuta Waidenbaum, the producer of Milk and Honey Productions, would give me the first opportunity. He felt that Jewish women needed an entertainment outlet, too, and along with producing shows that featured the popular male singers like Mordechai Ben David, Avraham Fried, and Yaakov Schwekey, he also began producing shows for women.”

During a special Chanukah production, 18-year-old Kineret went on the stage at Brooklyn College and sang in front of
2,500 women.

“I walked on and felt the electricity in the room. I was asked to come back every year. Being able to perform gave me the strength to remain here in New York. It was my outlet as an artist.”

It was still extremely challenging. With talent comparable to the top singers in the mainstream music world, Kineret could have joined her parents in California and be assured stardom.

“But I am with Hashem, no matter what,” Kineret said. “I had to coach myself and understand that if I inspire one Jewish neshamah [soul], it’s worth worlds, and is more valuable than performing in front of 50,000 non-Jews. Sometimes my audiences were made up of 5,000 women, and sometimes 50. My largest audience was 15,000 during one performance in Eretz Yisrael. But it didn’t matter... If one Jew walked away with a feeling of happiness, I could feel good. It’s not about being famous in this universe. It’s about what I am accomplishing.”

As the premier Orthodox Jewish female singer, Kineret has produced seven albums over her music career, but that’s not what she counts as the barometer of her accomplishments.

Packed House

Kineret moved to Brooklyn, and while she was in her 20s, her address became known as the place where all kinds of Jewish girls and women were welcome. She’d host them all for Shabbat: divorced women, teens at risk, or single girls who were first discovering Judaism. She’d encourage, teach Torah, and instill in her guests emunah (faith) and bitahon (trust in Gd). Then, one day, Rebbetzin Rachel Baraness came to visit.

“People from the U.S. might not know Rebbetzin Baraness, but in Israel, she is a famous rebbetzin. She runs a huge hostel, under the auspices of Chemra, called The Jerusalem House, for girls who went off the derech [path of religious observance] and had Arab boyfriends, and subsequently escaped. She helps them get out of the Arab villages and takes care of them, eventually marrying them off to Jews. She used to come to the U.S. to raise funds, and would stay in my house.”

While sitting at Kineret’s Shabbat table one week, Rebbetzin Baraness was taken by Kineret’s relationship with the women and girls. “She told me I should take it to the next level and begin an organization to help and inspire young girls and women. She has been backing me ever since. Hacham Ovadia Yosef has also given me several berachot and direction in running the organization.”

Ohel Sarah was named for Kineret’s grandmother, in whose home Kineret had enjoyed Shabbat when she was a young girl. Some weeks, she would host 10 to 15 women and girls  for Shabbat, while on other weeks there were up to 60. She’d open up the couches and borrow mattresses from the neighbors. Teenagers would bring sleeping bags and find any available spot in any room. 

Soon, she had the women and girls come back on Tuesdays for a shiur. When the crowd became too big, it moved to the Netivot Shul on Ocean Parkway. She’d teach other women and girls in smaller groups on their own levels. Her group included high school girls who attended public school because their parents couldn’t afford to pay tuition.Under the auspices of Ohel Sarah, Kineret would raise funds so they could attend Jewish schools, and to help them purchase  modest clothing. 

“One French girl, whose name was Chava, had been living in Manhattan and had a non-Jewish boyfriend. She found out about our classes from one of her Israeli friends, who convinced her to come to one of the Shabbatons in my home. She loved it. She came back Tuesday for the shiur. We slowly made a connection. A year and a half later, she called me up and said, ‘Kineret, I haven’t been telling you what’s been going on in my life all this time. I have had a non-Jewish boyfriend for years. And I finally got the courage to leave him.’

“Chava was soon introduced to a religious Israeli boy, and they got married and settled in Israel. Two months later, I received a beautiful card from her, thanking me for the beautiful life she now has. It was a gift from Hashem that He opened the door for her to come.”

More to a Voice

Although she was using her voice for more than song, Kineret was still a professional artist. At age 28, a colleague recommended she receive breathing lessons from Dr. William Riley, a Manhattan vocal coach who has worked with artists such as Pavarotti and Celine Dion. In his studio, he would teach her the exercises she would need to do to preserve her voice for longevity.

That was important – because her voice wasn’t only being used for Hol Hamoed performances.

“As part of my commitment to help other girls return to Judaism, I would perform in concerts for secular women and girls in Israel. I hoped that I could be an example — if someone like me would choose religion over fame, there must be something to it. In those concerts, I’d first perform ‘kosherized’ versions of the popular songs they knew, just so they warm up to me. Then, I’d continue the show with my Jewish music. Tzniyut is also very important to me – in all aspects of my life – especially when appearing on stage. My main concern while on stage is not about giving a good performance, but rather, making a Kidush Hashem.”

When I hung up the phone after speaking to Kineret, I knew two things. One, that I wanted to see her in action and be mesmerized at her next concert, or perhaps pick up a few of her CDs. But more importantly, Kineret’s example made it exceedingly clear why Hashem truly gives us gifts in this world.

Besides being an electrifying entertainer, Kineret is an inspirational speaker and a certified and practicing Life Coach. She recently returned from a lecturing tour in Europe and is frequently invited to speak by various Jewish organizations worldwide. When she is not speaking or performing, she is involved in her Ohel Sara network as well as many  other Kiruv and Out Reach organizations in the United States and Israel.

For more information about the shiurim and Shabbatons hosted by Ohel Sara, you can visit their website and view the calendar at www.ohelsara.com or call the office at 347 554 8549. This hol hamoed Pesach, on March 28, Kineret will be performing at the Millenium Theatre in Brighton Beach at 7:45 pm. You can purchase tickets through the Ohel Sara office.