By Chaya Morgan Glaser
It’s a rainy night, and the Glasers are gathered in the kitchen with some close family friends, following Havdalah during the eldest daughter’s birthday weekend. All of the immediate family is home together, having just shared ritual Shabbat meals ﬁlled with Torah discussion and zemirot. The father heads to the liv-ing room and sits down to play the piano—his mother’s baby grand, on which he learned to play. He ﬁddles with some jazz chords until he decides on Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day.” The mother moves toward the living room and chimes in, “I was a stranger in the city.” While one sister pulls out a guitar, another sister takes out the bon-gos, and another sister grabs some maracas from the array of small percussion instruments beneath the piano. Everyone is gradually drawn into the room one by one, and they take spots on the couches. All sing together, “A foggy day in London town…” And that begins a typical motzei Shabbat in the Glaser home, as the family weaves happy harmonies together throughout the night.
The Glaser sisters (left to right): Doren, Chaya, Faige, and Eden.
The Glaser sisters grew up as daughters of musical parents who woke them up with live jazz jams in the morning and serenaded them with the lullabies of Birdland and Broadway as the girls fell asleep around the family piano. Car rides were ﬂooded with classical music and oldies, and their car seats rocked as they swayed side by side, singing and tapping along. Their family ﬁreplace has always been more than just an alternative to central heating during icy New York winters. It was a warm gathering place for family sing-alongs in which the Glasers harmonized and blended their voices together, accompanied by piano, guitars, bongos, and pots and pans.
The sisters have been singing together for as long as they can remember. Vocal harmonies have always grabbed the girls and brought them together. Throughout summers at camp, high school, college, and post-college, they participated in and worked on vocal arrangements for various a cappella choirs. At home, zemirot always ﬁlled their Shabbat table, connecting them to their religious roots.
The girls fondly recall memories of their grandparents singing together and playing piano and violin as the girls twirled and danced in the living room. Their great-aunts and uncles, one of whom was a cantor and another an opera singer, created a four-person vocal group, perform-ing at various events. The group arranged and performed traditional Yiddish songs, Jewish melodies, and spirituals, from “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” to “Everybody Talkin’ ’Bout Heaven.” They spontaneously broke out into song together around the girls and constantly inspired them with soulful spirit and enjoyment of their music.
Out of this love of music came Glaser Drive, a New York-based band composed of the Glaser sisters—Faige on guitar, tambourine, and vocals; Chaya on piano, guitar, and vocals; Eden on vocals and small percussion; and Doren on vocals and small percussion—together with Elly Geldwerth on cajon, Erik Naslund on bass, and David Keesey on lead guitar.
Some of the sisters have chosen to incorporate music education into their career paths. Faige, who has a master’s degree in music education, and Chaya, who is Orff-certiﬁed, are both music teachers at Jewish day schools in Manhattan. Doren, an early childhood educator, is currently studying music so she can intro-duce it to her preschool classroom at another Jewish day school in Manhattan.
Chaya, a singer/songwriter, and Faige, a veteran a cappella singer, gravitated toward singing and arranging original music together with Eden and Doren to continue the musical life that they experienced in their childhood home. Their songs and compositions are inspired by people, life events, stories, and everyday and not-so-everyday encounters. Inspiration for their original vocal arrangements is drawn from the folk harmonies of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the family feel of the Mamas and the Papas, classical piano, zemirot, and spirituals. This translates into the sound and message the Glasers were drawn to create.
Female Voices in Jewish Community
The Glaser sisters grew up in San Diego, California, while the family was moving closer to Orthodoxy, and they eventually moved to the East Coast. Their parents were committed to community and Orthodox educa-tion for their children and found New Jersey to be an enriching option. This move also brought them closer to some family members already living in New York.
The sisters attended all-girls schools from high school through college (Yeshiva University), where the only forum for Jewish performance was within the conﬁnes of their schools. They wrote, directed, and performed in musical plays, and performed and arranged songs in various all-female a cappella groups, as co-ed singing groups were not offered as an option. They quickly—and unhappily—discovered that women in the Orthodox community do not have the same opportunities to perform publicly as men do.
Growing up in a musical household ﬁlled with women brought the female voice to the forefront of their musical path. Although the Glaser sisters do perform for both male and female audiences, they often ﬁnd that in an Orthodox Jewish forum, there is a lack of opportu-nity for women.
Religion Is What Inspires Us
Today we, the Glaser sisters, explain our position this way: Religion is something that inspires us and our music, and not having a forum to share that or hear that from others—just because we are female—feels contrary to what Judaism is all about. It doesn’t jive. Over the past few years, we have seen some new opportunities with a surge in women’s arts events, classes, schools, and summer camps in the Orthodox community. Instead of being forced to dismiss the Jewish parts of our performance, we can now proudly embrace that element. There is a general increase in opportunities for women to perform both professionally and publicly in the Orthodox community.
One of us plays guitar and sings for hospitalized patients through a Jewish organization. The patients are of-ten ultra-Orthodox, and before Purim, she recalls visiting a patient who was being visited by her sister who started playing guitar and handed out some shaker eggs. “The women wanted to connect, but were hesitant at ﬁrst,” she noted. But after playing a few Purim songs, the two women were singing and shaking along, letting their spir-its ﬁnd comfort through the music. “Why should music be a barrier just because we are female? Music is what beautifully breaks down those barriers and unites us.”
We see that so often in our community: Women are told that they can’t perform—or that they can, but are then given limited resources and options, and they are not taken seriously. They begin to let their art implode. Being fellows of JeWTA (see article, Dancing for Women: JeWTA Promotes Talent Within the Orthodox Community), we have felt a spark of hope as we have begun to see women performers taken seriously in the Orthodox community. We feel energized and lucky to be a part of such an exciting time, when the arts are beginning to be encouraged in the Orthodox community. We ﬁnd joy in watching that trend unfold and being able to have a role in it.
As one can imagine, having four passionate, opinion-ated female artists who happen to be sisters in one band does bring its own struggles. We are a family band as well as a band that is family, and we try to ﬁnd ways to separate as well as integrate these two elements to “get things done.”
The sisters get together ﬁrst to rehearse as a four-some and then with the full band. Considering our busy schedules, we don’t have many opportunities to spend time together, so a two-hour rehearsal can easily begin with the ﬁrst hour engaged in sharing the latest news in one another’s lives. Then, we realize it’s time to arrange some harmonies. We also face the blessing, yet challenge, that results from the passion to enable our ideas to emerge through the music. There is sometimes an underlying tension as we go head-to-head on one matter or another, until ﬁnally we are able to put egos aside and ﬁnd a common perspective.
Nonetheless, our strong bond is in our love for each other and our music, which draws us tightly together. There is nothing like getting together as four Jewish sis-ters, and singing your heart out. I look across the stage during one of our songs and ﬁnd comfort in the smile of another one of my sisters. We love each other, and we love creating music together. And that’s the most mean-ingful part of all. As our parents always say, “The family that sings together, stays together.”
Chaya Morgan Glaser is a member of the folk-rock-soul band Glaser Drive and a music teacher at Ramaz Middle School.