In the observant Jewish household in which I grew up, my dad sang a traditional song to praise my mother every Friday night. The name of the song translates to “A Woman of Valor,” and it sets out to define qualities that make a woman strong enough to lead a family. They should be generous, wise, good with words, physically strong and aware of their work’s value. Their ideas and influence should be acknowledged by their communities. But interestingly, the song also notes that adorableness should be regarded as a flimsy trait: “Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain.”
As a kid, I loved that my whole family stopped to give my mom props every week, and by extension to confirm that women could do everything as well as men could, or better. But thinking back, that line about beauty stings. Why wouldn’t a Jewish girl be proud of both her brains and her babely allure?
Haim — the Los Angeles rock band comprised of (Jewish) sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana — are not particularly religious, but they were raised celebrating Jewish holidays and listening to their grandmother’s Ofra Haza cassettes. And as described by Este, their mom Donna sounds like the kind of #flawless superheroine that “Woman of Valor” outlines. “My dad sees my mom as this magical wizardress,” she said last week over the phone from the U.K., where the band was playing a festival gig. “Especially when she’s playing the guitar and singing, my dad still looks at my mom like, Holy shit, that’s my wife. She’s a bad ass bitch.”
Este’s parents — her dad, Moti, is from Israel — are both musicians; the family used to all play in a band called Rockinhaim together. They encouraged their daughters to think that, in the scheme of more important skills, being conventionally pretty was not an especially big deal. “Whatever artistic outlet we wanted to pick, they were always like: go for it,” Este said.
The Haim sisters grew up shredding guitars and learning the moves they saw on episodes of MTV’s Making The Video. But when I asked Este if she could recall any Jewish female faces staring back from her television at that time, she couldn’t. “Who was a hot, babe-in Jewish girl who was doing her thing? I can’t even recall,” she said. “Am I blanking?” But she said the scarcity of Jewish pop divas after Barbra Streisand never bothered her. “It wasn’t a conscious thing that I sought out, to find a Jewish role model,” she said.
I get where she’s coming from. It’s a little sad that Este and I didn’t see a direct reflection of ourselves on TV in the ’90s, but ultimately, that’s just another experience we have in common with lots of girls. Besides, the fewer Jewish role models there were, the more I learned to recognize Jewish values expressed in other cultures, not just my own. Why bother to idolize someone just like myself when there were so many other women in pop music to look up to?
Haim released a new video last week, to promote “If I Could Change Your Mind,” the third single from their excellent 2013 LP, Days Are Gone. The video resembles an old episode of Soul Train or a makeup ad; everything in it is tinted the color of wet lip gloss. The sisters gaze directly at the camera in soft-focus close-up shots, and perform a synchronized routine of hops and snaps choreographed by Fatima Robinson, who’s best known for her work with stunners like Aaliyah, Sade, and Rihanna. The video comes just a couple months after Haim’s November 2013 performance on Saturday Night Live, to which the internet responded mostly with jokes about Este’s exaggerated onstage facial expressions. (BuzzFeed warmly suggested that she looked like an angry fish, cat, or Barack Obama.) After that, Haim’s explicit framing of themselves as graceful beauties feels like a badass retort.
Este Haim says she’d be thrilled if Jewish girls were at home right now, learning the “If I Changed Your Mind” choreography for Bat Mitzvah season, but insists that her band’s pro-woman message is universal. “I want girls to just be able to feel like they can do whatever the fuck they want,” she says, punctuating the sentence with a laugh. “You can be really smart and really fun, and not be afraid to be funny. Girls forget that they have so many facets.”
I haven’t attended temple in years, but being Jewish is still important to me. And I feel a hard-to-explain wave of pleasure seeing Haim act ballsy and look great. If I had to pin down the reason that I like the “If I Could Change Your Mind” video so much, maybe it’s that it demonstrates all the feminine confidence and power recounted in that song my dad would sing for my mom, but it also directly challenges the faintly repressive “Woman of Valor” claim that a charismatic, glamorous girl is also a scheming one. In this video, to be charming is serious fun, not something to be ashamed of.