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Writing Music

            As soon as I admitted to myself that I wanted to write a song, I stopped practicing the ukulele and the recorder. It wasn’t intentional, or even conscious, but when I look back, that’s the timing.

“I’m keeping it warm for you, Mommy.”

            I had been practicing three or four days a week at that point, not every day the way I’d promised myself but not too bad. And I’d been thinking about songwriting for a while, wondering what was stopping me, and wandering around the edges of the idea. And then, I think it was part of Holocaust Remembrance day at my synagogue, the Cantor shared songs with us during his Zoom, and showed us a version of  “Blessed is the Match” in Hebrew and English, based on a poem by Hannah Senesh, and, almost immediately, I wanted to rewrite it.

            Some background, Hannah Senesh was born in Hungary and immigrated to Palestine as a teenager. She joined the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli army, and in March 1944, at age 23, she and others parachuted into Yugoslavia to assist with the rescue of Hungarian Jews who were being deported to concentration camps. She was caught by the Nazis, tortured and then killed by a firing squad. “Blessed is the Match” was written in Yugoslavia as she prepared for the rescue mission.

            This is the English translation the Cantor taught us:

            Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honors sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

I went looking for other versions of the song, hoping to find something wonderful, so I wouldn’t have to do the work. I found a few versions, one that sounded like a march, and another that sounded like a dirge, and I was still annoyed by the vague and sentimental way the English sounded, as opposed to the original Hebrew, and I hated the saccharine and schmaltzy orchestrations. Don’t get me wrong, I like sentiment and sweetness, but not for this.

“I always like sweet stuff!”

I started working on a new translation that afternoon, looking up possible variations in Google Translate until I came up with a formulation that sounded close to the original Hebrew, at least to me. Except, then I had to match the rhythm and meter of the English to the Hebrew, because I wanted the song to be sung in both languages, and that process helped me understand where the vague and sentimental versions had come from in the first place; matching Hebrew and English rhythms is very hard, because Hebrew is so much more terse than English.

Anyway, this is what I came up with:

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame.

Blessed is the match that burns in the depths of their hearts

Blessed are the hearts that know death is near and go on

Blessed is the match that ignites a consuming flame

“Blessed” isn’t really the right translation for the Hebrew word “Ashrei,” but the more accurate translation, of “grateful” or “happy,” feels misleading, or at least uncomfortable in this context, so I stuck with Blessed.

            I still wasn’t thrilled with my version, but I wanted to start thinking about the music. I wanted a simple, clear, melody. I wanted the melody to do a lot of the work that my translation couldn’t do; I wanted the melody to convey the conflict hiding in the lyrics.

“Ask me. I know about conflict.”

            Hannah Senesh’s poem rides a very thin line between suicidality and heroism; a line that needs to be delineated clearly when you are talking about freedom fighters or soldiers. How do you stand up and say that you are willing to put your life at risk, without also sounding like you want to die? How do you express a desire to save others, without pretending to a kind of complete altruism and selflessness that you don’t feel?

            The central image of the poem is of a match that willingly goes out, or knowingly risks going out, for the sake of others. And that image is both beautiful and horrifying; it’s a sacrifice that no one should have to make, and that no one should be asked to make, but it’s a sacrifice that some people will choose to make anyway, in order to save those they love. This is why I didn’t like the saccharine iterations, where the assumption is that you would feel complete happiness in dying for those you love, or the military march versions, which suggest that your patriotism will make you so single minded that you will lack any regrets. I wanted the darkness, and the fear, and the love, and generosity, to be in the music all at the same time. No pressure, though.

            I’m not sure yet why this poem resonated so deeply for me. I am not selfless, and I don’t dream of being a hero and sacrificing myself for others, but something compelled me to sit down and write music for the first time in forever, just to capture some resonance I couldn’t articulate in words.

“Have you ever tried barks instead of words?”

            But working on the music, and trying different combinations of notes, and trying to count syllables and quarter notes, and trying to remember which keys have which flats and sharps, all opened a wound that seems to have been sitting there, full of puss, for years. I’d managed to tap into a dark morass of feelings of worthlessness and stupidity and guilt and shame that I didn’t know were there.

            As a writer, a long time ago, I was able to find mentors to help me get past the endless rules and criticisms I found in school; I read Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott and others, and I used freewriting to get to what I wanted to say, instead of what other people found acceptable and impressive. It took a lot of work, and I still get stuck, but I found a path to go down. With music, though, I never found that path. I tried listening to classical music, and I studied voice and piano and guitar, and I really tried to understand what people were saying about how to do it all correctly, but the theories and the math and the rules never made sense to me.

            I have a notebook full of songs from my early teens, but at some point I got stuck and I couldn’t write one more measure. All I heard in my head was, You Don’t Understand Music, Your math is wrong, your harmonies are stupid, and you don’t even know what a chorus is.

            I’ve made a tentative return to practicing ukulele and recorder, though. And I even wrote a poem in Hebrew a couple of weeks ago (most of which came to me in a dream), but the unfinished draft of “Blessed is the Match, with its unmoored musical notes scares me too much. I’m afraid it will be awful, and wrong, and explode in my face if I look too closely.

            I asked Cricket and Ellie to look at the draft for me and, though they are not trained bomb sniffing dogs, and they didn’t notice anything explosive on the paper. But I still can’t look at it, or, God forbid, try to sing it, or sound it out on the keyboard on my phone. Instead I’m writing about it, or trying to, and doing my best to build a bridge, one word at a time, to make my way across this dangerous sea.

“Are we going swimming?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

88 responses »

  1. Thank you for sharing about this brave young woman, Hannah Senesh and your own journey to turn her poem into song. Writing is hard enough, I imagine songwriting is even more difficult. I don’t doubt you will soon have something you are proud of.

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  2. Good for you for trying to write music! I love to play music but I’ve never thought I could write anything original and so I’ve never really tried. I’m much more confident writing prose or making paintings, but even then it’s always so hard to beat down my self-doubts. I’ve been painting a lot lately and I’ve tried to post pictures of them in part to stop myself from deciding they’re crap and painting over them. That’s not even a painting. That’s so ugly. Can’t you do better than that? You’re not going to show that painting to anyone, are you? At the same time, when it’s going well sometimes I feel I can improvise off anything and painting and thinking are one and it just flows. I hope when you write some songs, you’ll record some videos and share them with us!

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  3. I know and understand the feelings of self doubt and the struggle with my inner critic. I think you are amazing for pursuing music, both playing and writing. Thank you for the story of Hannah Senesh’s poem. It was new to me.
    I’d love to hear your attempts and/or final version. You are gifted with many talents.

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  4. My goodness. What a challenge you have taken on. I’d go for barks.

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  5. Hum it to Cricket and Ellie and see what they think. You might have to hum it in the shower or in your head, but the pups will give you direction, I am sure. You have so much talent, Rachel–go forth and put it out there!

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  6. Jennifer Barraclough

    A moving post. I hope you will feel able to post the music when you have written it.

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  7. Rachel, you have musical talents I have only dreamed of possessing. I truly believe everything will come together with your version of the Blessed song. It is sad, and haunting and beautiful. I really, really, hope you will share it when that happens. Amy

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  8. Perhaps tthe hip hop genre might offer opportunities.

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  9. My “Like” button isn’t working, but I wanted to let you know how much I admire what you are trying to do. I tried to write a public domain version of a happy birthday song, and I couldn’t even do that. How much harder your task! I hope the inspiration bug bites so that you can conquer the melody.

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  10. I believe that art can express the state of the soul; and music is especially capable of moving emotions.

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      • Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints.
        Psalms 149:1

        Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.
        Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.
        Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.
        Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
        Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
        Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.
        Psalms 150:1-6

  11. I have been wanting to learn to play the ukulele for a long time now, I’m so frightened though,lol. That poem is absolutely beautiful.

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  12. Thank you for this sensitive and brave account of the challenges of translating Hannah Senesh’ s poem into English,while retaining the qualities of the original.
    I liked your dogs’ comments too!

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  13. Wow. What you wrote here is just so awesome in so many ways. Your description of your unfolding creative process bespeaks the urgency and courage inspiration demands. I love your careful, thoughtful translation, even as you worked to accommodate rhythm and meter. And all of that before you get to the notes! I have no doubt the music is beautiful. Keep bringing your gifts. You are an inspiration. 🌷

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  14. Two thoughts came to me as I read this, Rachel. The first is about the Beatitudes and how one version says “happy” and another says “blessed” and neither word really words for me, and I don’t think they capture exactly the original intent.
    The second is your line, “I am not selfless, and I don’t dream of being a hero and sacrificing myself for others…” and I wonder if this poem grabbed you because of the courage you have shown in your writing–both blog and book. Your honesty amazes and inspires me. I wish I had your courage.

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  15. You are amazing! Re-translating from Hebrew to English, then trying to translate the emotion into music is an enormous task! Feel proud of yourself for undertaking it. I also honor you for practicing three days a week. We all would benefit by making music a bigger part of our lives. I am feeling inspired to purchase another recorder. I think the last time I played one was the 1990’s.

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  16. This is awesome dear keep up

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  17. Good luck with your musical journey. I. Not much of a lyricist but I have written many songs and at one time considered myself a “songwriter” (when I was younger and much more actively writing). Regarding the melody and cadence you are struggling with my suggestion is to forget all the rules and baggage from your early critics. There are no rules with art and no one is qualified to judge such a personal experience and out come other than yourself (and maybe Cricket and Ellie). 🙂. I’m sure that whatever you end up with will be beautiful and powerful.

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  18. I understand the creative urge that doesn’t understand all the technology needed to be a “true” craftsman. I’m that way with photography. However, there is technology that can help. I use presets on my fancy camera and software to process after and adjust expository, etc if necessary. For musicians, there is software that you can use to just play or sing your song and it writes the music for you. 😉 it might be a place to steady, then edit as needed.

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  19. As a very unmusical person I am hung up on thinking of substitutions for “blessed.” Content? Fulfilled? I agree that happy doesn’t work.

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  20. Write even when those voices inside you are discouraging. Write the music that appeals to you even when they don’t follow the musical rules.

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  21. What a beautiful song! ❤

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  22. I love the powerful word picture on which you closed this week’s post -“Instead I’m writing about it, or trying to, and doing my best to build a bridge, one word at a time, to make my way across this dangerous sea.” As a reader, I’m left with a sense of hope that you will keep battling forward and a sense of anticipation of the gift you will discover when you cross that bridge.

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  23. Hi Rachel,
    I just finished reading Yeshiva Girl today. I enjoyed so many facets of how you told the story, I can’t go into it all here. Maybe I’ll do a free write of my impressions and send it attached to an e-mail. Mostly, I want you to know, this is really good writing and a story that needs to be heard. Thank you! Your courage inspires more than you my realize.
    Love and hugs, Lindy and Jello 🐾

    Okay, Jello didn’t read if, and I didn’t read outloud (well – sometimes!) however Jello was at my feet, chilling on the couch with me in the living room most of yesterday and this afternoon!

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  24. Better than Bartok

    Sorry, that’s a phrase that came to mind where you discuss the disconnection or whatever it is that keeps you from music. I’d think, by the way, the recorder would be especially helpful in creating a melody that that has both a haunting and affirming quality. And if you’re worried about math or the shape of the song, I think what you’ll come up with is better than Bartok. Not that Bartok is awful (well, pretty bad) but his reputation (as it is, and he has one) is for irregularity in music, if not sound.

    I could be wrong (about Bartok, too), but I tend to think that a quality martyrs share is not wanting to die. Being aware of larger things in life such as service I believe makes one more endeared to life. And as far as I know, sacrifice is scary, making it undesirable as well. All of which is to say that I believe there is a range of perspective and feeling none of which is unsound and thus can be applied in your work about the poem and also the poet.

    I don’t know anything about Bartok, by the way. Not so long ago I attended a concert featuring his music, which I found amoebic and heavy-going. Tragedy along with love of life has beauty, and I’m sure your music will reflect that, if you wish. Your translation already possesses beauty as well as strength.

    I hope you have a promising new week.

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  25. I admire your perseverance in finding the best translation.

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  26. Sounds like a challenge. But it seems like a worthy one. Keep at it! I am sure you will see this song through as long as it stays fun for you. Also, I am certain your cute little helpers will be there for you every step of the way!

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  27. I love your version and the emphasis on the word “match”, Rachel.
    Best wishes.

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  28. I like your rewrite of the lyrics. It’s direct and to the point, without fluff. Just the way it should be.
    I only ever tried my hand at writing music once, and wrote a lullaby. It’s OK-ish, but no masterpiece. I can sing, I can play the piano, but I can’t write music.

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  29. I like how you analyzed the fine line in the story that inspired you to creativity. Sorry you felt bogged down later! I used to get piano lessons and stopped when I had to focus on my studies, but always wish that I had had a real piano to practice on, or made an effort to go back to it. I admire your practicing instruments today!

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  30. Thank you for sharing this. You inspire me to dive deeper into my faith and the manner in which it drives how I write, and how I share patient experiences!

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  31. Translation is a very subtle art especially when you care deeply about the subject. Can I hear the music you wrote as well as read the wind lyrics?

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  32. Love how you insert your sweet furry friends into the message. I had a maltese, dearly loved.

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  33. I have no musical talent whatsoever, so anything you have managed to do as regards writing a song and setting it to music is very impressive as far as I am concerned.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  34. Overcoming the fear of making a mistake is one of the biggest challenges to making anything ever. It’s particularly powerful when you have something you care deeply about, like this music you are trying to write. The more you care, the harder it can get. But don’t give up. I’m dying to hear your version. I can see from the new translation you are on to something. And if it were easy to do, someone else would already have done it.
    Things you might try: 1) write what sounds good to you — make it something you love, and probably other people will, too. 2) write more than one version. That frees you up to try different things and see which one you like best 3) apply things you’ve learned from writing. I often find that things I’ve learned from writers (“give yourself permission to write (create) junk” and “show up and work whether you’re inspired or not”) apply to all my creative endeavors. 4) consider that all the “rules” about composing music are just what has worked for others. We all have our own creative process and not everyone else’s methods work for us, even when they insist what they are doing is the “right” way. there is no one right way. There are many paths to where you want to go. Find and take the one that works for you.

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  35. Rune Ravenstone

    I love this post, and am reading it when I should be working on my music project. I think fear of writing a bad song gets us stuck. We should just write that next song–if it’s not as good as we’d hoped, that’s okay, go write the next one!

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  36. I hadn’t heard of Hannah Senesh, now I have a picture of a brave young woman whose last days of life we will never know, but I agree a marching tune or anything too sweet would not do her justice. Don’t be afraid to return to your music.

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  37. Having a long history with music as a trombone player, I can truly say it’s not the notes themselves that ultimately matter but how your play expresses them. Take jazz for example where one often finds the will to improvise one’s own interpretations of the written melody.

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  38. I have not heard of Hannah Senesh, and I like how you shared her story. It’s sad, and back then things were so hard and miserable. I also like all the doggy photos, and your own little “journey”. As a writer myself, I believe we are always are own worst critic. I feel like many artists of many kinds feel that way. Whether your writing a story, a song, painting a picture or even directing the next box office hit. It’s hard not to create something, and want it to be no less then perfect. Also remember, song writing is basically writing poetry. It’s doesn’t need to always rhyme. It just needs flow. I commend you though, I have written one song in my life, I have the music in my head, yet I do not play an instrument. You have tried, and I think if you persevere, you will have a great song to honor the tribulations of Hannah Senesh.

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  39. Your version of “Blessed is the match” is more compelling, more passionate. I love it. Do continue with your work.
    When i was young, i read leon uris’ book “exodus”. It was so inspiring, i felt like i wanted to fly off to israel and help defend the kibbutz. Your story of Hannah reminds me of those feelings i had before.
    Cheers, my friend.

    Reply

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