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Israeli Music

(Note: I was originally planning to post this essay back in the spring but decided to pull it when the violence broke out in Gaza and Israel, because it felt like the wrong time to share my lighthearted adventures in Israeli music. Since then I have had a lot of time to think about my silence, and the value of silence and expression at different times. I still don’t have a clear mathematical equation to tell me what to say when, so I have to trust that my readers will take this essay for the love letter it was meant to be, with the understanding that love doesn’t mean perfect acceptance of the loved one’s behavior.

Israel is imperfect and Israeli governments have made problematic decisions that are at odds with world opinion. Israel is also the ancient homeland of my people and the modern miracle that gave many Jews a place to thrive after the Holocaust. Should that miracle have come at the cost of Palestinian peoplehood? No. Were there ways to allow for both peoples to live peacefully in their homelands? Possibly, possibly not. Can things change going forward? I hope so.

Israel is a complicated place, with conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Jews of Ashkenazi and Mizrachi or Sephardi descent, and between secular and religious Jews. It’s a place where emotions run high and violence and spirituality and hope are all deeply ingrained. Sometimes the only thing that can make it all bearable, for me, is to listen to the music and sing along – expressing all of the hope and bitterness and love and anger at full voice.)

My Israeli Music Mixtape

            My best friend in Seventh Grade was Israeli. She had come to the States with her family a year or so earlier, and we became friends because I was new to our orthodox Jewish school and willing to help her with her English homework. I also understood more Hebrew than most of my classmates, and we shared a love of music. She made me a mix tape of the Israeli songs she thought I should know, to fill out the list of Israeli songs I’d learned in school and camp (she was also a big Billy Joel fan, so I learned his songs too). Eventually she switched to public school and we drifted apart, but I heard years later that she’d become a DJ in Israel, which seemed appropriate.

            Last summer, the Cantor at my synagogue did a Zoom session on Jewish music (of the Non-liturgical kind), and one of the songs he played was an Israeli song, and it was like a time capsule, sending me back to junior high and afternoons singing along with my mix tape. As soon as the Zoom was over I went searching for that old mix tape, and found it. When I tried to play it in my old tape deck from college, though, the tape crumbled in the machine. Not to be deterred, I went to YouTube to re-find some of those songs, and found a bunch of other familiar Israeli songs as well. I made a short playlist, and searched out the lyrics, in Hebrew and English, thinking I could use them in synagogue school in some way, and then filed them away.

            Then, a few months later, I came across an American podcast called Israel Hour Radio: one hour a week filled with Israeli music, both the classics and the modern stuff. I started listening to the archives, with theme episodes on classic songs of the seventies and eighties, and Eurovision hits, and countdowns of the best songs of each year.

On Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) this past year, I played some of the Israeli music videos for my synagogue school students. Unfortunately, the sound from my computer diffused quickly in the cavernous social hall that we’d been using as a classroom during Covid, and, more importantly, most of the songs were in Hebrew, which turned out to be the real deal breaker.

            But I’d had such high hopes! I wanted the kids to love the music as much as I did at their age! I wanted them to hear Ofra Haza singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and be knocked out by the clarity of her voice and the way it soared and how her technique seemed so transparent that you could hear her soul right through it.

Ofra Haza

And I wanted them to know that Israel has won the Eurovision song contest a bunch of times, with Hebrew songs, on a world stage! Most of all, I wanted them to know that Hebrew is more than just a language to pray in; that you can even dance to it!

“I can dance!”

            Growing up, so much of my education about Israel was focused on politics and religion, and not on the daily lives of the people who live there. It didn’t even occur to me that they had their own radio stations, let alone that they’d gone way beyond folk music and Israeli dancing into Rap and Hip Hop and Rock and Techno and Pop and Reggae. There’s also a deep strain of humor, silliness, and protest music, as well as a lot of love songs.

            My favorites are still mostly in the category of Shirei Eretz Yisrael (Songs of the Land of Israel), because they are like love songs, filled with longing for a better world, acknowledgement of the bitter and the sweet, and hope for the future. My dream is that, with time, my synagogue school students will like these songs as much as they like Netta (the Israeli Eurovision winner from 2018 who became famous singing a song in English, with lots of clucking noises and chicken-like dance moves – no, really).

Netta

            There was always a strong tradition of public singalongs in pre-State and Modern Israel, as a way to build a national identity from the patchwork of Jews from Eastern Europe and America and Asia and the Middle East. That tradition landed in my American life, in summer camp and synagogue and school, so that I could sing more in Hebrew than I could speak. In my endless YouTube searches this past year, I discovered a relatively recent phenomenon called Koolulam, an Israeli group that creates public sing along videos. They choose a song and prepare the lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and then they bring together people from all across the country – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, single and with families, young and old – and they teach them the song and make a video of the final version. They call themselves a “social musical initiative” dedicated to bringing disparate groups together. In a way, Koolulam is an extension of the original Israeli imperative of nation building through singalongs – but now the goal is to bring everyone in the country together, not just the Jews. And the resulting videos really are inspiring.

            So, maybe next year, when we can sing together again, I’ll be able to teach my students some of my favorite Israeli songs, even if they are in Hebrew, and no one is clucking. Though I’m sure we could find an excuse to add in the clucking.

“Really?”

            In case you’re interested, I’m adding links to a few of the songs on my Israeli music playlist, but for a deeper education I recommend listening to back episodes of podcast.

NettaToy (the chicken song) - https://youtu.be/CziHrYYSyPc

Ofra HazaYerushalayim shel zahavwith English subtitles https://youtu.be/72QC8EGnxTw

David Broza Yihieh Tov with English subtitles https://youtu.be/qtI7h5A9eEQ

Nina Simone - Eretz Zavat Chalav (A land flowing with milk and honey) - https://youtu.be/YBAAkJyEhlA

Koolulam – Al Kol Eleh for Israel Independence Day https://youtu.be/oxzR9Z-kG6Q

Koolulam One Day (3000 people Muslim, Christian, Jewish) https://youtu.be/RjPpMXMjIj0

Ishay Ribo and Nathan Goshen - Nechakeh Lecha https://youtu.be/ryTO71_eMO4

English translation for Nechakeh Lecha https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%A0%D7%97%D7%9B%D7%94-%D7%9C%D7%9A-nechake-lecha-we-shall-await-thee.html

Amir Dadon and Shuli Rand – Bein Kodesh lechol https://youtu.be/sCJh9YcrL3k

English translation for Bein Kodesh lechol https://lyricstranslate.com/en/%D7%91%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%93%D7%A9-%D7%9C%D7%97%D7%95%D7%9C-bein-kodesh-lechol-between-sacred-and-profane.html)

“We need more music, Mommy.”

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?

Life in the Absurd

            Out of the blue, one evening, Mom got an email about a pop-up vaccine site taking people over 65, and she called and got an appointment for the next morning. And then, after she’d gotten the vaccine and scheduled her second shot, she felt so guilty that she’d gone without me, and that so many of the sites on Long Island were reserved for older people and not for essential workers or teachers, that she started obsessively watching for new sites, and nagging me to do the same. I didn’t enjoy having to jump onto the computer each time she saw a hint of a possibility of an appointment for me, especially because they all turned out to be nothing. But then, three weeks later, an email arrived saying that there was a site taking people over 60 and teachers, from our town. She emailed back and got me an appointment for that evening.

            The only problem was that I was still at synagogue school, where I was so overwhelmed with the laptop and iPad (to teach the remote kids), while also corralling the in-person kids, that I didn’t think to check my phone. By the time I got home Mom was standing in the parking lot, waiting for me. She yelled through the window of the car that I had an appointment, and I screamed back, for what?

            The Pharmacy was in a small strip mall two towns over, down a badly lit hallway and behind a non-descript door. It was some kind of specialist compound pharmacy, with one pharmacist and two helpers, and I was one of the last appointments of the day. I made sure to tell the pharmacist that I teach synagogue school, in case she wanted to disqualify me on the spot as not a real teacher, but she just nodded and asked where I teach, and then she told me that I was getting the Moderna vaccine, and stuck the needle in my arm. One of her assistants filled out a vaccine card and scheduled my second appointment, and then they sent me on my way.

            It took all of five minutes, and I had a hard time processing that I had really gotten the shot, even while holding an ice pack against my right shoulder. Two days later my left shoulder started to hurt, in the same spot as on my right shoulder. I tried to find a reasonable explanation for it, like maybe I’d been sleeping on my left side to protect the right shoulder, though that didn’t explain the pinpoint nature of the pain. But I was still wiped out from synagogue school, or from the vaccine shot, or both, and I couldn’t really think it through.

 The next day, which turned out to be the second windiest day of the year, I decided I had plenty of energy to do the food shopping on my own, even though Mom said it was too cold to go out and she and the dogs all gave me funny looks. Instead of wearing my hair in braids or a pony tail, which is what I’ve been doing since my hair got so Covid-long, I left it down, and it rose in a whirlwind around my face until I couldn’t see a damn thing. Then I went into the supermarket and filled my cart with everything on the shopping list, and only realized at the checkout that I didn’t have my pocketbook with me. I asked if they could watch my cart, melting ice cream and all, at the customer service desk, and then ran out to the car, hoping my pocketbook would be sitting on the passenger seat waiting for me. It wasn’t.

“Oy.”

I knew I had to drive home and find my pocketbook, but I was afraid someone would see me driving away and think I was a criminal of some kind, racing out of the parking lot. It was only when I’d pulled out into traffic, heart racing, that I thought to check under Mom’s cushion on the passenger seat, and of course my pocketbook was right there. I was relieved and flustered and had a hard time figuring out where to make my U-turn back to the supermarket. I parked in the same exact spot I’d just left and then ran out, forgetting my mask in the car, so I had to race back and find it on the floor, under Mom’s cushion, which I’d managed to toss into the air in my frenzied search for my pocketbook.

I tried to walk back into the supermarket like a sane, rational person and gracefully guide my cart from the customer service desk to the next open checkout lane, but there were no open lanes, except for the self-checkout. I hate self-checkout. I don’t understand how this is supposed to be more convenient when every time I try to buy a fruit or a vegetable someone has to come over and play with the machine to get it to recognize my broccoli. But I paid for all of my groceries and managed to put them in my reusable and refrigerator bags, piled to the top of the cart. As soon as I got outside, of course, the bag on top of the pile fell off the cart, and the receipt flew away in the wind, never to be seen again. By the time I got home I felt like I’d been through all of the Herculean labors, and fell into bed, exhausted.

“I totally get it.”

            I’m pretty sure my life isn’t the only one falling into the absurd lately, but I like to tell myself that mine is the most absurd, just so I can feel like I’m winning at something.    

The fact is, everything has seemed nonsensical for a long time now, as if we’ve all been suffering from pre-Covid brain fog for years. There was that weird four year period when our president was a white supremacist, and then that year when people refused to wear face masks to protect them from a deadly disease. And then there were those news outlets that only believed in alternative facts. It was weird. Okay, it’s still weird. States are rapidly putting new voting restrictions into place, after what was deemed the most secure election in US history by the Republican in charge of cyber security. And US senators are proclaiming that they didn’t feel threatened by men with bear spray and flag poles attacking the Capitol police and setting up a gallows to hang politicians, but one little black woman knocking on a door in the Georgia Legislature clearly scared the bejeezus out of them.

“Humans are weird.”

            There are times when I believe that God is everywhere, and that the universe is a web of invisible circuits that bring us all together. And then there’s the rest of the time, when I still believe that God is everywhere, but I’m pretty sure the web of invisible circuits is broken, or at least rotting at significant junctures. Hopefully, once we’ve all been vaccinated we can start to do the work of fixing those connections.

To that end, I thought I’d share some new liturgical music from the musical director/composer/rabbinical student from my synagogue whom I’ve mentioned in the past (I make a short appearance in the choral section of the video.) The title of the song is HaRofei, which means the healer, and it’s based on Psalm 147. The lyrics alone are wonderful, but with the music and all of the voices and instruments he was able to bring together, it’s a stunner. https://youtu.be/fmsMljlUWok

“Where are the dogs?”

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?

Choir Videos

            One of the more nerve wracking parts of my summer has been the process of rehearsing for and recording choir videos. Since my synagogue will be all virtual for the high holidays, and singing in a group over zoom is a non-starter, the cantor and the musical director came up with a plan to create ten choir videos to add to the Zooms, cutting together individual videos of all of the singers and musicians. This means that I listen to a guide track on my headphones, and sing at my computer screen, day after day. It is awful.

“Oh God, she’s singing again.”

            I hate looking at myself. I look like Mrs. Potato Head, but when I tried to look just over the computer screen to stare at the wall instead of at my face, the videos came out disturbing. I deleted one attempt after another until I finally decided to ask my mom to help me decide when it was good enough to send in (because left to my own devices it was clearly never going to be good enough).

            The first song took twenty rehearsals and ten to fifteen deleted videos, the second was not that much better, but by the third, maybe because we were finally singing just the Alto part and I could sing along with the head Alto on the guide track, I did the video in one shot. Three days of rehearsal leading up to it, of course, but even with the Mrs. Potato Head thing still going strong, I was happy with my vocal and willing to send it in.

            We’ve been having zoom rehearsals every two weeks, to familiarize us with the two or three pieces we need to perform before the following rehearsal, and to review the technological issues, like accessing the google drive folder where all of the music is hiding, and how to send in the oversized videos. I was so proud of myself after I finished the first batch of videos, and even had two days to go back to ukulele practice before the next rehearsal, but then, of course, the next set of songs were harder than the first.

            My favorite pieces are the ones where I can sing along with the head Alto, both because it’s comforting to hear her voice and because I can focus on the best parts of my vocal range. When we sing along with the cantor I’m usually singing an octave above him, so the notes that are easy for him are tough for me, and it feels more like harmony than unison. There’s something magical about singing the exact same note as someone else, as if there’s a sort of “ding” that goes off in my head that tells me I got it just right.

“Ding!”

            We won’t be doing much communal singing this year at my synagogue. During a normal year we would have a choir rehearsal every other week, just to hang out and learn new music, but with the average age of the choir members in the seventies, and the extra danger of passing Covid while singing, we’ll be staying on Zoom for the foreseeable future, which means we can learn a song, but we can’t sing it together. So I’m trying to make the most of the singing I get to do this summer. There’s some small sense of community from the Zoom rehearsals, but the real power comes from singing along with one other singer and the piano on the guide tracks, and knowing that, eventually, all of the voices will come together, somewhere in the cloud. And if that means I have to sit in front of a computer and stare at my potato head for minutes at a time, so be it.

            Cricket and Ellie have been kind enough not to laugh.

“It’s hard work.”

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?

The Mumble Grumble Prayers

            One of my jobs as a synagogue school teacher is to teach my students how to pray, but sometimes I worry that I’m the wrong person for the job. I grew up going to a Conservative Jewish day school, where half of each school day was spent on Hebrew language, and Jewish history and customs, and prayers. But I don’t remember actively learning the why behind the prayers. I learned how to sing the prayers, and which prayers and blessings to say when, but the Kavanah, the intention, was most often left for last, or for never.

The assumption, I think, was that little kids couldn’t understand the deeper meaning yet, but by seventh grade I’d switched over to an Orthodox school where there was a sudden descent into the mumble grumble form of prayer. We didn’t focus on the music of the prayers much anymore, instead we gave value to the words of the prayers, with a requirement to read or say every single word. The problem was that the girls were given very little time to say the morning prayers, and it was mumble grumble, or nothing. Even at my most fluent, I couldn’t have even skimmed the Hebrew of the prayers in the short time allotted to us, though many of my classmates were able to do it, and even seemed to feel something. In orthodoxy, our teachers told us, the belief was that if we did the right things, and read the right things, and said the right things, we would become good Jews, even if we never understood the why of any of it. But for me, that method didn’t work.

“Harrumph.”

 I’m only responsible for teaching the kids a few prayers each year in synagogue school, which gives us time to learn the tunes, and the words (often in transliteration), but most of all the intention behind each prayer, which meant that I needed to know what those were; and in some ways I had to start from scratch. I did my research and reading, but most of my learning came from going to services myself. At my synagogue we learn a lot of different versions of the prayers, to emphasize different ways of looking at the words and meaning, but even when we use the same version over and over, we often stop to read a poem or hear a story first, to shed new light on the purpose of the particular prayer. And that has given me a lot of material to share with the kids, but, more often than not, I ask the kids if they can explain it to me.

“Huh?”

For example, the Mishaberach is a prayer for wishing someone healing from physical or emotional pain, so we spend some time talking about how a prayer might be able to comfort us, or give us strength, even if we don’t believe that God is answering our wishes directly. And when we look at the words of the Ve’shamru, a prayer we say on Friday nights to remind us of the obligation to celebrate Shabbat, I’ll ask them why we might need, or want, a reminder in the form of a prayer every week, especially one that we say after the Sabbath has already started. And then we can look at the Modeh Ani, one of the weekday morning prayers, in which we thank God for letting us wake up in the morning, returning our souls to us after a night in God’s safe keeping (go ahead, try to teach that concept to children without accidentally referencing zombies, I dare you).

“Zombies?!”

A lot of this focus on creating meaning is due to the fact that most progressive Jews (Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Conservative, etc.) don’t feel obligated to pray. In orthodoxy, you are supposed to accept the burden of obligation, in rituals, and daily behaviors, long before you ever learn the why behind the what, which is what makes mumble grumble prayer a help to them. In progressive Judaism the why always comes first, because many of the obligations have been made voluntary, which has its own risks.

Sometimes I worry that my synagogue school students are missing out by spending so little time on their Jewish education each week. I wouldn’t have been able to fill my brain with so much of the how of Judaism, and the history of Judaism, without half of each day of my childhood being set aside for learning how to be Jewish. And I feel lucky to have the background I have, and the wealth of information to tap into. My hope is that, in the time my students and I have together, they will learn to see the obligations of their religious community as more than worth the gifts they will get in return, especially because there are so many fewer obligations in Progressive Jewish life. And maybe this lighter touch will keep them from falling into the mumble grumble form of religion, where the obligations drown out the inspirations.

            In my ongoing search for ways help the kids to feel connected to the prayers, I went to a Zoom presentation by the founders of a musical group called the Nigunim Ensemble, based in Israel. They have created new versions of old prayers, incorporating chants and new rhythms from Arab, Persian, and popular Israeli music. Their message to our Zoom class was that the Jewish world can, and should, widen its ideas of prayer music, not only to include more people in our community, but to add more layers of emotion to the experience of prayer. And I was excited by all of the new sounds they were introducing to us, but for me, the message that came through most strongly was the sense of joy I heard in their voices. And I realized that not only singing good music, but singing in community, allows me to feel heard and accepted, as I am. And, when I feel heard by my community, I start to think that maybe God can hear me too.

“We can hear you, Mommy.”

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?

Cricket and Ellie’s Extraordinary Playlist

My favorite television show this Spring was Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, where Zoey, a computer programmer in her twenties, discovers that she can hear people’s innermost thoughts and feelings in song and dance numbers (after an accident in an MRI during an earthquake). I’m a sucker for a musical to begin with, but this show made the connection between music and emotional honesty even more explicit. And I loved it!

            And watching the show made me wonder what I might be singing, out walking the dogs, or on Zooms, or at the supermarket, if someone could hear my “heart songs” (this is what Zoey’s friend called the song and dance numbers only Zoey could see and hear on the show). Would my heart songs express the feelings I already feel safe sharing? Or the things I consciously choose to keep to myself? Or feelings I don’t even know I have?

“Ooh, a mystery!”

            I’m a little bit afraid of this question; on the one hand, I don’t think my emotions are much of a mystery. I may not sing them at the top of my lungs to every stranger on the street, but I imagine that most of my feelings are kind of obvious. Except, what if there were surprises? What if the emotions I haven’t yet wrestled into compliance just started to let themselves out? That worries me. I think I’d rather be Zoey than be heard by Zoey.

            Some of the “heart songs” Zoey heard on the show didn’t express people’s deepest secrets, but rather things that Zoey, when she wasn’t hearing the songs, wasn’t able to figure out for herself. Before the accident in the MRI gave her this special power, Zoey was kind of dense about her own emotions, and anyone else’s, and it was keeping her stuck and lonely. The heart songs were her awakening to the world around her and the world inside of her.

            I can imagine some of the songs I’d hear other people singing, though: like my rabbi singing Sondheim on every occasion (which he kind of does already); or long litanies of anger and complaint from my fellow shoppers in line at the supermarket (some singer/songwriter laments, but mostly in the Headbanger genre). My synagogue school students often did break into song at random moments, to let me know how bored they were by my chosen lesson plans. My preference would be to listen to a playlist of ballads about people’s secret longings and disappointments, but I’m not sure I’d be that lucky.

“Oy.”

            And, what if in my version of the disorder, all of the singing and dancing people would be tone deaf and have two left feet? I’d be cringing all the time, and dodging falling bodies. I don’t do well with cacophony, and long stretches of listening to off key music might actually kill me. But at least I wouldn’t have to spend as much time guessing at what people are thinking, reading body language and tone of voice and worrying that I’m guessing wrong. Instead, I could feel confident that I really did know what people were thinking, and then I could move on to feeling guilty about all of the ways I would inevitably fail to help them.

            Given that, I still love the idea of my day being filled with music. And I love the idea of all of my thoughts and feelings being intertwined with music, instead of just standing there, like stick figures, marching through my brain.

“There’s music in my head? Can you get it out?”

            But I do worry that if I could hear and see these musical numbers as vividly as Zoey does, then I’d become so overwhelmed with external noise that I wouldn’t have any room left to hear my own thoughts. I’d have to hide away in my room just to get any writing done – which, come to think of it, describes my regular life pretty well.

            The only people I know who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a sudden outpouring of song and dance numbers, expressing our most secret feelings, would be dogs. For Cricket and Ellie, and all of their compatriots, humans are vividly expressing their deepest secrets, through tone of voice, and body language, and especially smell, all the time. Dogs know everything! And yet they still love us. It’s pretty much the dream of every human being, that even at our most vulnerable and imperfect, with all of our embarrassing smells and shameful secrets hanging out, we could still be deeply loved. And yet to dogs, that’s a given. And, more often than not, we do this for our dogs in return (those lovely creatures who lick themselves in public, and breathe stinky breath in our faces, and expect us to pick up their poop while they bark their heads off at all of our neighbors). It’s other humans we struggle to accept as they are, and other humans who we think will reject us if they knew everything.

Pets, even dogs as judgmental and harrumph-y as Cricket, love us just the way we are. No wonder we love them so much in return.

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?

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?

I Got a Recorder for My Birthday

 

For my birthday, Mom bought me a recorder: the same instrument everyone learns to play in elementary school. Mom has a brown plastic one, like the one I had in fourth grade music class, and she uses it occasionally to soothe Cricket’s savage breast, but she wanted me to have a better one, with more resonance, so mine is a blond wood.

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Ellie likes the recorder.

I was kind of hoping for a new iPhone, or a new President, for my birthday. This present, instead, required me to work.

I hadn’t played recorder, or any other wind instrument, since fourth grade. I used to play the Melodica at my grandparents’ house (a tiny version of the wind keyboard Jon Batiste plays on the Late Show with Steven Colbert) but that was even longer ago.

So, along with my ukulele lessons on Yousician, and occasional choir practices, and daily breathing exercises, I took on the task of relearning how to play the recorder. My new recorder came with a book to teach me which holes to cover to play which notes, and exercises to practice for each new note. It was a pretty basic book and I assumed I’d get through it quickly; three months later I’ve finally made it through one octave. The breathless feeling I had at the beginning, even half-way through a four measure exercise, shocked me. I skimped on whole notes, pretending they were only half or quarter notes, just to get through a single page. I felt like my lungs were, at best, two tiny desiccated walnuts.

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“You should breathe like me, Mommy.”

I had started doing regular breathing exercises in the fall, after listening to the opera singer in the choir at my synagogue, who stood behind me when we sang for the high holidays. His voice sounded like it was supported by a huge reservoir of oxygen, and mine sounded like I was sucking oxygen through a tiny straw, so I looked up some breathing exercises for singers and started to do a set of them every day. But not much was changing, and I continued to feel like I was suffocating each time I tried to extend the counts on my breathing exercises. That’s when Mom decided to buy me a wind instrument for my birthday, thinking it could help me train myself to breathe better.

When I learned how to play the low C on the recorder, a few weeks ago, I realized that I was finally giving four counts to each whole note, but it didn’t feel like much of a success. It’s possible that I keep moving the goal posts, so that instead of recognizing the progress I’ve made, I’m much more aware of how far behind I still am. That sounds like me.

When the choir got together to rehearse for another performance this winter (Shabbat Shira at our synagogue, to celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds when it comes up in the yearly cycle of Torah readings), I worked very hard to learn all of the songs and find the right places to breathe, but I still couldn’t hold the longer notes as long as I was supposed to (four counts, yes, six counts, no).

At the last rehearsal, our opera singer came in and learned the music by sight and held the notes for what felt like hours at a time. To be fair, he’s been working at this for his whole professional life, so comparing my five to ten minutes every other day with his lifetime of practice is pretty silly, but I do it anyway.

I want to feel the way he sounds – as if I could sing for hours without any friction or effort, as if the sound is just floating on a pillow of air. There’s something so reassuring about hearing that voice behind me, but it also makes me feel like a mouse, with barely a squeak to my name.

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“Sing like me, Mommy!”

The opera singer actually brought his whole company to perform at the synagogue the next day, as a fundraiser to support immigrants at the border. They did an hour of songs in English and Italian and German, from operas and musicals, in solos, duets, and group numbers. They, of course, didn’t need microphones. I had a sneaking suspicion that they all had lungs the size of hot air balloons hidden somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t prove it. (They’re called the New Camerata Opera Company, by the way, and you should look them up if you have a chance.)

I’m not sure if all of my sporadic efforts to improve my breathing are leading anywhere, and I still feel like a ne’er do well, but I’m realizing, more and more, how much I love music. Even when I’m exhausted, and driving to choir rehearsal feels like torture, I still love to sing; even when I struggle to understand how harmony works, or can’t hold the note long enough, I still want to try. And I’m enjoying learning how to play the ukulele, and the recorder; and I like the possibility that I might get up the nerve to write my own songs again someday, and sing them out loud, where people can hear me. But in the meantime, even though it makes me feel lazy and incompetent and silly, I keep practicing. And maybe someday I’ll be proud of myself for that.

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“Don’t bet on it.”

 

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?

 

The Harmony

 

When I was eight years old or so, I started going to Saturday morning services in the big sanctuary at my Conservative synagogue. Most of the children in our synagogue went to junior congregation on Saturday mornings, for an hour of prayers and trivia games, meant to fit in between morning cartoons and afternoon gymnastics or computer classes. My brother and I went from the short children’s services in the tiny blue sanctuary, to the long adult services in the cavernous, stained-glass spectacle of the big sanctuary. And we loved it, or at least I loved it. The prayers were more complex, the congregants were happier to be there; but, for me, most of all, there were the harmonies.

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Harmony, like this.

We had a female Torah reader, along with our male cantor, who sat with us in the congregation, except for when she had to go up to chant the Torah. When I was older, she taught me how to chant from the Torah for my Bat Mitzvah, and taught me the different chant for the Haftorah, and for the reading of the Megillah on Purim, but every week, during Saturday morning services in the big sanctuary, she taught me that there was such a thing as harmony. I learned by singing along with her, and somehow it made the songs sound deeper, and truer, and more complete. More than thirty years later I still sing her harmonies without a second thought.

This year, I finally sang with the choir at my synagogue, as an alto, during the High Holidays. The fasting and prayer and atonement, and the endless standing, of the long day of Yom Kippur is meant to be the final lap of the marathon; the gasping, I-don’t-know-if-I’ll-survive, final effort to change course before the rest of the year begins. But it’s not the repentance, or the fasting, or the standing that makes Yom Kippur powerful for me. In fact, if it were only that I would feel dimmed and darkened by the holiday. No, it’s the communal effort of it all, and the way we create energy and joy together, all of us participating – singing, reading, opening the ark, dressing the Torah, carrying it; for some, just the act of coming into the sanctuary to be with the community for hours at a time.

We read poetry and prose during the services at my synagogue, to dig into the crevices and corners of the prayers that we might otherwise ignore as we push our way through the service. This year we read part of an essay by a Reconstructionist Rabbi named Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, called Soul-AR Eclipse, about how we absorb so much of our loved ones that when they die they don’t totally leave us. I believe this. I’ve taken in so much from the people around me, some good for me, some not so good, but they’ve become so much a part of me that even when they are far away, they seem close by.

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Butterfly

dina smiles

Dina

And I think that’s what happened this year as I was singing with the choir. This woman who hasn’t been in my life for many years, was standing right next to me, even singing through me. I felt like an eight-year-old again, singing harmonies, and filled with awe for the music, and the all-of-us. So many years ago she taught me that music can connect us, and help us to express the all-of-it, not just the happiness or the devotion, but everything we feel and can’t find any other way to say. I couldn’t name the feeling at the time, but I felt such relief singing those harmonies, knowing that music could be a conversation, even within myself.

Towards the end of Yom Kippur I went up onto the bima to read a poem by Linda Pastan. I didn’t know why I’d chosen that poem, except that it was one of the shorter readings available, until I read the last lines to the congregation and finally heard the words fully:

“When my griefs sing to me

From the bright throats of thrushes

I sing back.”

 

And I realized, yes, that’s what I do. I sing back. I sing in conversation with grief. I sing in response to grief. No matter what, I sing. And I’ve been doing it for a very long time.

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Cricket sings too!

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?

 

 

Using Yousician

 

I came across a music learning app called Yousician during my adventures with Duolingo (the language learning app). Yousician has a free version, with lots of ads, just like Duolingo, so I decided to try it out and see if it would help me make more progress with learning to play my ukulele.

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The first few lessons on the app were too easy, because I’d done the heavy lifting of learning the beginner stuff on my own, but now I’m getting to tasks that are harder for me to do – like switching from string to string or chord to chord quickly enough to keep up with the song. When I was working with my lesson books, I could play each song at whatever speed I liked, but Yousician is strict about timing, so I started to miss notes, a lot of them. Then I discovered the option to practice at slower speeds, until I could build up to regular speed without making so many mistakes. It kind of feels like doing musical aerobics, and I need to do it, because on my own I wouldn’t push myself enough. I was never, ever, going to buy a metronome. I still have metronome nightmares from my childhood piano lessons. That tick tock, tick tock thing is sinister!

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It really is obnoxious.

One of the other difficulties for me on the Yousician app is that instead of using musical notation, they use a form of tablature, telling me which fret to play, on which string, but not naming the note or giving the note a time value, like half or quarter note. It’s taking me a while to get used to this new system, and I still make sure to practice with my lesson books regularly, so I won’t lose the progress I’ve already made.

The Yousician exercises remind me of the first video game I ever had, for my brother’s TRS 80, called Typing Tutor. I loved to play it over and over, building speed and high scores, though I’m not sure it ever improved my overall typing ability. I became an expert at manipulating the ASDF keys, but how many essays are written with only four letters? Especially those four?

I’m still uneasy with the ukulele, just like I was with the guitar, and the piano. I’d like to believe that the ukulele and I will be good friends eventually, but we’re still getting used to each other’s quirks and limitations. I keep expecting the instrument to tell me all of its secrets, and suddenly make music, without much help from me. It’s possible that I have unreasonable expectations.

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“You? Unreasonable expectations? Never.”

The dogs have accepted the Yousician app with the same long suffering patience as they accepted the ukulele practice overall, though it does wake them up sometimes from their naps and remind them that they really need to pee. They think I need another app to teach me how to take them for more walks each day, and to stop doing so many uninteresting things that prevent me from giving them all of the attention, and all of the chicken, they want. I don’t know, though. I think they do a good enough job teaching me how to do their bidding as it is.

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“Chicken treats?”

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I have mind control powers. Look into my eyes.

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. Izzy’s father then sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?

 

The Ukulele Life

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I want to reassure you that I am still trying to learn how to play the ukulele, and I have callouses on the index and middle finger of my left hand to prove it. I don’t have the patience to practice for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, or the pain tolerance, but I’ve managed to learn a dozen or so chords, and I’ve gotten better at avoiding the buzzes and mutes, and can sort of switch from chord to chord in time, if I pretend there’s an extra rest between each measure.

 

My favorite lessons have been in fingerpicking (which sounds like a hygiene problem, but thankfully is not), where you play each note of the chord separately. I’m not saying that I’m good at it, but I like the way it sounds, even when I make mistakes. I’m also learning a lot of strumming patterns, though I’m still not sure how you’re supposed to decide which ones to use on different songs. And I’ve overcome my fear that strumming the strings will break the ukulele, so now I’m playing loud enough that I can actually hear it.

I’ve discovered that I don’t have to re-tune the ukulele as often anymore, now that the strings have worn in, and the ukulele has its own cozy case to sleep in. Though when I don’t hear recognizable music coming off the strings I try to tell myself that it’s because the instrument must be out of tune, and it’s not me at all.

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“No, Mommy. It’s you.”

 

I still find it impossible to sing and play at the same time, though, because the melody line and the rhythm are so different. I have a similar brain freeze in choir practice when I can hear the tenors next to me but I still have to sing the alto part. I don’t know how I missed learning this two-brains-at-once skill growing up, but it makes my head hurt.

 

I still can’t articulate what I’m hoping to get from this effort to learn to play the ukulele, though. In part, I’d like to feel like I could make the music I want to listen to if the need arises, in case my smart phone, TV, computer, and stereo all die at the same time. But it’s more than that. I used to write songs as a kid, to try and capture the sounds of how I felt, because the words were never enough. I wanted to be able to express more of everything. I wanted that from my dance classes as a kid, too, in tap and ballet and jazz and modern, but I couldn’t get past the basic proscribed vocabularies and find the movements that would speak for me. And I can’t draw for shit, so that avenue is closed to me. But music is still an option, and I feel like I need to keep trying, in case something begins to resonate. But, I fall too easily into thinking that I have to do what other people tell me is worth doing, and I need to master things in order, as they are written in the book. I get too easily stuck in that lane, and lose track of creating my own path forward. Because creating my own path is hard, and feels a lot like wandering around in the dark.

So, I haven’t uncovered all of the secrets of the universe, yet, but I can play some simple blues songs and keep myself entertained for minutes at a time. That seems like a good place to start. And the dogs don’t seem to mind. One or both of them will take a nap on my bed during my practice sessions, and I haven’t seen even one raised eyebrow. Though I’ve made a point of not watching their faces very carefully while I’m playing, just in case.

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, 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.