NOTE: This piece describes the role songleading and Jewish music have played in my life. In light of the recent passing of Debbie Friedman (z”l), I want to note that she paved the way for me as a Jewish woman, songleader, and composer. I am deeply grateful for the immeasurable impact she had on me and on the Jewish world, and I acknowledge that I could not be writing this piece if she had not been who she was.
My love for Jewish music reaches as far back as this memory: My father is belting out prayers in synagogue as I sit beside him on a Saturday morning. His exuberance proves how important the singing is to the prayer. I learn that all you have to do is offer up your voice.
As a young musician, I studied flute and guitar, and in my later high school years I began writing my own songs. When I learned about songleading, the idea of leading a community in song, I felt an instant sense of “home.” Slowly the singer/songwriter, the songleader, and the musician elements of my identity began to blend into a vision of something that was just on the tip of my tongue. And so…
I decided to move to New York City in 2004 because I knew there was a strong Jewish cultural scene that was not bound to the walls of synagogues, where young artists explored Judaism in clubs, coffeeshops, art galleries, and friends’ apartments. I had an inkling that the music I wanted to create would burst forth from such rich and informal Jewish settings.
I was right! After a long learning process of writing music, meeting people, and getting acquainted with the New York cultural scene, I eventually recorded my own CD on Michael Dorf's Oyhoo Records, a Jewish-tinged secular music label. I began to grow comfortable with what I was doing. I toured clubs, bars, JCCs, synagogues, Jewish music festivals, coffeeshops, camps - wherever my music felt like a “fit.”
Yet, central to my being was the knowledge of the spiritual and community building power of music … the songleader in me. I believe in music as a means to bring people together. Music has the power to transcend age and generation and therefore is one of the greatest tools we have for reaching the next generation of Jews.
Familiar and Unfamiliar: Stretching the Comfort Zone
I have broken down the main elements of my musical style, for the sake of clarity. I sing mostly in English, with Hebrew lyrics – some come from Jewish liturgy. I ask the audience to be a part of the experience (i.e., clapping, calling out ideas, singing along) and I interact with them informally, by chatting and treating them as fellow community members. My repertoire includes genres not traditionally associated with Jewish music such as reggae, rap, and rock, and the themes of my music tend to focus on issues of justice and community building.
Given these elements, I have come up with a set of observations based on my experience in communities across the globe. I find that synagogues are spaces of comfort for older generations. Within that space, when I add Hebrew and prayer language, as well as audience participation, most of the older generations are quite comfortable. Wondering what might happen if I added reggae/rap/rock to the mix, I found that that they were able to enjoy it because they were still in their comfort zone.
For the Next Dor, I find that bars, clubs, and coffeehouses are comfortable spaces for these people of my generation. Adding reggae/rap/rock to the mix remains comfortable for most. When I then add Hebrew and prayer language, as well as audience participation, it becomes a bit of a stretch for the younger generations, but they still tend to enjoy it because they’re in their comfort zone.
Generation & Location
So, what then does this next frontier look like? What entry points need to be created for this next generation? People who went to camp/youth group are able to connect most easily. They are familiar with the idea of “doing” spirituality outside of the synagogue, while surrounded by friends and using the language of today’s modern music fusions. I believe, though, that even folks who didn’t go to camp/youth group, might more easily step outside their comfort zone to attend a young Jewish event if it were to be found outside the walls of the synagogue.
Perhaps one way of connecting with the rising generation of young Jews lies in becoming comfortable inserting prayer, Hebrew, and Jewish themes into unexpected venues, while continuing to push the boundaries of what kind of music and prayer we experience in synagogues. Then maybe someday, we can meet happily in the middle.
Chana Rothman is a singer/songwriter, songleader, educator, and activist living in Philadelphia.