Since I released my latest music video, “Boee Kala,” many friends, fellow musicians, and community members have asked me questions regarding to the meaning of the song, its title, the choice of location for shooting the video as well as my personal connection to the text.
The song title relates to my own Jewish roots. While “L’cha Dodi” is the common Jewish title used for this old liturgical Piyut (written by the well-known 16th century poet, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, I discovered that Iraqi Jews used the title ‘Boee Kala’ for the poem. Therefore, I chose to use the traditional, Iraqi song title to be true and highlight to my Iraqi-Jewish heritage.
Boee Kala means, “Come my bride,” and this Piyut (Jewish liturgical poem) is sung traditionally on Shabbat evening as a way to prepare for and welcome Shabbat metaphorically, as we would welcome a bride to her wedding.
How does this concept relate to my composition of the Piyut and this music video?
I am an Israeli living in San Francisco. Although I lead Shabbat services around the Bay on a weekly basis, I myself do not observe Shabbat the way my grandparents did in Iraq or Greece. My very secular celebration of Shabbat relates to the San Francisco Jewish experience. I drive to temple, play instruments and sign songs, and when the service is over, I might even go out for a drink in a bar – a far cry from how my ancestors observed this weekly tradition.
Therefore, there is a transformation of the meaning of Shabbat in my personal experience from a very holy, almost solemn tradition of observation to one of celebration. I want to express this transformation in the music video and song composition. I often play this song on secular venues where people don’t necessary know the meaning of the text but they feel the energy of the music and dance as if they were in a Kabalat Shabbat service, anticipating the celebration of Shabbat and the change of pace to daily routine that it represents. The music video was filmed in an alley in North Beach with the goal of bringing the music to the streets to share with every day San Franciscans, and experience the reaction of strangers passing by as they hear the song. While the people walking by the alley did not know the Jewish meaning of the song they responded in a way that corresponded with its essence; the happiness and festivity of Shabbat. This spirit of shared, even viral festivity and celebration is captured in the music video.
There is a myth that Jewish music is “always in a minor key,” and often echoes themes of pieces like “Hava Nagila” and “Kol Nidrei.” So last spring when I met with Judi Lamble, the coordinator and Michael Olsen, the conductor of the Twin Cities Jewish Choral, we knew that a global Jewish music concert was the best way to debunk the myth!
Because Jews have settled in countries around the world throughout history and have adopted the sounds, tastes and customs of their host countries, our music has often taken on the styles of the countries we have lived in. So it is not unusual to have a Jewish folk song that sounds like a Yugoslavian dance, a “L’cha Dodi” that rocks to an African beat, or a love song written in Ladino, which grew out of Medieval Spanish.
When I was in my first year of cantorial school in Jerusalem, Eli Schleiffer, the director of the cantorial program, took us to Shabbat evening services in different synagogues every few weeks. Afterwards, we would gather in someone’s home for Shabbat dinner, and Cantor Schleiffer would lead Kiddush in the musical style of the synagogue we’d just visited! I was astounded that the same text could be sung to so many different tunes, and thus was born my fascination with Jewish music from around the world. I loved that we had this treasure trove of wildly varied music that we could call ours.
This intrigue led me to write my senior cantorial thesis, accompanied by a recital of the same theme, about Sephardic wedding music. Under this one umbrella, I was able to write about and sing music from Greece, Morocco, Spain and Yugoslavia. I was even able to study directly with Flory Jagoda, a Bosnian Jewish living legend, who has perpetuated a centuries-old tradition by writing new Sephardic music including “Ocho Kandelikas,” a well-known Hanukkah song.
So when I had an opportunity to plan a concert with another choir, I mentioned the possibility of featuring Jewish music from around the world. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. Our children’s and teen choirs are deep into rehearsing a Yiddish song, a Sufi-tuned “Hinei Mah Tov,” a Ladino children’s song, and a psalm from Calcutta. I am proud to pass along the chain of Jewish tradition that has so many interesting links, and the kids love it. Our adult choir, along with the Twin Cities Jewish Chorale is learning a choral arrangement of “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ugandan “Hinei Mah Tov,” and, of course, some Israeli music.
I look forward to presenting this concert in our sanctuary, designed by the German Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn for a then Classical Reform American synagogue that now features Jewish music from around the globe and throughout history. I know there will be much interest, many surprises and, hopefully, a lot of questions.
When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.
In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.
As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.
I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.
Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”
Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties
4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.
Who doesn’t love a holiday party? Adding a global theme to this year’s celebrations can both to add to the festivities and the educational elements of the holiday, bringing in new elements that both surprise and challenge accepted ideas of the holiday. A global theme allows for as much or as little guest participation as you might like. It can be extravagant or relatively simple depending on your approach to entertaining. Either way, a global approach to Hanukkah reminds us that the light of the holiday reaches Jews in every corner of the world.
Serve a global fried food feast. The small jug of oil, that instead of burning for one night miraculously burned for 8 nights has inspired generations of fried foods. The latkes with which are most commonly associated with Hanukkah highlight the many years during which Jewish life flourished in cold European climates where the winter months were often a steady diet of potatoes. But Jewish life extends far beyond that historic reality. There is not a region in the world where Jews have not lived, and so, any fried food is fair game for Hanukkah fare. Try these Cuban Frituras de Malanga or these Colombian Patacones or these Moroccan Sfenj.
Don’t feel like cooking and cleaning? Order in! Most ethnic take-outs have fried foods on their menus making it easy to order up a worldly feast. Egg Rolls, Pakoras, Samosas, Taquitos, Falafel, Fried Chicken, Churros and Fried Wontons can easily round out a menu. Have them delivered or have guests pick them up.
Overwhelmed by fried food? Add a sampling of Jewish dishes from around the world. Try the Natasha Cooper-Benisty’s Moroccan Carrot Salad or Francesca Biller’s Grandma Hatsuyo’s “Yummy” Chicken Udon Noodle Soup. Better yet, have guests bring favorite global dishes, with cards explaining the origins of the dishes and highlighting the country they came from.
Play global games. The dreidl (Yiddish for spinning top) borrows from an English and German spinning top game. So why not bring in tops from around the world? Most global fair trade stores have an array tops made in different countries. Or order online. Have a contest to see which spins the longest. Or go the Mexican celebration route and do a Hanukkah piñata. Close your eyes, spin a globe and flag bingo. Make your own cards or print these. Look up the countries on the web and learn about their Jewish connections!
Give global Jewish gifts. There are many Jewish communities around the world that make handicrafts to help support their communities. Kippot or neckaces from Uganda or challah covers from Ghanna, for example, make wonderful gifts and also forge a global connection.
Add an educational element. Learn about global Jewish Hanukkah traditions and history. Make your own version of an Afgani Hanukkah menorah (see global Jewish Hanukkah traditions.) Have people learn and share about Jewish life in other countries like Uganda, Greece, Iran.
Wherever you live and however you celebrate, may Hanukkah be a holiday of joy and light for all!
Be’chol Lashon mourns the passing of Rabbi Hailu Paris, a native of Ethiopia who lived most of his life in the United States but never lost his connection to his native land.
Hailu Paris was born in 1933 in Addis Ababa. He spent his early years in an orphanage before being adopted by American Eudora Paris who had migrated to Ethiopia with Israelite leader, Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford. However, the arrival of Mussolini’s fascist forces in Ethiopia forced them to flee in 1936. When Nazis looking for Jewish passengers stopped their ship in Germany, they did not suspect that the Black passengers with the Ethiopian child and a tightly wrapped bundle containing a Torah scroll were, in fact, Jews. According to Rabbi Shlomo Levy, when Rabbi Paris related this story he joked, “This was one time when we didn’t complain when people assumed we could not be Jewish because of the color of our skin.”
He matriculated from Yeshiva University in New York with a BA in Jewish Studies and a MA in Jewish education. His passion for education knew no bounds and he taught in the public schools for many years. Eventually he pursued rabbinic ordination. He served as the spiritual leader of Mount Horeb Congregation, was a founding member of the Israelite Academy and was a teacher to many. A consummate bridge builder, Rabbi Paris was honored with the Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Committee esteemed Kiruv Award in 2010 with keynote speaker Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis.
In addition to being a teacher of Torah, Rabbi Paris worked tirelessly to help Ethiopian Jews. In the 1960s, long before American Jews really understood the plight of the Ethiopian Jewish community, Rabbi Paris joined early efforts to save the Beta Israel. According to Dr. Ephraim Isaac, another long-time activist, Paris never missed a meeting and worked throughout his life to promote understanding and support for Aliyah. He continued to make trips back to his native land and, according to Rabbi Capers Funnye, was planning one for 2015.
Rabbi Funnye, the leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, Chicago, is proud to have called Rabbi Paris “his mentor, teacher and friend.” As learned and knowledgeable as he was, Rabbi Funnye, knew Rabbi Paris to be, “an artist of humility, who understood that learning should never overpower our capacity to be humble.” He was the living embodiment of Torah, “For Rabbi Paris the words of Torah were written on his heart.”
Rabbi Paris left this world on the 10th of Heshvan 5775, November 3rd, 2014. The funeral service for Rabbi Hailu Paris will be held on Thursday November 6, 2014 at 11:00 am, at The Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Ave. (91st Street) Harlem, NY. Burial will be in New Jersey at Mount Moriah Cemetery following the funeral service. Donations can be made to a scholarship fund in his honor at Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.
Recently, über-quaint San Miguel de Allende– named a UNESCO World Heritage city in 2008– was picked as the #1 City in the World by Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine. Yes, we beat out Paris, Prague, New York, Budapest, and Florence. But one overlooked jewel in this city is its Jewish community.
According to some estimates, there are perhaps 10,000 “gringos” living in San Miguel de Allende, (SMA) Mexico, which would mean Americans and Canadians make up a little less than 10% of the population of this small colonial city in the geographic center of the country. North Americans have been settling here since right after WWII, lured initially by the GI Bill /SMA’s art schools and its colonial charm, friendly locals, temperate climate, and relatively inexpensive cost of living (well, if you live on US dollars, that is). Artists, writers, and the “bohemian bourgeois” have flocked here in the past few decades, as well has hordes of tourists, both foreign and national.
It’s hard to guess how many Jews live here in SMA, especially since many are part-time residents, and the vast majority are not affiliated with anything overtly Jewish. But let’s say a conservative estimate could put it at about 10% of the foreigner population; that would easily place us within the top 10 largest Jewish communities in Mexico (there are 45,000, of which 90% live in Mexico City.) Most of the Americans and Canadians are retired folks, here to take Spanish and/or art classes, do yoga, soak up the sun and tequila, and enjoy the myriad cultural activities available here. It would be fair to state that the majority of Jews here don’t come to San Miguel to identify with Judaism. And yet, for many years there has been a core of ex-pats who met for a Hanukkah party, prayed together on the High Holidays, and celebrated Passover at a local restaurant. This had eventually morphed into “Shalom San Miguel de Allende”, a group of 30-40 members who formed a legal asociación civil to promote Jewish culture and religious services in our adopted town.
About 6 years ago a most unexpected thing happened: a few Mexican nationals started to come to services. We didn’t think twice about it; our doors were naturally open to everyone. We had no real idea how difficult it was for non-Jewish Mexicans to be accepted into a synagogue or Jewish event here in Mexico. Some claim Jewish ancestry (hard to prove, and often not matrilineal), and others are simply drawn to Judaism intellectually and/or emotionally. For whatever reason, these dedicated young people were seeking to learn more about Judaism, be accepted into a welcoming Jewish community, and many wanted formal conversion—something not well accepted in the mainstream Mexican Jewish communities. Our first wave was taught for several years by lay-leaders of our community, and eventually 3 Conservative rabbis, including Bechol Lashon’s very own Rabbi Juan Mejía, came down from the US to form a Bet Din to formally and halachically convert 7 people.
Since then, Rabbi Mejía has taken the initiative to educate and guide the conversions of subsequent candidates, and in total has helped 36 souls in our neck of the woods to find their spiritual home in Judaism. Aside from doing this great mitzvah for the sake of the gerei tzedek, these young people have greatly enriched and re-vitalized our aging demographics. Although there are still a few cultural and language barriers to be negotiated, the integration of these newest members of the community has proceeded well. Diversity is, was, and will always be a wonderful strength of the Jewish people everywhere!
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I was born and raised in a traditional Jewish family in India. My father Dr. Samuel Solomon was a professor in the College of Agriculture, Pune where I spent the first 16 years of my life. On Simchat Torah morning, the gardener used to bring a basket of jasmine buds and roses as a gift. I would spend the morning making garlands of jasmine and roses for our living room doors and windows. By evening, our rooms were full of fragrance of the jasmine blossoms. I made a special thick Veni—traditional Indian garlands—of jasmine buds for my long braids.
Simchat Torah was one of my favorite holidays. I could wear new clothes with some of my mother’s jewelry. My mother would make Sat Padar (see gluten -ree recipe below) stuffed with fresh coconut and jaggery, which I would eat to my heart’s content.
We would go the Succath Shlomo synagogue early in the morning. It was a custom in our community to raise funds by auctioning off various honors related to the holiday and to collect the money after the holiday was over. My daddy would bid for honor of having my two brothers carry around the small Torah. This honor was always seen as particularly important and raised a premium for the community. As I watched my younger brothers carry that beautiful little Torah in red velvet case and silver crown, I envied them. I used to be in the women’s gallery with my mother and gave flying kisses to the Sefer Torah being carried around in a circle with song and dance. In general, my parents insisted that three of us should share everything. Why couldn’t I carry that Sefer Torah for a little while? I asked my mother and she simply said: “Girls are not allowed to carry the Torah.”
We moved to Bombay to live with my granddad Solomon Moses when I was 17 years old. While my maternal grandfather Dr. Elijah Moses was Orthodox, my paternal grandfather was Liberal. The Liberal prayers had a lot of English and women participated along with the men. Rabbi Hugo Gryn and Rabbi Naativ changed the sequence of prayers and celebrated Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret eve.
During the sixth and seventh circuits, women made a circle and the Torah was passed from one woman to another. I cannot describe how emotional I felt when I held the Torah for one minute in my arms. I kissed it, said a prayer for my family’s well being and embraced it tight. A shiver went through my spine and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt truly blessed to be so close to the holy Torah.
On Simchat Torah day, my mother did not go to work in her clinic. We would rise early to shower and to have our breakfast of gluten-free pancakes. My mother always bought a bright colored sari for me for Simchat Torah. She used to braid my hair and decorate it with a string of jasmine flowers or chrysanthemums. I was allowed to wear my mother’s jewelry.
After getting me decked up, mummy used to take me to my granddaddy’s room. “How does your granddaughter look today?” she would ask him. He would say: “Very nice. Put a black dot under her foot to ward off the evil eye.” She would follow his suggestion.
We would first go to Magen Hasidim Synagogue to see a couple of circuits of Sefer Torah and the dancing by young and old men, and to socialize with mummy’s relatives and friends. Some of them would glance at me and ask: “What does your daughter do?” Mummy would answer: “She is studying in college.” Then we would visit the Eli Kadoorie School where the celebration of Simchat Torah attracted big crowds. It was like a fair with stalls for different types of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food with soft drinks and ice cream. I remember eating biryani and samosas and drinking Roger’s raspberry drink. “Meet my son so and so, he is studying to be … or working for …,” I would hear from time to time. I had to follow mummy’s instructions: “Be nice. Don’t show an attitude. Your manners reflect on my upbringing.”
Soon I would be complaining to my younger brothers: “Tell mummy that we are tired. Let’s go home.” One of my younger brothers would take up my cause: “Mummy I am feeling tired. Tomorrow we have to go to college. Granddaddy must be waiting.” On the way back home, mummy would be muttering to herself: “Once a year Simchat Torah comes. We get an opportunity to meet people of our community. With this attitude you will either remain a spinster or you’ll get married to a non-Jew and break the Jewish line of past so many generations.” Well, neither of my mother’s fears came true. I married my second cousin and have continued the wonderful legacy of our religion and customs. I have passed on the baton to my children. I hope and pray they pass it on to their children too.
Sat Padar: Gluten Free Coconut Pancakes
This version of Noreen Daniel’s recipe is adapted for American style kitchens. It is naturally gluten free and delicately sweet.
Makes 8-10; Can be doubled.
For the pancakes:
1 cup rice flour
1 cup water
1/4 coconut full fat coconut milk (or whole milk can be used if making for a milk meal)
Mix ingredients until all the lumps are gone and the batter is smooth.
Heat, over medium heat, an 8 inch pan over medium non-stick heat and grease lightly.
Pour batter into the pan, it should be slightly thicker than a crepe.
Cook briefly until pancake is firm and easily removed from the pan.
Place the finished pancake on a plate and repeat until all the batter has been used.
For the Filling:
1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
3/4 cup sliced blanched almonds soaked in hot water
2/3 cup raisins
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
½ tsp ground cardamom (or to taste)
Mix ingredients except raisins together in a bowl.
Heat a 12 inch non-stick pan over medium heat.
Place filling in pan and gently stir until coconut is brown and fragrant and sugar is melted.
Remove and cool slightly.
Put half the mixture in food processor or mortar and pestle and pulverize until a paste.
Add raisins to chunky half.
Recombine to halves of filing until uniform in texture.
Place small amount filling in the middle of pancake.
Gently fold pancake in four.
My daughter is wise beyond her years. She teaches me. Recently a family with older children handed down to us a plastic toy kitchen set. My 15-month-old was delighted. As she happily played, I “Facetimed” my parents so they could join me in watching her fun. However as soon as Bubie and Zada’s faces appeared on the iPhone screen, my daughter lost all interest in her toys. She had eyes only for the grandparents she loves and engaged them in a rousing game of peek-a-boo.
Watching Eliyana’s developmental leaps is wonderful. Just yesterday she was grabbing the iPad and looking behind it for the people. Today she understood she could interact with the people on the screen, that she could initiate play with them. I learned too. I learned that she values relationship far more than “things.”
When my husband and I first arrived in Ethiopia to meet our beautiful child, I was appalled by the starkness of her orphanage. There were no colors to brighten the walls. There were less than half a dozen toys, and no books. Our daughter was happy and thriving, perhaps because of her inner strength and love of life, perhaps because the nannies there carried the babies in their arms as much as possible. The gifts of board books and games I brought on my second trip were received politely but with puzzlement. “Of what use could these possibly be to a baby?” I read on the faces of the nannies.
When we brought our daughter home, we filled it with love, toys, and many many books. We made the rounds of doctors, each marveling at Eliyana’s sociability and her easy smile. “This child has been loved” they each said to us. We would discuss this concern or worry and the doctors would repeat “She has received love and attention. That is the most important ingredient to her development.” We settled into becoming a family and Eliyana thrived.
Many of my fellow Ethiopian adoption parents tell me their children did beautifully in daycare, having been socialized to being around other children and waiting their turn already in the orphanage. My daughter was miserable. No one would play with her. At first I wondered if there was racism involved. Finally I realized it was culture. The room was filled to the brim with every kind of wonderful toy and the expectation was that the children would play independently with the toys. My child wanted relationship but was instead offered Western materialism. With help and support I came to understand I was allowed to listen to the needs my daughter was broadcasting loudly for me on all frequencies. She wanted people, not things. We found a way to provide this while I work. Happiness has been restored.
Martin Buber wrote, counter to the psychology of his time, that identity begins in relationship, not in individuality. In Ethiopia, this was understood. I wonder now at my Western arrogance, my shock at an Ethiopian orphanage’s lack of toys and books. Here in the West, where we have everything, we have much to learn about what is important. I am learning every day.
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What makes a secular Israeli connect to his Jewish identity, roots and spirituality? What makes secular Jew from Jerusalem become a Jewish educator in San Francisco? The answers are music, spirituality and the relationship between the two.
If someone had told me ten years ago that I would become a Jewish educator, I would never have believed it. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would write Jewish music, I would most likely laugh in his or her face. The world of Judaism was never a motivation in my life until I left Israel and arrived in San Francisco.
My parents originally came from Greece and Iraq but I was born in Jerusalem. Raised as a secular Israeli, my Jewish identity was always a given fact. Meaning, I am Jewish because I was born to this nation and religion, because of my family’s history, because Hebrew is my language, etc. Aside from reading from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Judaism was not something I practiced. Coming to the US, particularly to the Bay Area, and connecting with local Jewish communities and their definitions of being “Jewish,” I gained a new understanding of my Jewish identity and spirituality.
People relate to spirituality in different ways. It’s not something that’s just given to you. It’s not only something you practice or learn, but something you feel. Spirituality doesn’t exclude anyone. It includes Jewish ideals, but it does not stand exclusively on Jewish beliefs. Spirituality involves global ideals, thoughts and understandings. Most importantly for me, music is the medium, guide and driving force in my own spiritual path.
I emphasize the importance of music not only because it is my love, my passion, my profession and in many ways, the essence of my being, but because music is an incredible educational tool that builds bridges reaching people’s hearts and souls. In fact, it is the reason I became involved with the Jewish community in the US from the first place.
When I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, I worked as a song leader at Congregation Sherith Israel. While taking these first steps in the world of American Judaism, I learned many songs commonly taught to Jewish children in the US. Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn’t relate to them. These songs don’t represent or resemble anything close to the music young American Jews are listening to in their secular lives. Moreover, I felt that most of these Folk/Rock genre Jewish-American songs didn’t represent the story of the whole Jewish diaspora. So I decided to write new Jewish music that speaks to the hearts of the Jewish youth, represents a variety of Jewish communities from around the globe and connects the souls of the listeners with their Jewish identity on a spiritual level.
In 2011, I formed Sol Tevél, a band that focuses on connecting Hebrew roots while engaging world cultures. A year later, we released our debut album, World Light, which aims provide a contemporary interpretation on traditional Jewish texts, ideals and mysticism.
How can we learn more about spirituality? The truth is that it’s not my intention to teach nor preach spirituality, but to share my personal journey into this realm. Teaching for the past 10 years showed me that my students were my best teachers and could (often unintentionally) answer many of the questions we struggle with. And as for “God” or “spirituality,” Austin Branner, one of my 3rd grade students expressed it best with the words that would become the title song for my album World Light:
See the wind flowing by
See the stars up high
See the sand on the ground
See the rocks all around
My God, your God, One God.
“How did the Jews become a global people?”
“They got pushed around a bunch.”
“They had to go to different places.”
Indeed. Looking at the diversity of faces in the room the global nature of the Jewish community was not in dispute but the process of migration, the economic opportunities, the persecution, the trade that is at the root of Jewish experience needed to be unpacked and understood. And thus began our conversations about the global nature of Jewish life and our adventures at the 2014 session of Camp Be’chol Lashon.
Jews have always been a people on the move. The word Ivri, Hebrew for a Hebrew person, comes from the word to cross, because the very first words uttered by God to the first Jews, Abraham were “Go forth.” And so migration is the starting point for our exploration of Jewish communities around the world. India, Yemen, Uganda, Spain, Italy, Poland, Bazil and Mexico each of these countries has a unique Jewish experience that adds texture and complexity to the collective Jewish experience. For modern Jewish kids, who have friends of all ethnicities and live in a connected world where travel and news make the distances seem small, the international nature of Jewish life is something they relate to.
Talking will only take them so far, so once we set up the framework, we began exploring the music, food, dance and culture of different Jewish communities. The taste of homemade hummus brings to mind the falafel stands of Jerusalem, while the quickly fried chapatti calls forth the tastes of Jewish life in Uganda. The fine metal work of our curiously small menorahs opens up the craftsmanship of Yemenite Jews. The modern Ladino music of Sarah Aroeste reminds us of the value of the many Jewish languages that have been spoken through the years. Making mosaics helps us piece together the complex culture that was Jewish life in the Golden Era of Spain. An exploration of Italian Jewish history brings to life not only the words on the page of Talmud but they way the debates got laid out on the page. Our global activities and crafts help bridge the divide between past and present and across geography. Encountering the other we learn to appreciate the diversity of our community even as we explore points of connection. This is the basis for camp and for the global Jewish curriculum we are developing at Be’chol Lashon.
And after we ran through the timeline of Jewish history from the ancient past to the present, all the campers, counselors and specialists added their own important dates to the chart on the wall. Because ultimately that is what it is all about, writing ourselves into the ongoing history of a storied people. That and of course a swim at the lake!