The author with her violin. Image courtesy Lizzi Meister.

How Jewish Music Is Making Mississippi Feel Like Home

Who knew a move down South would mean a return to playing Jewish music?

Since moving down to Jackson, Mississippi, I have had a renewed interest in Jewish music. I’ve been filling my new home with music that reminds me of my childhood such as instrumentals of Jewish music or songs I learned at camp. I frequently find myself humming tunes I have not heard for years.

One of the only albums my mom played for my brother and me in the car was a Debbie Friedman CD. No matter the season, we would belt out “The Latke Song” or “Not by Might” together. Even today, the Debbie Friedman mix is featured on my mom’s Pandora station. Every year on Thanksgiving, the first text I receive is a link to “Happy Thanksgiving” from my mom, reminding me that I am, in fact, happy that “I am not a turkey on this Thanksgiving Day.”

The author as a very young violinist.

Not only did we have Jewish music playing, but also I frequently performed music. My mom signed us up for the temple’s youth choir.  We would practice for 20 minutes every Sunday after religious school, and perform the first Friday of every month at services. Singing in the choir was a mixed experience for me. Though I did not, and still do not, consider my voice to be very good, it was an opportunity for me to sing with my friends. I learned that many prayers have multiple tunes, and that there is a specific time of the year to sing specific arrangements. Performing in youth choir was probably one of the most comprehensive aspects of Jewish education I received. Eventually, however, my interest waned.

My music career did not end with singing in choir; I also attempted a few instruments. After a short and failed attempt at learning piano, I started playing the violin when my older brother picked it up for the school orchestra. I was so jealous of his new toy that my parents also signed me up for lessons. What was a one-year foray into music for my brother became a large part of my childhood. From age 7 to 13, I took one-hour violin lessons twice a week with a firm but kind older Russian man who taught me the importance of discipline and consistent practice.

At the insistence of my parents, I learned a litany of Jewish music that I could play at family functions. At my parents’ urging, I would pull out my violin and play “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof or “Hatikvah.” There was one ill-planned idea to have me learn Kol Nidrei and try and play it before Yom Kippur services. Our temple hired professional musicians to play a quartet, and the quartet did not need an amateur child violinist to help fill out the sound.

Eventually, I grew to loathe violin lessons. While my friends did what I considered “fun” extracurricular activities, like soccer and guitar, I played classical violin.  I really disliked being displayed in my (mediocre at best) performances. I was not that interested in practicing and was frustrated that I was not getting any better. I guess I never internalized the old adage “practice makes perfect.”

And yet, when I put down the violin soon after my bat mitzvah, I missed it. I missed having the opportunity to contribute to the music being played in the world. I also missed my connection to Jewish music. The songs that I find myself humming or singing today are the songs I learned in youth choir all those years ago.

Now that I am in Jackson, I know that playing music is an integral part of making this place feel like home. I got my old violin back, as well as sheet music. Picking up the violin again just recently, I was struck by how familiar the hand positions were, even after all these years away.

Now that I have free time after work and am not taking structured violin lessons, I am excited to play the songs that interest me. I plan on exploring some of the music that we played in youth choir, as well as my favorites from camp.

And now, being in the South, I hope to learn the basics of fiddle music, with the eventual hope of fiddling my way through some Jewish standards! I had no idea when I moved down to Jackson that I would be able to reconnect with my musical roots, but Jewish music is making Jackson feel more like home every day.

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