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Aug 22 2014

Brace Yourself for “Adon Olam” to the Tune of Pharrell’s “Happy”

By at 11:24 am

listen-up

Move over, Maccabeats.

If Pharrell’s “Happy” was the soundtrack to 2014 in your home (as it was in mine), then your kids will love this version of “Adon Olam.” I mean, it’s basically a mash up of the two most catchy songs in history.

Brought to you by Listen Up, a peppy Chicago-based a cappella group, you will NEVER get this one out of your head. The video was uploaded two days ago and already has close to 15,000 hits. Read the rest of this entry →

Apr 18 2014

My Conversion Prayers Were Answered Through An Orthodox A Cappella Group

By at 10:16 am

concert-Kol-Shira

I love music. I’ve been singing all my life. I belted out an elaborate rendition of “Old Macdonald” in my yellow bathing suit for the cable guy when I was 3 and sang on stage throughout adolescence and college. So much of my life has been set to music; every year a different show, a different song. It is how I built an inner confidence and poise. I have always felt that my voice was one of the things that brought me closest to God. A gift I was blessed with and never took for granted.

But marriage and careers and babies and more babies made it very hard to fit singing into my life.

I remember the first time I set foot in a temple for services. While it was a Reform congregation, the service and songs were primarily in Hebrew. Everything felt foreign to me. I knew that Judaism was calling to me but in that moment I couldn’t hear it. I felt lost, confused and disconnected. Read the rest of this entry →

Mar 18 2014

Teaching My Son to Be a Mensch Through Music

By at 3:18 pm

Music-mensch

When I say my 3-year-old son Ben is into music, I mean it. Toddler parents will get my seriousness when I say he loves music more than his beloved trucks, play kitchen, and extensive puzzle collection. Looking for Ben? Check his “concert,” a corner of our living room that’s become packed with kazoos, shakers, a ukulele and a “guitelele,” and–our third birthday present to him–a beautiful djembe drum.

My husband and I were both high school band types, and going out to hear live music was a big part of our pre-Ben social life. So it felt right to take Ben to his first concert at age 8 months, to a Saturday morning family show at Club Passim, the famous folk music club in Harvard Square.

Alastair Moock, the musician who played that show and later appeared at such prestigious venues as Ben’s second birthday party and the Grammy Awards, did not, to our delight, wear a costume or do a goofy “character” voice. He played real instruments–guitar, banjo, ukulele–and sang wonderful original songs plus folk classics I recognized from my parents’ record collection. Ben stared intently. He was in. Read the rest of this entry →

Mar 13 2014

Why I Fudge the Truth When I Tell My Kids The Purim Story

By at 11:24 am

Book-of-esther-censored

The noisemakers are already going in my house. By “noisemakers,” I mean my kids. The groggers are going, too, of course, along with an endless medley of preschool Purim songs as my children’s excitement about the upcoming holiday reaches a fever pitch. It’s a little chaotic, but I’m glad that my kids are eager to celebrate Purim…and it’s not bad to get a reprieve from the constant refrains of “Let It Go” that have comprised our family’s unofficial soundtrack for the last three months.

“Mommy,” my 4-year-old asks, “Do you know any more Purim songs we could sing?” On a whim, I launch into that corny old Hebrew School chestnut, “Oh, Once There Was a Wicked, Wicked Man.” My children listen delightedly as I began to sing, then look at me in consternation as I pause abruptly, not wanting to sing the words “he would have murdered all the Jews” (describing Haman’s evil plot). I continue singing, instead substituting the words “he would have punished all the Jews.” My children smile at the song. I feel relieved, and very guilty.

As a rabbi, I’m committed to a view of Jewish sacred text that affirms the sanctity and importance of our foundational narratives. When I was an idealistic college student, struggling with passages in the Torah that I found ethically or historically troubling, I believed that such difficult sections of our sacred text should simply be excised. We’re an enlightened people. Why do we need Torah verses that seem (or are) sexist or homophobic? As I deepened my understanding of Jewish text and interpretation, though, I began to understand that each of our texts, even the troubling ones, have something to teach us. The sages of the Talmud imagined Rabbi Akiva as being so gifted in the art of Torah interpretation that he was able to derive meaning not only from the words of the Torah but even from the decorative crowns that adorn the letters in the Torah scroll. To the Jew, there is meaning in everything, and so every story must be retained, honored, and plumbed for its overt and hidden lessons. Read the rest of this entry →

Jul 8 2013

The Best Lullabies Turn Out to Be Jewish

By at 4:41 pm

elissa-and-auggie

Like probably every mom ever, the arrival of my first child came along with the realization of just how many things I don’t know. One of these was lyrics to  lullabies..

During pregnancy I was working on the assumption that I would be able to sing at least a couple lullabies nearly in-full. Instead, as I discovered after I gave birth, I could barely make it to, let alone past, verse two for most of them. Considering this is a time in life when most of us barely have time to brush our teeth, taking time to learn lyrics was most certainly not an option.

Fortunately for me, in his first few months my baby responded better to loud fast songs and erratic dancing – the kind of songs I can actually sing in-full. House favorites included Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping” (you know it, “I get knocked down, but I get up again…), Britney Spear’s “Toxic” and perennial favorite, Hava Negila.

But eventually his taste became more pedestrian, and he started responding better to softer, more-soothing music to help him fall asleep. Still lyric-less, I began to hum. And hum and hum and hum. And then I realized I sounded like an orthodox man.

Dai – Dai-Dai – dai dai – Dai – Dai – Dai,” I’d repeat over and over again, as his body slowly softened in my arms until, eventually, he was asleep.

What came out of mouth, more unconscious than not, were the nigguns I had heard in synagogue growing up and the free high-holiday services at the Chabad I attended during college. Nigguns, for those of you who don’t know, are melodies formed out of repetitive sounds. “Bim Bam” is the most famous and the one your probably know.

Over the next few months, these nightly nigguns became the sign, perhaps the only one for two people with internal clocks as messed up as ours were, that bedtime had come. The chanting became a threshold that we could cross-through together, as we moved from the outside world to inside ourselves, and then, to sleep.

Some believe that the beauty of nigguns is the fact that we all sound like infants when we sing them; that somehow, through these repetitive, non-sensical words we become babbling children attempting to communicate our most intimate and delicate thoughts to a higher being.

When I sing them I don’t necessarily have a higher being in mind, but I do experience a respite from  the many earthly concerns that run through my head the rest of the day. Gone is trying to get my son to eat his spinach, or come up with an ending to an essay, or figuring out what exactly I need to take with me for a weekend at my in-laws house. Gone are even the words that give shape to those worries and concerns.

In those moments we are left only with my improvised melody, his breath — our two weary bodies submitting to the day’s end. And I never had to learn a single word.

Follow Elissa Strauss on Twitter at @elissaavery.

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