I love music. I grew up in a Hasidic home with a lot of music, and not just a narrow selection of Hasidic classics—my parents tolerated and introduced us to so much more. My father sang all sorts of quirky songs to us in the car, on walks, while he was comforting us, and when he lay next to us in bed at night. There were mainstream songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and the African American spiritual, “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” Then there were more obscure tunes, like “Paint Your Wagon” from the 1969 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name or “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh.
At the Shabbat table there were traditional Shabbat songs called zemirot and Hasidic songs called nigunim. My father bought us every Jewish tape or record that came out—Megama, Naomi Shemer, Country Yossi, MBD, the ubiquitous Uncle Moshe, and anything Israeli. There was even Theodore Bikel and Jan Pierce. Our home was so infused with song that when I wanted to complain I would say to my father, “You have a song for everything I say!” And now, my kids say the same to me.
While we often had the record player or tape recorder on loud—music blaring through the whole house—my mother never let us play any of our Jewish kids tapes out loud when she was home. She said they were a huge headache, and now that I’m a mom, I really can’t blame her. (I’m still not sure why the mice squealing “Cinderelly” on the Disney record was OK.)
There is a certain vexing quality to Jewish children’s music. It is on a different grin-and-bare-it level than reading the same children’s books that bore you to tears. Reading “Hop on Pop” or “Cat in the Hat” for the umpteenth time is tedious work, but manageable. Jewish children’s music is altogether of a different nature; having, “Shabbat shalom—Hey!” or, “There’s a dinosaur knocking at my door, and it wants to spend Shabbat with me” running around your brain for the entire afternoon borders on madness.
There are some really neat secular children’s songs out there that I can hum to (think “Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun” and “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things“), and I can even tolerate the reel in my brain all day and sometimes actually enjoy the music with my children. But the Jewish music—and especially the story tapes with the screechy voices and silly lyrics—drive me, like my mother before me—crazy.
For most long drives, my children, even the twin toddlers, are happy with my or the teenagers’ Jewish “adult” music. But most times when it’s just myself and the small ones, I will concede and put on their music. Out of the speakers comes “Bim Bam,” the voice trill and worming its way into my brain—I can feel the headache coming already.
But then something happens, and it never fails: Automatically, our car is filled with chatter and singing as my children share their Jewish preschool memories. It can be mid-July and the lyrics play, “Shake the lulav,” and one kid belts it out in perfect unison with the lead singer, followed by her favorite Sukkot memory—”Remember when Morah (teacher) Leah was shaking the lulav so hard?” When I ask my kids at carpool pickup to tell me what happened in school that day, I almost never get a coherent answer, but turn on a tune and months old memories come to the fore. Just a few seconds of “1 Little 2 Little 3 Little Macabees” and the Hanukkah stories come spilling out!
Sure, counting ants that go marching one by one and finding Thumbkin is giggly wild toddler fun, but there’s something about the Jewish lyrics that get my children thinking, and it’s worth all the exasperating sounds coming out of my speakers. They remember, they reminisce, and they sing along. These songs reinforce what they learn in school, from Judaic knowledge to real life lessons.
So as irksome as the popular Jewish recordings might be, I think they are worth it. I will endure the headache for my children’s joy and for my pride in seeing them so engaged.