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Growing Jewish Musical Mould

Daniel FreelanderFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

Jews love familiar melodies, even after they grow mouldy. We get stuck and resist being open to different approaches that can sometimes move us forward. Jewish music is merely a ‘cover’, a ‘midrash’ on a Jewish text. New music creates new mould on our sacred textual ‘host’. Hopefully, the new musical midrash interprets the text, creates understanding, inspires deeper meaning. Sometimes, the new mould smells badly. Sometimes it is remarkable. But we need to be open to the new, lest our musical interpretations of our tradition become stale and rotten.

Daniel Freelander is senior vice-president of North America’s Union for Reform Judaism. He lectures on synagogue trends, and served as director of NFTY youth movement. For 25 years, he has directed the North American Jewish Choral Festival, and with Jeff Klepper, composes and performs ‘American Nusach’ melodies.

I enjoy eating leftovers. I come home from work in the evening and I like finding familiar food in the refrigerator. Our refrigerator sort of works from the front, the most recent leftovers are in the front, but far in the back are things that we created some weeks or months ago. And I like to take a look and see what’s in there. Now my wife and I have a disagreement about how long we should keep leftovers. She seems to believe that the expiration date written on the product that you buy in the store, suggests that if you eat it beyond that date, you will – as David Bryfman said – die. I don’t share that view. If something smells good, if it looks good, I am probably going to try it.

But some folks have what I would call ‘mould anxiety’. The comfort that I find in that food, others find dangerous. You never know when you’re going to open the top of a month-old container of cottage cheese or something else there, what colour it’s going to be, and sometimes you’ll throw it out, without actually examining it, it may be smelly, it may be stale. I think we just fear the process of change and think it’s safer to get rid of the old and start fresh.

Think about Pharaoh this week: how many plagues does it take for us to decide it is time to change. You know, if there’s just a little bit of growth on the side of the cheese, maybe I can still eat it, but three or four or five plagues later, I know, I guess it’s time to let the cottage cheese go. We live in multiple worlds, and there are unpredictable results of our interaction with the society around us, of the material, the food in my refrigerator’s reaction with the environment in the refrigerator. And I never know exactly how long it is going to take something to turn, or how long something will last.

I cannot take, however, those expiration dates literally. I have learnt not to take signs literally. I went to a 7/11 near me one evening to get some milk for my coffee and it was about 11.15 at night, that’s 23.15, I’m learning that. And the store was locked shut. The sign in the window, however, said, “Open 24/7.” I went back the next day, and knocked on the door, went in, bought my milk, and said to the man as I was checking out, the sign says, “Open 24/7” he says, yes, I said, well I was here last night at 11.15, you weren’t open. He said we are open 24/7, I said, no you aren’t, he said, just not in a row. I was afraid he was going to say to me, it’s a metaphor.

What’s my obligation to the literal text, to the inherited text, to the inherited melody, and what’s my obligation to the society in which I live. I can’t duck either one, so I want to suggest that we need to create some healthy mould, some healthy interactions, between our society and our inherited texts. I think about Vienna in the 19th Century and there is a wonderful exhibit that we saw in London the other day of portraits of Viennese in the 19th Century, most of them Jews, but about the remarkable cultural change that took place. Think of Solomon Saltzer, a friend of Schubert, writing melodies that we still sing to this very day, melodies that don’t sound like Nusach T’filla but sound more like the choral works of Saltzer. Think of Levandovsky who writes – [singing] – or the Italian art song – [singing] – same song, same melody, but one written for the synagogue, taking the outside culture and bringing it into the synagogue.

We need this mouldy interaction between ourselves and our general culture, that allows us to live in both worlds at once. I had a liberating experience during the summer of 1969, those of you with us last night heard this, that was the summer of love, the summer when Woodstock was taking place, the summer when a man landed on the moon, it was also the summer when both Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman came to the summer camp I was attending. Now they didn’t interact particularly well with one another, but they did teach me interactions with the local culture, with the host environment, they took texts that I knew all along and they brought an outside culture to it. So Shlomo teaches us – [singing] – and Debbie Friedman at the same teaches us – [singing] – totally different feels, right? Both very much responding to the culture in which Shlomo Carlebach was living and the culture in which Debbie Friedman was living. They were borrowing from the culture and integrating it into their Judaism.

The musical score is the text, is the Jewish text. We are, as I learned earlier tonight, people of the eye sometimes. I love choral music, I love symphony, I love theatre because there’s a text there and I can read it and try to figure out what the author probably meant to say. But harmony/interpretation is Midrash, harmony/interpretation is what makes that text live for me. So I listen to a symphony performed by two different orchestras and, God willing, it sounds really quite different to me, and moves me in a different way. Why? Because there is no one correct interpretation of the text, there is no one correct interpretation of a musical score. You and I we are the conductors, we are the individuals who walk into classrooms, into board meetings, into rehearsals, into worship and we try to conduct the individuals who are assembled before us and create a cohesive whole. We bring meaning to that text, to that Siddur that’s in front of us, we bring meaning to the Torah text that we studied that week, we bring meaning to the symphonic score, to the play by Shakespeare. We are the conductors who convey meaning into the text.

My teacher and mentor Rabbi Larry Hoffman reminded us that we have to articulate what game we are playing. Am I playing the rules game? Meaning I want to get this text right, I want to perform it the way the composer intended it to be. Or are we playing the meaning game? I want to find great motivation and meaning in this text.

Years ago, quite a few years ago, in my younger years, I began writing Jewish melodies. The melodies were not well accepted by the larger community. Why? Because I was taking music, melodies that didn’t sound Jewish to them and assigning them to Jewish texts. But I knew finally that I had arrived when a group did a cover of my song – and that’s an important word. What’s a cover? It’s someone else’s interpretation of someone else’s song. It’s a new interpretation of their song, and we listen to them all the time on the radio.

A group called The Rabbi’s Son did a mash up, took a song that I wrote and combined it with another text. The song went – [singing] – but their cover continued – [singing]. By that point I was a Reform rabbi, that is not a text that I would be singing!

How we interpret a piece of music or a piece of text can either express the spirituality of the individual who composes the text, it can create spirituality in the listener, in the student, it can give us a wow moment that helps us understand our world, or it can inspire the reader, the listener, the worshipper to preform acts, to do something with the new learning that they have emerged from this session with. Hopefully our new act after Limmud will be to open ourselves up to new moulds, to new ideas that we might have found distasteful once, but are starting to grow on us. To be open to people’s covers of texts and melodies that we love in a certain way. And yes, to be open to the possibility that those traditions that we hold very dear will appear very mouldy to someone else. But here at Limmud we nurture, we nurture messengers of new traditions.

This is a tradition that Jeff Klepper and I composed in 1974. I don’t find it mouldy but others may, please join me – [singing].

Thank you.

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