Be a Blessing Liner Notes

Welcome to the “Be a Blessing” Page

First and foremost, I am very proud to share that “Be a Blessing” is available for complimentary download at CD Baby.

If you love this album and want to know more here are some extended liner notes… If you haven’t already, contact me to receive sheet music for any and all of these tunes.

Zichru L’olam/ V’Heyeh Bracha

 

Zichru L’olam/ V’heyeh Bracha are actually two songs combined into one. To make things even more confusing they are parts 1 & 2 of a 3 song “medley.”

The first part of the medley is called Zichru L’olam. It is based on a poetic passage from I Chronicles 16:15, “Zichru l’olam brito, davar tziva l’elef dor” which means, “Be ever mindful of God’s covenant, the promise God gave for a thousand generations.” I am most drawn to this passage because of the phrase, “thousand generations.” I love the connection to history, to voices from the past, to our ancestors. It evokes mystery and a sense of profound wisdom.

The second part of the medley is called V’heyeh Bracha. “V’heyeh bracha” comes from parshat Lech L’cha where God first speaks to Abraham, telling him to leave all he has ever known. I can imagine Abraham being very scared and questioning the voice that he hears. After dropping the big news that Abraham is to leave his entire world behind, God commands Abraham, “V’heyeh bracha” (“Be a blessing”). I love the simplicity of this message. It’s not enough to simply “Be.” We have to “Be a blessing.”

There are many different ways to be a blessing. That’s the reason why there are so many voices singing in harmony in this song. V’heyeh Bracha ends with a cool, upbeat instrumental section. I hope you enjoy it! It was very fun to record!!

Halleluyah

Halleluyah is a very important song as it’s the last song on the album, the closer. It’s also the third part of a 3 song medley (that includes Zichru L’olam/V’heyeh Bracha). Halleluyah is the perfect song for the end of this album because it’s all about “praise.” The Hebrew text comes from Psalm 150—the very end of the book of Psalms. It says, “Kol hanshamah t’halel Yah” (“Let all that lives praise God.”). Imagine all creation singing a song of praise—shouting a song of praise even. That’s the vibe we’re going for here. It’s a celebration of life, living, and being a part of this amazing universe. The end of this song features a variety of different voices, all singing Halleluyah/ Kol hanshemah, in their own way. One of the groups of voices sounds very “angelic”, another sounds very “earthy.” The goal behind this idea was to bring Heaven and Earth together in a song of praise to God.

Zeh HaYom

Zeh HaYom is based on Psalm 118. Psalm 118 is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving that is a part of Hallel—the special collection of psalms chanted and sung on major Jewish holidays. The phrase, “Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismecha vo” (Psalm 118:24) often appears on wedding and b’nei mitzvah invitations as it means, “This is the day that Adonai has made—let us exult and rejoice on it.” The other Hebrew in the song is a very common expression of praise, “Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam hasdo” (Psalm 118:1). This means, “Praise Adonai, for Adonai is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal.”

The English verse in the song, “All praise to the One, shining like the sun” is meant to be a poetic interpretation of Psalm 118:1. Just as the sun is always shining (somewhere) so too God is always with us, bestowing blessings. Just as it’s cloudy some days and we can’t see the sun, sometimes we don’t see how God is with us.

This song is meant to have a southern rock/ Allman Brothers vibe. I think it’s very important that music reflect the spirit of the place where it’s created. You can hear the southern rock vibe in the guitar solo and the slide guitar work throughout.

Yihyu L’ratzon

 

The words, “yihyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha Adonai Tzuri v’Goali” (Psalm 19:15) are familiar to many because they are in most siddurim at the end of the Amidah as a “meditation” for silent prayer. They mean, “May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my rock and my redeemer.”

Many musicians have set these beautiful words to music, so it’s a fair question to ask why we wrote a new version. Here are a couple of things that make our version unique.

First, “simplicity.” This song only has two chords. These chords repeat over and over again. Most songs have at least three chords, so this song is particularly simple. We did this because the words “yihyu l’ratzon” are simple words. We are simply asking God to accept us for who and what we are.

Second, this song evolves on the basis of harmony. It starts with a single voice in Hebrew (Mr. Kudlats) and then adds a voice in English (Ms. Kendrick), and then adds harmonies in Hebrew and English. Lastly, the song ends with a “niggun.” A niggun is a wordless melody. Sometimes music speaks louder than words and words lose their importance. By removing the words and focusing on the melody we return to the idea of simplicity.

This song is meant to make you feel peaceful, calm, and at one with yourself and with God.

With All My Heart

With All my Heart may sound like it’s based on the “v’ahavta” but it’s not! It’s actually based on the Psalm 9:1-2, “I will praise You, Adonai, with all my heart; I will tell all Your wonders. I will rejoice and exult in You, singing a hymn to Your name, O Most High.”

The English lyrics are an original poem that expresses the different situations we find ourselves in as our life unfolds. Sometimes we’re leaving, sometimes we’re coming home; sometimes we’re with the ones we love, and sometimes we’re on our own. Sometimes we have doubts. But always, always, always, we can find something to be thankful for.

The music for this song is very simple. It’s meant to have a John Meyer kind of vibe.

Seek Peace

Seek Peace is based on Psalm 34. Psalm 34 asks an interesting question (Psalm 34:13), “Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?” Stated differently, “What makes someone a good person.” Part of the answer comes later in the Psalm (34:15), “Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu” (“Seek peace and pursue it.”). A good person is one who strives for shalom.

This song has a kind of “reggae” vibe. It features about 20 students from The Davis Academy. It’s meant to be playful and upbeat, but also to encourage people to really think about the idea of “pursuing” shalom with our heads, our hearts, and our hands.

Kol Yisrael

Kol Yisrael is based on the Talmudic teaching, “Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh L’Zeh” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a). It means, “All Israel is responsible to one another.” Based on this teaching we set out to write a Jewish version of “We are the world.”

When describing Judaism many people focus on three things: God, Torah, and Israel. Each of the three verses in this song is an expansion on this “trinity.” The first verse is about Torah, the second verse is about God, and the third verse is about Israel (the people and the land).

This song begins with a single voice and piano. It builds with each passing verse and chorus. Finally, at the end of this song you hear the entire Davis Academy community (“kol Yisrael”) singing in unison.

Rise Up

Rise Up is based on the famous words of the prophet Amos (5:24), “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” Significantly these words were also spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. many times during the Civil Rights Era.

Rise Up is a social justice song. It’s meant to bring people together around causes of righteousness and tikkun olam. It’s inspirational, hopeful, and upbeat. It’s also funky, so that people literally feel like “rising up.”

The vocalists for this song are the Mt. Zion 2nd Baptist Church choir, feature Ms. Janice Durden, our beloved Davis Academy receptionist.

Lastly, in addition to citing Amos and Martin Luther King Jr., there’s also a quote in the first verse from Theodor Hertzl, the founder of modern Zionism. He famously spoke the words, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Darchei Shalom

Jewish tradition makes it very clear that the Torah is meant to help us bring “shalom” into the world. Thus the well-known words from Proverbs 3:17 that we recite when we return the Torah to the ark, “D’racheha darchei noam, v’chol netivoteha shalom” (“Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths, peaceful.”

The phrase, “mipnei darchei shalom” comes from the Mishnah (Gittin 5:8). In this chapter of Mishnah a number of different laws from the Torah are presented. The explanation for all of the laws is that they were created, “mipnei darchei shalom” (“for the sake of peace”). Many of these laws relate to how Jews are meant to treat the poor in their community, as well as how they are meant to interact with non-Jews. This, to me, is significant.

The chorus of this song is, “mipnei darchei shalom, for this world we call home, is not ours all alone.” It’s meant to have at least two meanings, depending on where you put the comma. For example, “mipnei darchei shalom for this world we call home.” But also, “For this world we call home is not ours all alone.” Basically, peace is good for everyone and everything. It’s good for nature and the earth, and it’s good because we have to share this world with others. The rest of the lyrics are a series of metaphors and interpretations of “shalom.”

This song has a pretty upbeat feel and also a significant musical change toward the end—when it basically turns into a jazzy jam. The instrument you hear featured is a trumpet. The basic idea here is that we should all rock out for peace.

Ki Va Moed

Ki Va Moed juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated Jewish texts. “Ki va moed” comes from Psalm 102:14 and means, “the appointed time has come.” In Hebrew “moed” refers to the three festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. To me the phrase “ki va moed” means something like, “Sacred time is upon us.”

The second Hebrew text is, “Ki hem chayeinu v’orech yameinu.”It comes from the prayer “Ahavat Olam” recited immediately before the Shema in the evening. These exact words mean, “For they are our life and the length of our days.” In the context of the prayer they refer to the idea of performing mitzvot—basically that our time on earth is measured by the amount of mitzvot that we do.

So how do these two Jewish teachings fit together? In my mind the connection has to do with the marking of time. Sometimes God tells us that a significant moment is coming and that we should prepare (“Ki va moed”). However most of the time it’s up to us to make each day holy (“Ki hem chayeinu”).

This song is a very powerful song. It’s got a strong beat, and a lot of percussion as well as electric guitar. The music is meant to convey a sense of urgency. It’s saying, “Pay attention. Life is happening now. This is important.”

Jacob’s Journey

 

Jacob’s Journey tells the story of Jacob’s ladder from parsha “Vayetze” (Genesis 28:10-19). It’s starts with a fairly literal translation of the story, but becomes more poetic as the song evolves. The Hebrew in this song is the phrase, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati” (“Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”). These are the words spoken by Jacob when he “wakes up” from his vision.

The music in this song is very different from the rest of the album. The Middle Eastern sounding instrument is an “oud.” This song is meant to make you feel like you are in the Negev with Jacob, thousands of years ago. The violin and viola arrangement that you hear is very intricate and meant to bring drama to the song.

Over the years many commentators have noticed that Jacob’s expression, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati” is very interesting. For grammatical reasons that I won’t go into here it’s basically as if Jacob is saying, “God is in the place and I (anochi), I didn’t know (lo yadati).” A modern commentator, Lawrence Kushner, wrote a book called, “God was in this place and I, i Did Not Know.” I love the idea of the capital and lower case “I.” For most of this song there are two vocal parts. Each vocal part sings the same words but one does so with a capital “I” and one with a lower case “i.”

This song is about Jacob’s journey toward increased enlightenment and awareness. It’s basically a song about encountering God in a new way. At the end of the song it says, “Join him at the foot of the stairwell and gaze into the light.” That’s meant to be an invitation to the listener to pursue their own enlightenment and discovery/rediscovery of God.

Beit Yaakov

Beit Yaakov is built around the words of the prophet Isaiah who said, “Beit Yaakov lchu v’nilcha b’or Adonai” (Isaiah 2:5). These words mean, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

This song began with the guitar part. As the guitar part evolved it became clear that this song would be great for things like b’nei mitzvah and graduation ceremonies. Knowing that the words “Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai” made perfect sense, because they focus on the idea of the “journey” or in the case of graduation, “walking” across the stage to receive your diploma.

The English lyrics in this song are a poetic expansion on the verse from Isaiah. The words are written as if they were spoken by a parent or teacher to the child/young adult who is going on the journey.

The last verse of the has several references to other Jewish ideas. First it says, “Lech l’cha we’re with you.” This is a reference to Genesis 12:1 when God tells Avram, “Lech l’cha” (“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”). Also, the line, “May the mitzvot be a lamp to you and Torah fill your days” is a reference to Proverbs 6:23 (“For the commandment is a lamp, the Torah is a light.” This verse fits perfectly with the idea of light in the line, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

One final thought. If you take the first letter of each word in “Beit Yaakov L’chu v’nilcha” you get: bet, yod,lamed, vav. In Hebrew this forms the acronym “BILU.” “BILU” was the name chosen by a group of brave Jewish university students living in Russia in 1882 who decided to move to Palestine. They were among the first to make Aliyah to Israel in modern times and were incredibly brave.

Reflections on Robert Hunter

Tonight I saw Robert Hunter perform at a small venue, City Winery, in New York City. If you open the liner notes to any classic Grateful Dead album you’ll see that many tunes were co-written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. I think it’s fair to say that without Robert Hunter there would be no Grateful Dead. But even more to the point– without Robert Hunter there’d be no Robert Hunter. I, along with countless others, think of Robert Hunter as a poet laureate of the universe and of the soul. Here are some reflections…

1. We are all family. To get to the venue I had to cross through Greenwich Village. Along the way I saw a nanny pushing a stroller. In the stroller was a toddler. The toddler was kicking and screaming, “I want mommy to push me, not you.” Mommy wasn’t there. Outside the venue I met a man who’d brought his daughter, Jubilee, to the show. Jubilee’s name comes from one of Hunter’s most beloved tunes– Sugaree. I went to the venue alone and was seated at a table with another single party. He and I struck up a conversation. It turns out that he’ll be in Atlanta for this first time this weekend. Now he knows where to eat! As we all sang some of Hunter’s most sacred music– Ramble on Rose, Ripple, Brokedown Palace, Ship of Fools, Friend of the Devil and others– we sang not quite “in harmony” but definitely “in family.” On the way uptown after the show I ended up chatting with a group of guys who are doing an American History fellowship program at Columbia. It seemed like they were old friends, but they’d all just met that week. I inserted myself into the conversation. When people boarded the train I’m sure they had no idea that three days ago we were all strangers and that I’d been a stranger only minutes ago.

2. If it’s not broke don’t fix it. Hunter mentioned that he hadn’t changed the strings on his guitar in more than a decade. Truth be told, he’s not much of a guitarist. He forgets chords, loses the rhythm and has other idiosyncrasies. There’s an ongoing debate about human beings. We’re all broken in some way, shape, or form. The debate is about whether we need fixing and who can or cannot be the fixer. Stumbling through his music with him is perhaps the most meaningful part of being in concert with Robert Hunter. After all, if he knew the way, then he’d take us home.

3. It’s not the march, it’s the movement. A Vietnam veteran said this to me recently and, like a good Hunter lyric, it’s stuck with me. Tonight’s concert speaks to a movement. It speaks to a group of people that have met one another in the place where, ideally, pretense ends and humanity soars. Hunter’s words have inspired countless people to think about the poetry of our own hearts. A community based on such a powerful and yet undogmatic legacy is something really special.

4. Great art is timeless. Great art can also be timely. But the great art of Robert Hunter is timeless. Listening to some of his music it’s impossible to determine whether it was written in the 1970’s or the 1770’s. His words inspire hope without being sanguine, they inspire love without being sappy, they inspire belief without being religious, and they are endlessly generous.

If you’re not turned on to Robert Hunter it might be a hard sell at this point. But tonight is a night I’ll never forget and I had to share it here so that I can revisit it in the future.

Here’s Robert Hunter singing most of “Ripple.”

 

 

Why I’m Fasting Today

Today many Jews and Muslims are fasting. We are fasting because our calendars tell us to. But some of us are also fasting so we can think deeply about peace/Shalom/Salaam. For that reason many of us feel that our fasts are linked and many other people of diverse backgrounds are joining us. I don’t usually observe minor fast days but today I am. I want to think about Shalom. And I want to be hungry while I think about it.

A number of years ago I wrote a song that was eventually recorded on The Davis Academy’s first CD of original Jewish music: Be a Blessing. The song is called “Seek Peace.” It’s based on a passage from Psalms that teaches, “Seek peace and pursue it.” It’s a song about the simplicity of peace, about the endless ways we can think about and achieve peace, and the ever flowing river of metaphors we might use to speak about peace.

The song is sung by kids. Their voices remind me that, from the perspective of a child, peace is the simplest thing in the world. If you’re looking for something to do as you fast or as you don’t fast, I invite you to listen to this song. I hope it makes you happy and hopeful.

DISCLAIMER: Everything that follows below is going to feel like a sales pitch. That’s not my intention and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. I simply believe in this song and in the power of music to effect change.

Here’s a YouTube video from The Davis Academy’s 2013 Israel trip. In it you’ll hear kids singing along with the album. It’s shaky but fun, especially if you were there! Unfortunately someone decided to give it a “thumbs down” on YouTube. In the scope of the universe it doesn’t matter much but I generally only exert energy for giving things a “thumbs up.”

 

 

The song, along with the whole album, are available for free download here. I’ve also got lyrics and musical notation for anyone that loves singing about peace and wants to add this song to their repertoire.

 

On David Broza

I recently attend a concert by the unparalleled Israeli musician, David Broza. First and foremost, any guitarist who has never heard of or heard David Broza play guitar needs to check him out ASAP. There are absolutely no words to describe his passionate and spiritual virtuosity. As with all great music, there was much to reflect on both within and beyond the music.

 

David Broza as featured in Hadassah Magazine

1. Living in Multiple Worlds. Broza shared that, while he was born in Haifa, his family quickly moved to Tel Aviv, and then, from ages 12-18, to Madrid, Spain. It was in Spain that Broza fell in love with the guitar and with Spanish/Flamenco music in particular. David Broza wouldn’t exist as he does today without this rich immersion in another country and culture at such a formative time in his life.

I was recently reading a blog post by a colleague in the world of Jewish day schools. Ken Gordon and I share a mutual appreciation for the work of Cynthia Ozick, and one work in particular: Cannibal Galaxy. In Ken’s post he shares a quote that really resonates with me:

“In reality, it was all America, the children America, the teachers America, the very walls of the chair factory [the school is housed in a converted factory] America.”

I’ve definitely taken this quote out of context but I think it speaks to what I experienced while listening to David Broza last night. Here in the States there’s a real danger in becoming so thoroughly American that we become exclusively American, without the perspective, insight, or influence of other cultures and societies. This is a much larger point, but I believe there’s profound merit in having opportunities like those that Broza did… living abroad, immersing in other languages, and other cultures. For Jews living in America, Israel is not the only place we can turn to, but it is uniquely qualified to provide this perspective with a Jewish twist.

2. The power of the individual. Broza, a guitar, a stool, a hand towel, and a bottle of water. Not even a guitar tuner. It was a good reminder that sometimes you don’t need the kitchen sink, or even a percussionist. There’s power in the individual. When we go solo and unplug we create intimacy and vulnerability.

3. Collaboration. Even as there is power in the individual Broza continually revisited the theme of collaboration. Many of his songs are set to poems that he didn’t write. Some of his most poignant stories involved long standing collaborations or isolated and unimaginable collaborations. So long as we remain open to collaboration or actively seek it out, our art, work, lives are enriched.

4. The song is never finished. In spite of my love for Led Zeppelin, the song actually doesn’t remain the same. Songs, even once recorded, are never fully realized. With each performance and each iteration they have the opportunity to take on new life and meaning. The artist changes, the listener changes, the context changes as well. Broza closed with one of his most beloved songs, Yihye Tov (“It will be okay”). He first wrote the song in 1977 in response to political developments between Egypt and Israel that promised a more peaceful Middle East. Since then, whenever current events dictate it, he and Yonatan Geffen (who wrote the lyrics) add a new verse. Music, like life, is an imperfect, unfinished, and evolving art form.

Spiritual Reflections on Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

Recently I made a pilgrimage from Atlanta to Nashville so that my close friend (and musical kindred spirit), Matt Coffman, and I could hear Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the historic Ryman Auditorium. If you haven’t experienced Bela Fleck, the Flecktones, the Ryman Auditorium or Matt Coffman (especially if you live in Nashville), consider them officially endorsed!

From Left to Right: Future Man, Howard Levy, Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten (picture from Flecktones homepage)

Having seen Bela Fleck perform with a variety of different musicians over the years, I knew that the evening would be meaningful and memorable. However, my appreciation for Bela’s musicianship and the musicality of all the musicians who shared the stage has deepened on the basis of my experiences in the recording studio working on The Davis Academy Album as well as my ongoing belief that music is much more than sound.

More than sound? Music is a language, a way of communicating, a vehicle for bringing greater peace, tolerance, and humor into our own hearts and into the world. Music is a spiritual discipline and a great teacher. Great musicians, like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, are also great teachers.

As Matt and I processed the evening’s sounds we kept returning to several key awarenesses. Here they are, in no particular order. It’s my hope and suspicion that these awarenesses are anything but unique. Musicians, lovers of music, and spiritual folks will hopefully find these observations familiar.

1. You can’t be great without being good. Experience may suggest otherwise, but it’s my belief that you can’t achieve greatness if your heart and soul aren’t filled with goodness. You might be able to fool people, or you might in fact be a total rocker (artist, lawyer, rabbi, teacher etc…) but goodness is a precondition for greatness. This is likely because greatness typically manifests itself in the most ironic of ways: through modesty, humility, kindness, and grace. Bela Fleck, along with many great artists, illustrates this notion.

2. Teaching and learning are parallel processes. Too many of us are unreflectively stuck in the belief that learning comes before teaching. Once you’ve learned, then you can teach. However logic and experience instantly demonstrate that learning and teaching are parallel processes. Learning is a sign of immaturity, but immaturity is a good thing– it means the capacity for growth. At the same time, great teachers are a blessing not only to their students, but to all humanity. At the Ryman auditorium Bela Fleck took a few moments to honor one of his teachers, the late Earl Scruggs. There was a palpable sense of reverence and holiness throughout the auditorium as many of us understood the great love that emerges when true teaching and learning have occurred.

3. It’s Easier to See When You’re Not in the Spotlight. Bela Fleck is a master when it comes to encouraging others to shine and share their gifts. The spotlight migrated among the various Flecktones but it rarely landed on Bela. After the show I had a chance to chat with Bela and he mentioned the importance of listening. In addition to being easier to see, it’s also easier to listen. There’s tremendous joy and comfort to be found in knowing that you’re not alone, but rather surrounded by other musicians who have achieved greatness and goodness.

4. Collaboration is the Only Way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. In music, as in life, we are stronger when we unite our strengths and talents, our causes and aspirations, our lives and our fates, with other people. Music, more than any other art form, makes this abundantly clear. If human beings collaborated in life like great musicians collaborate in the studio and on stage, we’d live in a radically transformed world. Let it be so!

I’d love to hear from other musicians or folks who are interested in this topic. I’m sure the conversation is happening in many permutations around the world and I’d be eager to link up with others who are thinking about these types of things!!

 

 

 

Cigar Box Guitar Torah

The title of this post sounds like something from a Wheel of Fortune puzzle gone wrong. I can picture Vana (sp?) flipping the letters… But I promise, there’s a point.  It starts with the cigar box guitar…

For the uninitiated here are some examples of cigar box guitars:

Taken from Wikipedia

 

A cigar box guitar is what it sounds like: a guitar made out a cigar box (and some other random stuff). They typically have three strings, are set to open tunings, and played with a slide.

 

Having purchased a cigar box guitar and fallen in love with the DIY simplicity and down home sound (they’re typically electric as well), I decided that, lacking any and all craftsman like expertise, I needed to build my own. Naturally, I enlisted a close friend with a complimentary skill set and work bench to boot. Several weeks later we completed our first cigar box guitar:

 

My First Cigar Box Guitar

Rather “geeked” by the whole process I quickly brought my new axe to school to 1) plug in to one of the huge amps in our music room and 2) impress some of our middle school guitarists (and assure them that I do not smoke cigars or condone smoking of any kind). My plan worked, because one ambitious 7th grader immediately informed me that he too would be building a cigar box guitar.

ONE WEEK LATER I received an email from him with a picture of his cigar box guitar that he and his father had built together:

The second kosher cigar box guitar ever?

So why “Cigar Box Guitar Torah”? Because to me, Torah means teaching. It means modeling, leading by example, sharing our passions and interests, and inspiring others. From my perspective there are a couple of takeaways, that have little to do with me, and everything to do with education.

1) Educators can make the biggest difference when we share some aspect of ourselves. I’m fairly certain I surprised at least a few people by showing up to school with a cigar box guitar, plugging it in, and jamming out. The whole process seemed totally natural to me, but it reminded me how much and also how little our students know about us. By sharing a part of myself I inspired a student. He and I now have a unique bond– we’re both cigar box guitar luthiers! This is summed up for me in the words that I’ve heard attributed to the poet William Wordsworth, “What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.”

2)When students are excited about something, there’s no limit to what they can do. How can we generate similar energy around others types of projects?

3) We never know when the lightbulb is going to go off. The more fully we bring our humanity to our work, the more likely we’re going to flip a switch in a student that will allow their light to shine even more fully.

I never thought I’d use the phrase “Cigar Box Guitar Torah”.

Even though music has, for most of my adult life, been an important part of my rabbinic/Jewish/spiritual/professional life (see “Music” tab) I couldn’t have imagined that my own desire to build a cigar box guitar would ever make me a more caring educator. But there you have it!

 

 

Human Again

             The Davis Academy just staged a fabulous production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” In addition to the beautiful music, Beauty and the Beast has some very poignant and thought provoking elements. Consider the following lyrics from the song “Human Again”:

All:
When we’re human again
Only human again
When the girl fin’lly sets us all free
Cheeks a-bloomin’ again
We’re assumin’ again
We’ll resume our long lost joie de vie
We’ll be playin’ again
Holidayin’ again
And we’re prayin’ it’s A-S-A-P
When we cast off this pall
We’ll stand straight, we’ll walk tall
When we’re all that we were
Thanks to him, thanks to her
Coming closer and closer
And closer and…
We’ll be dancing again!
We’ll be twirling again!
We’ll be whirling around with such ease
When we’re human again
Only human again
We’ll go waltzing those old one-two-threes
We’ll be floating again!
We’ll be gliding again!
Stepping, striding as fine as you please
Like a real human does
I’ll be all that I was
On that glorious morn
When we’re fin’lly reborn
And we’re all of us human again!

 

As I’m typing these words I recognize (fully) that analyzing Disney lyrics for their philosophical content is a suspect endeavor. But the message of “Human Again” really resonates with me. By showing us human beings who are slowly being transformed into household objects, Beauty and the Beast brilliantly communicates a critical message to viewers: the potential for objectification and dehumanization. It’s also asking us to consider the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Here are two quick insights regarding this question, one from Ancient Greece and another from Rabbinic Judaism.

Diogenes of Sinope lived in the 3rd-4th centuries BCE. One of the many tales told of him (he was quite a wily character)  involves him roaming the streets of his town in the middle of the day with a kindled lamp. When asked what he was doing he replied, “Looking for human beings.”

For Jewish educators, Diogenes’ lamp should bring to mind the teaching of Rabbi Hillel from Pirke Avot (2:6): B’makom sh’ein anashim, hishtadel l’hiyot eish (“In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.”). Hillel’s teaching makes more sense when translated as, “In a place where there’s a shortage of humanity, strive to be a mentsch.”

The German/Yiddish word mentsch simply mean “human being.” But what I love is that in a Jewish context is that “human being” isn’t only descriptive but also prescriptive. Core to the idea of being human is the idea of being “good.” Being a mentsch means being a good person, making the world a better place etc… As I’m fond of saying, “human being” is not a neutral concept in Judaism. We aren’t expected simply to be, but to be good. Anything short of being good (ethically, morally, spiritually) means that we’re failing our most basic responsibility.

Having taken this detour, I come back to the lyrics of “Human Again” from Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, as I write these words details are still emerging about the shooting outside of a Jewish school in Toulouse, France that has claimed 4 lives, including 3 children. This tragic incident shows all too clearly the danger when we objectify, dehumanize, and devalue human life. In my mind nothing could be more groteque then the murder of innocent children on their way to school.

If more people took the teachings of Diogenes and Hillel (and yes, Beauty and the Beast as well) to heart then school children everywhere could enjoy their school musicals without having to draw such horrific parallels between Disney Songs like “Human Again” and real world incidents such as these.

At times like these it is incumbent on all of us to kindle our lamps, shine a light on all the mentschlichkeit in our midst, and drive away the darkness at the core of such senseless deeds.

 

Spirituality and Music

This week was a major first for me. I’ve spent most of chol ha’moed Passover at Gallup Studios in Tucker, GA. I’ve been there laying the foundation for an album of original Jewish music. Mostly for my own benefit I want to grab some of the narrative surrounding this project. As with anything in life, the more reflective we’re able to be, the greater depth of meaning and awareness we can achieve.

I’ve been playing music for a long time. Looking back, music has always been a form of communication. I find playing guitar and mandolin (my primary instruments these days) to be incredibly relaxing and comforting, and also a great challenge. Whenever there’s a guitar close by I know I’m at home. If I end up strumming for more than 1/2 it usually ends up being a good day. When I play music I often feel a sense of gratitude and connectedness.
The idea of writing a song is a strange one. It’s like writing poetry and music. For me there’s not a formula. Sometimes the lyrics come before the chords, sometimes the chords come years before the lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are original, sometimes they’re lifted right from Jewish texts. Sometimes things are literal and sometimes abstract and free-associated.
One long held notion I have about music is that it teaches us about the transience and fluidity of life. A chord is strummed, it lingers and fades. True music enters the world, impacts it, and dissipates. While we’d like to hold onto a beautiful sound, there’s something powerful in listening to it fade.
For many years I struggled with the idea of “songwriting” because of my belief that music comes and goes. There was so much joy to be found in strumming and noodling that writing a song seemed inauthentic. However in recent years I’ve found myself doing a lot of “songwriting” and deriving deep meaning and satisfaction from the process (if you can call it that).
Songwriting in a Jewish context is an interesting enterprise. For starters I’ve often said that inspiration is easy to come by because the Eternal/Holy One/Source/Good/Truth/God is an ever present muse. I don’t need heartbreak, alienation, or melancholy to feel like I have something to say. Also, I stand firmly planted in a diverse community of Jewish musicians, past and present. From King David to Mattisyahu to Peter Yarrow and beyond, Jews have interpreted and created Jewish culture through music. For me (and for others) music is Midrash– an inquiring, seeking, interpreting, engaging, loving interaction with Jewish thought, life and the world.
The universe is overflowing with inspiration. There’s no place that’s more inspiring than The Davis Academy. I can trace the moment when I started writing songs to the early months of my joining The Davis Academy community. The children, their humor, intellect, energy, and wisdom, are incredibly inspiring. It’s also inspiring to be a part of an educational institution– a place where hearts and minds are open to learning. At Davis it’s not just the students, but the teachers, administrators, and faculty as well. There are days when I’ll come home from a long day and come up with 3-4 song ideas.
The studio is a humbling place. As with anything the best way to improve yourself is to surround yourself with experts. That’s precisely what I’ve done. The musicians that are joining me on this musical journey are incredibly gifted and incredibly “gifting.” Meaning they are generous, creative, energetic, and dedicated to bringing the songs to life. Yesterday I spent an entire day in the studio without picking up a musical instrument. We were recording bass and drums and I was there to witness, affirm, celebrate, critique, and enjoy. I see my role as checking my ego, believing in the value of the music, carrying the vision (and making sure it is shared), and helping to create the context where the gifts of others can be fully realized. My goal is for this Album to be a gift to The Davis Academy, the Jewish People, and anyone who loves music. We’ll see how the process unfolds!