My Jewsical Journey Part 2

The first time I mixed Judaism and music was my Bar Mitzvah. A Bar Mitzvah is a religious right of passage and ceremony in Judaism that signifies when a boy becomes a man and accepts the Torah and commandments. From the moment a Jewish boy turns thirteen, he is considered a man in his community and has to accept responsibility for all of his actions. Typically, one would study a religious text in the weeks or months leading up to their Bar Mitzvah then teach what they learned to the community as part of the ceremony and right of passage. A lot of the time after the religious ceremony, there is a party celebrating the transition into a man and following obligations of adulthood in the Jewish community. I chose music for the theme of my Bar Mitzvah and party. Though this was more of a side-by-side cooperation than a full on mixture of the two ideas, I was bringing my music and my Judaism together for the first time. To create the theme of music for my Bar Mitzvah, we took pictures with my instruments and created album covers to give out to everyone who came to help celebrate my Bar Mitzvah.

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After my Bar Mitzvah, my Jewsic really started to take a form of its own. When I entered high school, I was able to join the international Jewish youth group (or Jewth group, as I called it), BBYO. Through BBYO I was able to grow my leadership skills and expand my connection with Judaism even further. BBYO has many conventions and summer programs that have different purposes. I went to a summer program called Chapter Leadership Training Conference, or CLTC for short. The purpose of this summer program was to teach the basics of chapter leadership and meet other members of the international order to form friendships and share ideas. This is where I met some of my best friends to this day, as well as Mikey Pauker (the man who wrote the version of “Hinei Mah Tov” I wrote about in my third blog post). He was a song leader for BBYO and taught me the basics of how to become a song leader myself. I was then inspired to bring Judaism and music back to my chapter and incorporate both of them together in my life thereafter. I kept up my song leading throughout high school and would even help bring music into some religious services and events.

My Jewsical journey has continued even in college where I have helped lead educational services with Hillel, an international Jewish organization throughout colleges. The past two summers I have even worked at a Jewish day camp called Camp Hilbert, through the Weinstein Jewish Community Center in Richmond as the music specialist. It is there that I have passed on my knowledge as a song leader, teaching the campers about music and Judaism. My Jewsical journey is nowhere close to being over and this blog is just the next step along my Jewsical path. I am not sure where I will head next, but I do know that Jewsic will be a large part of my life wherever I end up.

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My Jewsical Journey Part 1

My Jewsical journey has been shaped by many events and people throughout my lifetime. Both Judaism and music have been prominent aspects of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories include singing songs by the Beach Boys and the Beatles with my parents and going to the Jewish preschool, Aleph Bet Preschool. For those who may not know, Aleph and Bet are the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. As I got older, I started to make my own opinions about music. The first band I remember falling in love with and obsessing over was the Backstreet Boys. When I was still very young, I remember we had a VHS of a live show of theirs that I would love to watch and sing along with. It was around this time that I moved up from the Jewish preschool to the Jewish day school, Rudlin Torah Academy, or RTA, to start kindergarten.

Aleph Bet preschool had started exposing me to Judaism, but RTA is where I really started to get into it. There was a point, I think around third or fourth grade, where I was sure I was going to grow up and be a Rabbi. A few years later I would change my mind, but at the time I was really into it. This was also a time where I was starting to expand my music tastes. I had sort of grown out of the Backstreet Boys (though today I will gladly still jam out to their hits) and I was ready for my next big musical influence. The first album that I ever owned myself was “Dookie” by Green Day and it changed everything. I started to get into what I thought then was punk-rock, Green Day became my new musical obsession, and I really wanted to learn how to play the electric guitar.

Not too long after I decided I wanted to learn guitar, I received and acoustic Epiphone starter guitar for Hanukkah. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t just magically know how to already play it, but lessons were started and I was beginning to build my abilities as a musician. I took lessons for about two years but I have kept teaching myself and practicing to this day. While I was starting to really get into my guitar playing and get into the late 90s and early 2000s rock scene, I was also starting to delve deeper into Judaism learning the commentary of the Rabbis and learning how to think. I had not yet started to mix my Judaism and my music, and the first time I did mix them, I didn’t even realize that it, but I will go over that next time. So stay tuned for My Jewsical Journey Part 2.

How Great Jewsic Is

Shalom, friends! This week I am going to focus my post on a specific type of Jewsic. For my first in depth post about Jewsic and its many different types, I decided to start with traditional Jewish music. Judaism is an extremely musical religion on many levels. Even when reading from the Torah, or Old Testament, we sing the words instead of just reading them aloud. In the printed versions of the Torah (rather than the actual scrolls that are read in synagogues each week) there are cantillation marks that represent the different melodies each word is sung with. These marks are known as trop in Yiddish, or ta’amim in Hebrew, from the word ta’am, which means taste. From what I understand, though I need to double check with my local rabbi, they are named “taste” because they are the figurative flavor of the text.

Traditional Jewsic is much more than just the melodic reading of the Torah though. Traditional Jewish music, to me, includes everything from prayers and hymns that are sung to traditional Jewish folk songs. What I really love about traditional Jewsic is that there are so many versions and variations of almost every traditional song out there. Even when singing the prayers (different from when the Torah is being read), every community, sect of Judaism, and sometimes even every person can have their own way of singing the prayers.

One of my favorite traditional Jewsic songs to sing and play is a version of the popular Jewish hymn “Hinie Ma Tov” which is made up of the first verse of Psalm 133. This is also the song I was teaching in the video from my first blog post. There are many versions and variations of this song, but the version that I like to play and teach is one created by Mikey Pauker (his music video is liked below). Mikey Pauker besides being the creator of this version of the song, was also the man who introduced me to Jewish song leading, but that’s a completely different post.

Before you listen to the song, I want to talk about the lyrics and what they mean. In Hebrew, the lyrics are “הִנֵּה מַה טוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אָחִים גַּם יַחַד.” These lyrics are pronounced “hinie ma tov u’ma-nayim Shevet ach-im gam ya-chad” and translate to “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” In Mikey Pauker’s version, he translates the words a little less literally to “How great it is for brothers and sisters to hang out on this day.”

I love this song for how simple it is, but also because I love the lyrics and meaning. I am all about peace and love, and this song really is just about hanging out and being peaceful. It is a great song and Jewsic staple. I may even consider uploading a video of me preforming this song in one of my future blog posts. Until then, I leave you with Mikey Pauker’s “Hinei Mah Tov (Eeoohh!)”

Jewsic – To Each Their Own

One of my favorite aspects of music is that no matter whom or where you are, you can have any opinion about any song, artist, instrument, anything, and it is a valid opinion. Music, or really any art form in general, is more open to interpretation than almost anything else we can experience. The amount of genres, sub-genres, styles, interests, and ways to listen to music are almost countless and growing every day. There are people who like to listen to classic rock, people who listen to dubstep, vaporwave, metal, jazz, classical, and/or rap just to name a few, and none of them are more wrong or right than anyone else. Some people use headphones while others use speakers, and some people listen to songs for the lyrics while others just like the sound or the beat. No matter what your stance on music is, you are allowed to, and encouraged, to have your own opinion, and no one can deny your preferences or thoughts.

Similarly to music, one of my favorite aspects of Judaism is that there are so many opinions and ways to look at and learn about Judaism. I have been involved in Judaism for most of my life and even went to a Jewish day school starting in pre-school. One of the first memories I have about Jewish learning is talking about how it is always good to ask questions. You should always try to learn why we do things a certain way. There are even many books of rabbis discussing and arguing what the laws mean and how we should act and interpret them. A lot of the time, how laws should be followed depend on your local rabbi’s opinion. There are even a multitude of different sects of Judaism. All around, Judaism is largely based on debating the laws and differing opinions. There is an old saying that if you ask two rabbis a question you will end up with three different opinions, and in my opinion, that is one of the best characteristics of Judaism.

The fact that both music and Judaism allow for many opinions, ideas, and ways to experience them, make Jewsic such an awesome unique thing. In my opinion, Jewish music, or Jewsic as I call it, is unlike anything else. To me, it encompasses everything from literal Judaic psalms and prayers that are sung to any music that a Jewish person makes and everything in-between. From traditional Judaic songs to songs written by Gene Simmons of Kiss, AKA Chaim Witz, Jewsic is something that everyone can enjoy at least some amount of. Jewsic really is a genre that everyone can like in their own individual way.

Starting next week I will begin talking about different types and genres of Jewsic in greater detail. Shalom until then!