Jewish Music Can Bridge Generational Divides
One of my running jokes is my ability – or should I say inability – to sing. Like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football each year, only to have it taken away at the last minute by Lucy, I pretend to join the choir each year only to be given a solo. "So-low" no one can hear me, that is!
Even so, throughout my career and from my childhood, music has been a strong part of what makes me feel Jewish. In the 1970s, I went to UAHC Camp Swig, which eventually would become known as URJ Camp Newman. There, over the next four years, I became exposed to music beyond the secular. It was a new sound, if you will, of Jewish music composed by Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, and Dan Freelander, and it infused the camp with a special sense of joy and pride.
When I returned home, I asked the leaders of my synagogue, “Why can’t our temple have music like this? Why can’t real life be more like camp?” A few weeks ago at NFTY Nashir, a Reform Jewish songleading institute, I asked how many attendees had ever had the same questions – and everyone in the room raised their hands.
This isn't a new question. It has been asked again and again. And guess what? The Jewish music that you think is "traditional” probably has not been around very long at all!
For a sense of perspective, I return to my childhood. When I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, synagogue music was accompanied by the organ. A cantor or cantorial soloist would sing the same melodies every week – and they didn’t sound anything like what I had learned and enjoyed at camp.
Until one day, things began to change.
I’m not sure when it happened, though I suspect the change began when my generation came of age and became rabbis and cantors who wanted to share with our congregations the same joy of Jewish music that we found in our youth. Music that was at one time derisively referred to as “camp music” made its way into synagogue as "legitimate music." Contemporary variations of the Mi Shebeirach, Hashkiveinu, and Oseh Shalom are but a few examples.
Recently I had a conversation with an 86-year-old man who came to services frequently for decades. He has noticed me switching things up recently and groused at my getting rid of some of our Shabbat band’s traditional melodies with "new” stuff. When I pointed out that this rock and roll-style band, with its loud guitars and drums, is not exactly considered traditional, he looked at me with complete confidence and replied, "Yes, it is." Our band has been around only for about 13 years, but he loves it, and so to him, it is now "traditional" synagogue music!
No matter what clergy try to do, there is – and I suppose always will be – a bit of a tension between the older generations and the younger ones. Still, I am convinced that music can bring us together. I know I am not one thing, and neither is my musical taste. I enjoy the creativity of a Beatles Shabbat, the richness of the sounds of Kol Nidre, and the lyrics and sound of a contemporary Jewish musicians like Alan Goodis.
That day at NFTY Nashir, I asked aspiring Jewish songleaders to remember that in standing before a congregation, they are not just songleaders. They are leaders, and song is their tool. Ultimately, what they are doing is helping to shape, unify, and strengthen their congregational communities.
We can learn from other musical movements – and be influenced by them – but we must also work hard not to simply imitate or copy. We must be authentic to who we are and find a musical voice uniquely our own – a Jewish voice that speaks to our values and our soul.
At its best, music will reinforce our Jewish values, perhaps even teach them. At its best, music will touch the soul and shape it in ways that no amount of schooling will do – and no sermon ever can. It will create tender moments of connection, memory, and emotion. Music can bridge the distance between sacred and secular – and yes, if done right, the distance between generations.
Rabbi Sanford Akselrad originally delivered this sermon at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, where he serves as the senior rabbi.