Music Speaks Louder Than Words
by Cantor Alane Katzew, URJ Music & Worship Specialist
“Music speaks louder than words. It’s the only thing that the whole world listens to. When you sing, people understand.” These lyrics to the Peter, Paul and Mary song may iterate what we all know in our hearts: music is a great equalizer. Its styles vary and its interpretations may differ from place to place, but ultimately all who are endowed with the blessing of hearing can be drawn together by the power of music.
Music can function as a fantastic tool for outreach and keruv, drawing people into the synagogue and the Jewish and inter-religious global communities.
Any singing ensemble can function as a community within a community. Whether we are speaking about young students, teens, adults or senior adults, all can become a part of a musical activity. At Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, the entire synagogue became involved in a visionary music activity. (In fact, there is a documentary film about their experiences called Yahdahv. If you are interested in a copy of the film, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.) The end product was an intergenerational choir performance. The process, however, was transformative. Three choirs, the Beth Or Junior and Adult choirs combined with the Glee Club of Senior Citizens at the nearby Abramson Senior Center learned the same music and performed it together. As important as the process of learning the music for the performance were the mutually respectful relationships that developed between and amongst all of the choristers. The youngest participants learned kvod z’keinim – to honor the elderly – by experiencing them as vital participants in a shared endeavor. The adults all came away with new insight into this generation of Jewish youngsters. All of this was made possible by the power of music.
Inter-religious mutual understanding can often be fostered through music. Several years ago, Peri Smilow, a contemporary Jewish musician, developed a program that brought teenagers from the Boston Jewish community together with African American teens. They sang together, they broke bread together and they created a CD of music called “Freedom Music Project.” On this CD, one can find original music composed by Smilow; but notably to be found are musical styles that emanate from the faith traditions of the participants. (Visit freedommusicproject.com/music to hear samples and to purchase the album. In particular, contrast the “Gospelized” version of “Wade in the Water” with a contemporary version of the traditional folk tune for Passover, “Avadim Hayinu.”)
Through shared musical expression about their parallel ancestral experiences of enslavement, teens from divergent cultural and religious corners of society found common ground. We can expand upon this same principle by bringing together members of other faith communities through music in our community celebrations for Thanksgiving, our commemorations of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or as part of an ongoing Muslim dialogue. Music is an obvious point of entry.
This summer NFTY Israel Programs, the World Union for Progressive Judaism and I are embarking on a new shared venture: A vocal ensemble of teens that we are calling “JewGlee” (nftyisrael.org/programs/Jewglee). They will spend an intense week in rehearsal together before departing on a journey to Europe and Israel. Along the way, they will be performing for Liberal Jewish Communities in the cities they visit and bring the message “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh baZeh” – all of the people Israel are responsible for one another and interconnected. Our hope for these teens is that they emerge from the experience with a strengthened Jewish Identity and an enduring connection to world Jewry.
Torah, avodah and g’milut Chasadim are the three principles articulated in the Mishnah and in the URJ Bylaws as foundational to living Jewishly. Torah has long been made more accessible through systematic cantillation that provides a melody for guiding one through the nuances of text and grammar when reading from the Torah scroll. In addition, musical settings that incorporate texts from the Torah can often elucidate the meaning of the text, such as “L’chi Lach,” written by Debbie Friedman, where the text teaches a Midrashic lesson while the melody simultaneously penetrates our soul. In this same way music can be a motivator to move us from thinking about acting righteously to engaging in doing acts of social justice, as exemplified in the newly released music compilation of songs, Tzedek Tirdof: The Social Action Songbook. (Visit transcontinentalmusic.com to order your copy!)
Music to some may seem to be an enhancement; the icing on the cake that although sweet and delicious, is not a part of the diet that human beings require for specific nutritional value. For me, it is the stuff of sustenance without which the rest would lack full definition. Very recently I had the privilege of serving as a witness in the conversion ceremony of a friend and musical colleague whose entry into the world of Judaism came directly through his association with music. Those choosing Judaism may find this essential gateway to a Jewish life the most compelling. With his permission and in conclusion, I share this excerpt from his essay offered as explanation for his choice to join the Jewish people as a proof text and reminder that music is indeed the great equalizer.
“Liturgical music is, in many ways, the most demanding of musics, and consequently more rewarding. It’s no accident that so many of history’s great musical works have been created in a religious context. Beautiful music is not enough (and can actually be a liability). Sacred texts with lesser music end up diminished. But when all the ingredients come together – when you find the work of a master who can balance text, music and intricate form, all with an appropriate sense of humility and authenticity in the presence of the Divine Mystery – that’s music you must acknowledge, music with impact, music you just cannot ignore!”