The Evolution of the NFTY Chordster
By Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur
In 1982, a rabbi placed a guitar in my arms, taught me four basic chords, and inspired by Hillel’s famous quote, declared, “With these four chords you can play any Jewish song. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” Indeed, in the 1980s, NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, continued to develop and deepen our connection to Judaism through creating and singing new Jewish songs. We learned, we taught, and we sang with enthusiasm and tremendous passion.
Song sessions were about creating sacred community. In the early 80s, microphones were frowned upon by those who felt that the use of electronic equipment would affect the relationship between leader and participant, turning the session into a performance-oriented event. Without the electronic boost, song leaders had to work a bit harder, but the result was the creation of sweet three-part harmonies and a strong emphasis on collective singing.
Pre-internet and long before the ability to digitally distribute, the ubiquitous orange cardboard-covered NFTY Chordster produced in 1981 was our musical bible. The chordster was based primarily on the first three NFTY albums produced in the 1970s, the compositions of Debbie Friedman z”l, and the music of Kol B’seder, with a spattering of other compositions from fledgling songwriters. Included in the NFTY Chordster were the transliterated words and chords to hundreds of songs from Israel and America that lent themselves to group singing and participatory prayer. In an attempt to recognize the ever-expanding repertoire of the movement, the volume was produced as a three-ringed notebook, designed to expand as repertoire emerged from the camps and from NFTYites. Indeed, every few years we produced a semi-official chordster supplement and these packets were shared informally around the movement. In the late 1980s, the chordsters were upgraded from cardboard to plastic covers, but the contents remained unchanged, beloved by songleaders and movement musicians.
In the 1980s, the final three NFTY albums came to fruition, adding a number of significant compositions, each with a distinct sound and production value. As a collection―three albums from the 70s and three from the 80s―it offered a great deal of material to instill into the movement.
In 1980, in celebration of forty years of NFTY, NFTY released “This is Very Good.” Subsequently, in 1984, “Hold Fast To Dreams” was released. Using understated instrumentation and production, with a strong focus on vocals, the songs were easily reproducible by the average songleader, and provided invaluable tools to musicians of all ages in the movement. Finally, in a grand celebration of NFTY at 50, the sixth and final official Songs NFTY Sings album “Fifty Years in the Making 1939-1989”arrived, combining remakes of older songs from previous NFTY recordings as well as new songs from the movement. The final album, with a heavier emphasis on production, became the bridge to the next series of NFTY recordings—the Ruach series. It is interesting to note that there was a significant decrease in the number of Israeli songs on these albums in the 1980s, as more American Jewish songwriters began to find their voices. We embraced writing in the vernacular, although the majority of our repertoire was still liturgy-based and sung in Hebrew.
When I look at the state of music in our movement today, we have much to celebrate. But there is no doubt that those NFTY albums created the foundation for our rich musical contributions.
In February of 2003, many of those involved with the production of those albums, and former NFTYites from the 1980s (i.e., old people with young hearts), gathered in Washington, D.C. for the URJ Youth Workers Convention. Quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves completely snowed in and unable to leave the hotel, nor could our scheduled speakers get to us in order to address the group. Poignantly, in 2003, only days before the convention, the collective Song NFTY Sings collection was released as a digitally remastered collection.
In a desperate attempt to entertain ourselves, an idea emerged. Could we sing through the albums from beginning to end without assistance from the actual recordings? We found a small room (which became even smaller as the number of participants grew) and appropriated guitars from the unsuspecting NFTYites in the next room. For hours, the space vibrated with the sweet sounds of NFTY, from the guitar introduction to “Al Shelosha Dvarim” until the final notes of “Shalom Rav.” With the exception of two songs that no one in the room could remember, we succeeded in our undertaking. Frankly, the emotion of being in a room with the song composers and producers―a good number of whom had recorded vocals―was overwhelming. We were surrounded by our teachers, our students, and generations of song leaders who were ultimately indebted to one another. Four hours later, exhausted and exhilarated, we left the crowded lounge feeling as if we had re-created history.
Every time I see the orange NFTY Chordster in my office, I think back to the rabbi who told me—‘. . . the rest is commentary.’ For so many of us, the music of NFTY is indeed the ikar—the principal tenet. May we continue to sing from our hearts and from our souls in celebration of NFTY’s sacred community.
Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur was ordained from the HUC-JIR rabbinic program in 1997 and is a veteran songleader of four URJ camps (Kutz, Coleman, Greene and Jacobs), NFTY National Conventions, as well as for the summer NFTY in Israel programs. She currently serves as the chairperson of the URJ Kutz Camp