My Jewish Musical Landscape


Liz Pearl © 2018

My soul resonates with traditional Jewish melodies that have survived and thrived for generations and contribute significantly to my textured heritage. Perhaps the music of the Jewish people is encrypted in my DNA.

The narrative of my Jewish identity is imbued with many meaningful musical memories.

In the late ‘60s I was fortunate to attend Akiva Day School in Montreal, a progressive school founded by a group of idealistic Zionist young parents, including my own. Here, and at a neighbourhood Outremont Orthodox synagogue we attended on High Holidays, I was first exposed to traditional Ashkenazi prayer tunes and a few renowned psalms and Zemirot (hymns). I guess this early childhood musical repertoire would constitute Shul Music 101. These familiar melodies are rooted deeply in my brain and I recognize them at any traditional Ashkenazi Minyan, wherever I may be attending services or simchas. For the most part, I don’t have a clue what these old-fashioned prayers really mean, read in English they are obscure, irrelevant and often seem like random rhymes. Singing or humming along in Hebrew they seep through dusty layers of my mind and are reminiscent of my youth. Perhaps that personal and universal resonance is the greatest grounding power of prayer. The sense of familiarity and comfort associated with these ancient tunes lies dormant within us, yet is sparked again and again through the decades. L’dor v’dor – these melodies are a significant component of our personal narratives, family histories and our heritage.

In Israel and back at home, I was exposed to a variety of memorable Israeli singers and songs including all-time favourites such as Yehoram Gaon, Arik Einstein aka “The Voice of Israel”, Naomi Shemer aka “first lady of Israeli song and poetry”, Chava Alberstein (iconic folk singer-songwriter) and the unforgettable, one-of-a-kind quirky Israeli rock band Poogy – Kaveret (“the Beatles of Israel”). As a child I delighted in hearing these classic songs on scratched vinyl LP records played again and again, and the lyrics are firmly embedded in my long-term memory.

In the late ‘70s I was fortunate to attend Herzliah High School ‒ Snowdon, a traditional community Jewish high school ‒ part of the United Talmud Torah Schools of Montreal. Here I continued my Jewish studies and turned somewhat away from traditional prayers as teenagers often do. In those days, I doubt girls were welcome to attend the Minyan. Along with my HHS Grade 9 class, I enjoyed a legendary summer experiential learning trip in Israel where I tuned in to the well-known Voice of Peace radio station, broadcasting “From somewhere in the Mediterranean.” This clever tagline is fixed in the musical memory of Gen X.  I became enamoured with contemporary Israeli pop-rock stars such as David Broza (I’m still very enamoured) and Shalom Chanoch aka “King of Israeli Rock”.  Classic teenager transition: out with tefilah and in with folk, pop and rock.

In the early ‘80s I was lucky to enjoy a few formative trips to Israel as an older teenager‒emerging young adult adventures including, backpack-traveling, hot summer days on the beach, kibbutz-volunteering and more Israeli radio and popular Israeli music. Perhaps this is when mega-stars Matti Caspi and Shlomo Artzi and Israeli pop-rock band Gazoz entered my expanding musical radar; my mid-life memory is a bit blurry. I think I was mostly plugged into my metallic blue Sony Walkman cassette player with assorted worn-out tapes from home including Bruce Springsteen, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and Elton John. This was decades before Spotify or Shazam.

The once-in-a-lifetime emotionally charged experience of being the bride at a Montreal ‘90s-style shul wedding (nationally known for amazing bands and over-the-top catering) definitely brings new meaning to timeless schmaltzy favourites such as “Sunrise Sunset” and “Erev shel Shoshanim” played by a violinist and a clarinetist. Possibly captured on a VHS full-feature wedding video.

The new millennium, my three adorable kids attending preschool at the neighbourhood Jewish day school, provided a renewed enthusiasm for kiddie Shabbat tunes and playful holiday songs. For more than a few years my girls performed with the talented Bialik Hebrew Day School choir (distinguished by royal blue shiny satin vests). This rewarding parenting experience presented an abundance of well-rehearsed Israeli folk and contemporary songs performed at the annual city-wide Zimriya and other notable venues. And oh so many school performances and assemblies featuring classic Hebrew songs.  Cherished musical memories and milestones: clapping, tapping, snapping, smiling and kvelling. An entire pile of VHS tapes and CDs captures magical musical moments from this fun-filled decade.

My kids’ b’nei mitzvah trilogy celebrated at Beth Torah (Conservative) Congregation (“nexus of tradition and modernity”) just over a decade ago gave me a repeat opportunity to reconnect with Torah blessings and the chanting of “Shema Yisrael”. Lots of lessons and nervous practice leading up to the big day. A highlight? A lowlight? Well, I guess it just depends upon who you ask. Singing and dancing a lively Hora with family and friends is always a welcome tradition.

New arrangements of old favourites. Prayer songs I learned from my teen kids’ repertoire: including URJ summer Camp George melodies (lively rendition of Birkat with animated hand actions), and memorable tunes from shabbatonim at Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto – high school.

Participating in the International March of the Living in Poland and Israel as a middle-aged adult chaperoning  teenagers on the cusp of maturing into young adults, alongside invincible aging Holocaust survivors, was a transformative experience with a significant musical component. Prayers and songs I had known for decades echoed with renewed meaning and historical context including: The Kaddish (Mourners’ Prayer) “Eli Eli” and “Lay Down Your Arms” (Prayer for Peace) and “Salaam Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu”. These powerful songs elicit a full range of intense feelings including choking pain and cathartic euphoria. Grief and Hope. War and Peace. Death and Life.

Decades of facilitating educational, recreational and therapeutic groups implementing music and dance as expressive media (to stimulate the brain and engage the body) with older adults, (many of whom were Jewish) and younger adults with special needs has provided hundreds of hours of listening to a variety of Jewish music in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. This golden oldies collection includes Barbara Streisand (multi-talented diva), Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Al Jolson (“the world’s greatest entertainer”) and Paul Zim (“a minstrel with a mission”) and many more. Plus Klezmer. Plus Chasidic. Many of these nostalgic songs I can sing backwards in my sleep, as they say. Sharing the priceless gift of music with others is truly rewarding, at times magical. If I could sing on key the gift would be even better. My skillset make for a somewhat auspicious package, a professional facilitator and an amateur entertainer.

In the past decade I have pursued a labour of love: The Living Legacies – A Collection of Personal Narratives by Canadian Jewish Women (PK Press). The creative process includes developing a rapport with contributing authors and supporting them in sharing their stories. Featured in these inspiring volumes are some heartfelt narratives depicting musical legacies. These contributing authors include: ethno-musicologist Dr. Judith Cohen, singer-songwriter Amy Sky, cantorial soloist Lindi Rivers, singer-songwriter Lenka Lichtenberg, and Tirzah Tward. Definitely, I am biased in favour of musical legacies.

I didn’t intend to write a blog post detailing who’s who in Jewish music, yet I would be remiss if I did not mention some additional random personal favourites: Bette Midler aka “The Divine Miss M”, Carly Simon and Carole King (possibly my soul sisters?) are definitely prominent in the musical landscape of my coming of age. Barry Manilow? Too mushy. Josh Groban? Perfect blend of classical and sentimental.  For a more extensive listing please see Wikipedia or consult with a musicologist. Indeed, we have a very musical tribe. Music and Judaism have been magnificently intertwined throughout history. We are known as The People of the Book; and yet, we are also The People of the Song.

Some tunes that pull at my heart strings are associated with personal milestones or religious events or community assemblies and reach deep into my core. Songs of hope, songs of peace and songs of healing. There is a song, a prayer or a blessing for every imaginable occasion or feeling. There is always an opportunity to sing “Mi Sh’berach…And let us say Amen…” (Prayer for Healing), “Avinu Shebashamayim” (Prayer for the State of Israel), Psalm 23: Mizmor L’ David” and Arim Roshi”.

At various stages and ages, I discovered a colourful spectrum of dynamic Jewish music including soulful Mizrahi (Oriental/ Eastern) and Sephardic (rooted in Judeo-Spanish – Mediterranean) music as well as global fusion. Jewish music blends beautifully with alternative rock, jazz, reggae and gospel currents. A magnificent tapestry of Judaica woven together with multicoloured musical threads. These eclectic genres with catchy melodies and distinctive rhythms are  valued additions to my workout playlist and include music by Ofra Haza aka “The Queen of Mizrachi Music”, Sarit Hadad, Idan Reichel, Eyal Golan, and Matisyahu.

Honourable mentions. Exposure to diverse music is a wonderful gift. At some point my spiritual playlist expanded to include unique musical giants such as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (“The Singing Rabbi”), Debbie Friedman (“The Joan Baez of Jewish Song”) and Joshua Nelson (“The Price of Jewish Gospel”).

And in a category all on its own: Fiddler on the Roof. It never gets old. I’m pretty sure I own this award-winning soundtrack on record, tape, disc and iTunes.

Some treasured melodies penetrate my heart and soul and stir memories and I’m not even sure when and where they became part of my personal Jewish musical landscape: Hatikva, “Avinu Malkeinu”, “Jerusalem of Gold”, “Hallelujah”, and “Hinei Matov” are but a few of a long list of much-loved songs to be enjoyed again, and again and again. Press replay one more time.

Post script.

My Jewish music wishes:

A private serenade by Josh Groban.

An exclusive concert by Barbra Streisand.

A duet (performed with perfect pitch) with Sarit Hadad.

Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?

What’s your Jewish Musical Landscape?

Previous blog post: My Musical Landscape ©️Liz Pearl 2015



4 thoughts on “My Jewish Musical Landscape

  1. I enjoyed reading your narrative, Lizzy! I’m glad that on a certain level these songs came to life for you. A few of the songs performed by Chava Alberstein and Naomi Shemer have a sense of timelessness about them, like walking down the Cardo in Jerusalem on the same stones that Roman soldiers marched; Large billboards superimposed on the walls of the ancient city imploring: “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem!” I also loved Pugi; the richness of their songs, their poignancy, and their subtle ironies. Once I even had the idea of basing a movie about a Jewish summer camp on famous Pugi songs. My tastes in ‘secular’ or ‘popular’ music are different than yours, but who can dislike Neil Diamond or the song “Sweet Caroline”. Thanks for sharing! Ralph.

    Liked by 1 person

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