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Reflections on Jewish Music

I’m still on a high from last night. When I got home, it was really late, but I was so charged by what I had experienced, that I needed to unwind. I spent some time talking with my daughter before going upstairs, and read a few pages of my book before turning out the light.

What a show! Our local community center in Karnei Shomron had arranged an evening of Jewish song with two remarkable women artists. One, Neshama Carlebach, is the daughter of the renowned Shlomo Carlebach, once fondly referred to as “Reb Shlomo”. He was a Rabbi and a Jewish soul singer who simply revolutionized Jewish spiritual music. After his death, his daughter, Neshama, the Hebrew word for soul, took his music and made it her life’s work, performing his beloved favorites and adding her own original songs to her repertoire.

The second woman in the show was Karnei Shomron’s very own Nomi Teplow. She is a singer who lives in our neighborhood and she was invited to join Neshama for a special joint performance.

Neshama came out first, to the accompaniment of a wonderfully talented, three-piece band. She has a beautiful voice, and with little effort, you could forget the three hundred people sitting in the audience and picture her crooning her songs into a hand-held microphone in a small, dark lounge. The audience sat quietly, enjoying the mood, lulled by the memories of Neshama’s father’s songs and by her own sweet voice. After a half hour, she called Nomi out for a lovely duet of “Woman of Valor”, one of Nomi’s original songs from her first disc. It was an emotional moment, listening to these two women, both coming to music from a spiritual need, singing a liturgical poem turned holy prayer. Then Neshama stepped off the stage to allow Nomi her turn.

And then, the room came alive! The energy was explosive! Immediately, you sensed people sitting up in their chairs, even leaning forward a bit, to the sensation that was going on, onstage. Nomi’s voice is glorious… her range impressive. But more important, she is a performer. One minute we were clapping, bouncing in our seats, tapping our feet, enchanted by the combination of soul and soft rock. Next minute we’re moved, our throats actually constricting at Nomi’s use of ancient holy texts to stir us to spiritual heights. Her song, “Mother Rachel” is a perfect example of Nomi melding her heartfelt messages of faith and hope for redemption, with original, polished musical arrangements. The basis for her song is Jeremiah 31 where our matriarch Rachel weeps for her children, and refuses to be comforted because her children are not in their land. Nomi adds her own twist and speaks to Mother Rachel, saying—Look! Your children are returning… from Mexico, Ethiopia, Russia, America… and it is time for Rachel to dry her tears because, as the prophet predicts a few verses later– “Your sons shall return to their own borders.” Her song uplifts us with the assurance that we are living the prophecy now. The Redemption is happening now, because Jews are, indeed, arriving from all corners of the earth, to return to their land.

Nomi moved to Israel in 1990 from Cleveland, Ohio. She had already completed both her Bachelors and Masters degrees in an upstanding university and was working successfully as a corporate banker. A banker!? A woman with the soul and voice of an angel, working behind a desk, playing with finances, captivating clients with her skill for numbers!? Fortunately for us and the world at large, she decided to move to Israel and devote her life to her music. And her music is never separate from her religion, from her faith. Her music is her way of reaching out to audiences, both secular and religious, both in Israel and abroad.

I looked around the crowded room and felt a little possessive. It’s not that I don’t know she’s out there… on radio, in concert, conducting choirs. But I knew Nomi way back then, way back when she started being our small town choir director in Karnei Shomron. Back when I just knew Nomi as Sondra Baras’s little sister. This same Nomi, on stage, inspiring the audience, was my same Nomi from years back. I was one of her first fans. You see, I have been part of Nomi’s women’s choir group for years now. She started working for our local community center, running rehearsals once a week. We women would sit around in an empty room, warming our hands by an electric heater in the winter, not willing to miss a session. A few years later, Nomi started working for the Music School of Kedumim, a community 15 minutes away, and I followed her there. A group of us women would set out once a week at night, drive the dark winding roads to get there, prepared to make the trip if that was what it meant to continue singing with Nomi.

A few years ago, Nomi decided to open the choir under her own auspices. The fifteen of us gather in her living room, in the space between her couch, dining room table and piano, setting up a semi-circle of folding chairs and kitchen chairs… a space which, as soon as we begin, becomes our private, intimate world of song.

And we sing. In Hebrew, in English, in Yiddish, and even Zulu. We sing Israeli folk songs, Irish ballads, Broadway show tunes and classical choral arrangements. Sometimes we sing a cappella, sometimes we have wonderfully rich instrumental playbacks, but most of the time, Nomi sits down at the piano, and accompanies us. We sing everything from simple melodies to four part harmonies.

And it doesn’t matter. We come to sing. But, mainly, we come for Nomi. She’s a personality. Or, more importantly, she’s a character. And just as she lit up the stage last night, she lights up her living room. The group of us, a dedicated core of women, with her from way back, weren’t even friendly with each other before, and most of us don’t socialize outside of choir. The choir has included teenagers, young mothers (with babes in arms), and senior citizens. Nomi attracts us with her magnetism. She demands a high standard from us and pushes us relentlessly, yet charmingly. She will dance and jump up and down if it means getting us to search for the best within us. She insists that Jewish music can and should be on a high level and should reach out with its professionalism and its soul. This year, besides working as our choir director, she is working for the Ministry of Education, traveling to schools around the country, and working with their choral conductors. Never one to pass up the chance to share her holy conviction that God is within us all, she works on technique and vocal training by using a song she wrote for the children called, “I Have My Own Inner Light.”

Even when we are just running through our vocal warm-up exercises, or being told how to project our voices better, it becomes a lesson in spirituality. She encourages us to cleanse ourselves from distractions, reaching for wholeness in ourselves, searching for meaning and purity. She insists, only then, can we sing to our God with a true voice. Her music is so connected to her spirituality, that when news in Israel is bad and times are hard for the Jewish people, she finds it next to impossible to “make music.” Before the Disengagement from Gaza, she moved with her husband and children to live in Gush Katif, convinced the expulsion would not happen, and stood alongside her brothers when they were dragged from their homes.

She stopped singing then. For a long while she could not produce music, could not compose, could not think of continuing her work on her third disc of songs. At one point she wrote a song which expressed her struggle of pain coupled with an endlessly solid faith: “And in such difficult days… When faith is absent… Know that angels of God embrace you… And when it seems that the night will never end… And when it seems that the heart has been shattered…When it seems there is no end to the desert sands… Know that every winter ends in spring… Know that God will always stand by your side.”

Nomi has a gift. And her gift to us is sharing with us her connection with God, her love for His land… and her music. Her glorious music. May it ring out to greet the Redemption she so believes in.

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities

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