Songleaders wanting a lead sheet to this song should contact me directly.
May your preparations for the New Year of the Soul be thoughtful and meaningful. Enjoy.
Elul, the month of reflection and contemplation leading up to the High Holy Days, begins tomorrow night. In honor of having made it to this time again I am offering a free download of my song, "Lev Tahor" from now through S'lichot (September 20).
Songleaders wanting a lead sheet to this song should contact me directly.
May your preparations for the New Year of the Soul be thoughtful and meaningful. Enjoy.
Last year, I was invited by the Creating Calm Publishing Group to submit a contribution to a book called Music: Carrier of Intention in 49 Jewish Prayers. I was given a choice of which prayer I wanted to write about. Since I had written an interpretation of Lev Tahor, a prayer that has had profound significance for me, I selected that prayer and sent in an essay. The book is in printing now and is set for release in Fall 2014.
Other contributing authors include Cantor Natalie Young, Rabbi-Cantor Robbie Sherwin, children's recording artist Susan Shane Linder, contemporary recording artist Neshama Carlebach and many more. I am honored to be in some very esteemed and talented company. For more info about the book, check out Creating Calm's web site: http://www.creatingcalmnetworkpublishinggroup.com/music-carrier-of-intention-authors
In other news, I just submitted proposals for workshops at Limmud-Chicago, a sister festival to Limmud-Miami and Limmud festivals around the world. I am hopeful that they will be accepted and that it will be possible for me to go. Limmud doesn't pay its presenters, though some funding is available from Limmud-Miami for out-of-town presenters to defray travel costs. I hope to hear back from Chicago sometime during or right after High Holy Days, and from Miami not too long after that.
This next week is focused on prep for my first visit to Phoenix. To each of you, Shavua Tov -- a good week!
It has been an amazing summer.
First, there's been the travel. Between my time with Machane Jehudah camp in June and my trip to Cincinnati last month, Ive been kept pretty busy. Coming up in a little over a week is my first of seven visits to Temple Chai in Phoenix, where I will share in the sweetness of Shabbat. And in less than a month, I head back to B'nai Jehudah near Kansas City, where I will help to usher in the New Year. Since June of 2013, I have been on a airplane as many times as I had been in the previous twenty years. Talk about measuring how a life can change!
In addition, I have been invited to submit proposals for two special Jewish learning festivals. LIMMUD is an international program that schedules days of learning in Jewish communities around the world. Two of the biggest are Chicago (November 2014) and Miami (February 2015). I am submitting proposals for both and hope to be accepted. Limmud festivals are volunteer-run, and most cities are unable to pay presenters (though a few cities can assist somewhat with travel costs for those coming from far away). Limmud is a great way to spread the love of Jewish learning for as many people to experience as possible. I am hopeful that I might be able to bring my music to a Limmud festival in the coming months.
Finally, I continue to write songs and two projects are now in the creative stages.
The first is a collection of children's songs that I've written over the years. I haven;t talked much about children's music here, because I don't have kids and because my experiences teaching music to younger kids in Jewish settings has been limited. But along the way I've written some songs and folks seem to like them a lot. So at some point I hope to create a recording of the best songs and make it available to families and schools. I am working on a couple more songs for this collection but most of it is already written. The collection will be called The Pavement Shines and I hope to record it by late next spring.
The second project is a third collection of adult contemporary Jewish music. While some of the songs are in English, I am also working on some new settings of Hebrew liturgy that can be used in synagogue or home worship. This collection will take longer to compile since I am still writing songs for it. I am not setting a date goal for this collection as yet, but stay tuned for details as they emerge.
In both cases, I plan to record at The Map Room Studios in Southeast Portland. I had such a great experience recording Ten Miles there and want to work with Josh again.
So as you can see, I've got an action-packed year coming up! As always when time permits I will schedule some coffeehouse shows or perhaps try to put together a Beit Cafe sort of thing at the Mittelman JCC in Portland. If there's a Jewish venue you'd like to see me at, help us connect with each other and let's get the ball rolling!
The month of Elul begins next week, a month of contemplation, reflection and prayer, and of making things right with the people in our lives -- all in advance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I will probably step away from blogging so much during Elul and focus more on what's right in front of me. But rest assured that I will keep doing what I'm doing, for you and for whomever else may discover my music. Thanks to all of you for your support and enthusiasm. If you are planning to pause and reflect in Elul, may your preparations send you into the New Year with your feet on a good path.
Eleven years ago today, I married "the one in whom my soul delights". In honor of the amazing journey our marriage has been I am offering a FREE download of the song I wrote for her eleven years ago, a sort of talmudic love song called "Sparks", from now through next Sunday.
You can find and download it here: http://www.reverbnation.com/bethhamon/song/19474108-sparks?1336410755
Please share this link with your friends, and enjoy.
In just two weeks I will travel to a new (for me) synagogue to help lead services and to share some of my music. During a very productive phone conversation today, in which the senior rabbi and I walked through service outlines for Friday night and Saturday morning, it occurred to me that I should probably ask about the, um, dress code.
Portland is a bubble unto itself in so many ways. Besides keeping dossiers on every chicken we kill and serve in restaurants (and that scene from Portlandia isn't so removed from the truth in this foodie mecca, actually), we also have the best coffee, beer and bicycling of any city in the United States. (I'm ducking as I type this, knowing that someone somewhere will take umbrage...).
That bubble extends to the dress code. Here in the Rose City, a shirt with a fold-over collar is considered "dressy", or at least "professional", in many circles. Including at many synagogues on a Friday night. At my very hamish home shul we wear shorts to services in the summer if it's hot outside. I recognize that this is unusual and I am sensible enough not to try and wear shorts to services anywhere else, ever.
But I digress.
Because Portland is SO laid-back that it's nearly comatose, I always have to figure out how to dress when I visit synagogues in just about any other city -- and I am learning quickly that they are almost always dressier than anything I find on an average Friday night in Portland. At first, I was afraid to ask how people dress at synagogues that are about to hire me, thinking that maybe they think I should know this stuff already. But considering the wackiness of my career trajectory and where I live, I decided to give myself a little break. The dumbest questions are the ones you're too scared to ask, right? So I asked. The rabbi in this case was glad I did. Her response was: "Well, visitors from New York City are always surprised at how casually we dress here. That said, on the bimah you'll want to dress it up a little more. A nice sundress with a shift over it and some dressy sandals would work fine..."
I gulped. I paused. And then, I said, " well, I wonder if dress slacks would be okay. See, I haven't worn a dress in an awfully long time..."
The rabbi laughed gently and said, "of course. No problem."
I'm sure it didn't seem like a big deal to her, but to me it is sort of a big deal. And it's not because of anything she or any other rabbi has ever said or done. It's all about my personal journey through the twisty-turny road of gender expression in a society that recognizes only two clear-cut genders. And while liberal Jewish communities have made real strides in welcoming multiple expressions of gender into their folds in many places, the fact is that, for professionals serving on the bimah, the standard still feels a little more rigid. It's about gender, it's about class, it's about so many things that find expression in the clothes we wear in public and the messages we send or perceive in the process.
The brilliant female impersonator RuPaul said years ago that "drag" was basically anything you put on over your otherwise naked body. Once you cover up what God gave you, you're in drag of one kind or another. But clothing is more than just drag. it is how we show ourselves to the world when we go out, and how we carry ourselves in the world when we work, learn and play.
As a child, I liked the idea of "dressing up" to go someplace fancy, like a nice restaurant; but I chafed at the lace-trimmed dresses my mother selected for me. One day, I saw mannequins in a shop window, wearing the latest (circa 1969) skirt-pant-jacket coordinates. No lace anywhere. They looked smart and modern and sleek. I asked my mother why I couldn't wear something more like that. She looked at me, then pulled out a sketchpad and pencil and drew what she saw in the shop window. Three weeks later, I had myself a miniature tailored suit for picture day at school. I loved it. And I loved my mother for getting it. I was a girl, just not a femmy, frilly one.
Today, many of my friends would use the word androgynous to define my sense of style; I am definitely more comfortable in mens' clothing, but I don't think I look like a guy when I wear it. Gender expression is a weird thing with lots of variables and lots of societal confusion, especially for the fifty-and-over set of which I am now a part. To be clear, this is not about transgenderism; that is another topic entirely and I'm not trying to become a guy. I'm a woman who just prefers mens' clothes because they look good and are comfortable. This is just another way to move through the world as a woman.
Today, I am still trying to figure out how much of my Self I can retain when I am serving a Jewish community as a songleader or cantorial soloist. Skirts, dresses and any shoe with even a tiny heel all left my wardrobe decades ago and are not coming back. And womens' slacks? Well, that is a foreign country yet to be explored. But it has been very hard to think that I might have to leave behind the clothing I have felt so comfortable in for the last twenty years: mens' pants and button-down shirts, and flat shoes built on a sneaker last that are admittedly the most casual things I wear on my body. I am hopeful that whatever I show up in at this new synagogue in a few weeks will suffice. But if it doesn't I hope I will be able to learn and adjust -- without compromising too much of my sense of who I am and how I move through the world.
Over the spring and summer I've been working on new songs, and I've come up with a few that are actually possibilities for The Next Album. (When you're a songwriter, there is always a next album looming on the horizon.)
I know that I want to focus on settings of the liturgy over the next few months. Part of this is, to be honest, blatantly public: I want to write music that people will want to sing in their synagogues and camps. But part of it is also highly personal: although I can decode Hebrew and translate key words in the prayers, I am far from fluent in the language and I want to figure out how to relate to these prayers in ways that will help me to engage more fully with our tradition.
During my studies at Mifgash Musicale, I wondered repeatedly: how important is it that Jews pray in Hebrew? While it is the language of our Torah, it isn't necessarily the language of our ancestors, many of whom conversed in Aramaic, Greek, French and German -- Jews spoke, transacted business and even courted in the language of whatever dominant culture was in charge at the time. By the mid-eighteenth century, German Reform rabbis were giving sermons in German. The fact was, then as now, that few Jews really understand Hebrew well enough to derive much meaning from sacred texts written in that holy tongue.
Today it's really no different, at least in Jewish communities in most of the Diaspora. Here in the United States, Jews sing and pray in Hebrew, but they also sing and pray in English. Many of the newest songs in contemporary Jewish music incorporate both languages, or use English entirely. I wrote "I Stand Here/Hineni" entirely in English because, while I know what the cantor's Hineni on Erev Rosh Hashanah basically means, I'm not fluent enough in Hebrew to translate it word for word. And very few of the congregants who come to shul that evening will know what the text actually says; if their cantor sings the traditional Hebrew text, the average congregant will either glance at the translation provided or, if there is none, they will likely space out for a few moments while the cantor makes pretty music. (Don't believe me? Ask yourself what YOU do at that point in the High Holy Days service. Then ask your friends.)
I wanted to sing -- in private, at least, if not at shul -- a Hineni that really said something honest about how I would feel standing before the open ark at my first High Holy Days posting -- scared, anxious, worried that my small efforts would not make a difference for the community even though I poured my heart and soul into them. So I came up with English lyrics that echoed the basic meaning of the traditional Hebrew text while expressing it in a language almost anyone in an American synagogue could understand. It's not going to be used where I am working this fall, and that's okay; I wrote it primarily as a way for me to get over some of my fear and anxiety about whether my efforts would be "good enough" to matter. I think the song has helped me feel calmer about what I'm heading into in a little more than a month's time. And maybe someday I will use it in an Erev Rosh Hashanah service and it will be of use to someone else in the room. And that would be really okay.
Does translating Hebrew texts into vernacular musical settings dumb down the liturgy? Does it run the risk of destroying a tradition that is centuries or even millennia old? Will my decision to write English-language liturgcal settings help to bring about the demise of Jewish prayer?
I'm willing to bet that it won't.
Because in the end, in order to help Jews really engage with their tradition, we have to do what generations before us did: we need to educate and teach Hebrew for the future, and also make the prayers accessible in the vernacular for the here and now. It might be cool if every Jew in every synagogue could be fleunt enough in Hebrew to really daven everything in the holy tongue, but in reality that is never going to happen. So why not find ways to make the vernacular more sacred too?
My goal for the next year is to focus on writing new settings of liturgical texts that can be used in synagogue or camp and that can sung by almost anyone. If there's a text in the liturgy that speaks to you and that you want to invite me to think about in this context, I want you to write to me and tell me about it. Use the contact form here at my web site; it will go straight to my email. I can't promise I will write a setting on every text you suggest, but I will respond to all of your suggestions.
Summer is fleeting fast! In a little more than a month I will travel once again to the Kansas City area, to the synagogue that has become a second home to me, and I will immerse myself in the wisdom of Torah and wrest as much music and meaning from it as I can. Enjoy these last few weeks of summer and may they bring you a sense of exhalation, joy and peace.
I am home from two weeks on the road. The second week was vacation, delightful time with family and friends. The first week was spent at Hebrew Union College's Cincinnati campus, attending a music workshop called Mifgash Musicale. During four days of classes, workshops and worship with faculty from the college and fellow attendees, I got to learn a little about the cantorial arts -- chazzanut -- and about the classic Reform musical tradition. Along the way, a few faculty members sort of pulled back the curtain -- showed us how to assemble the nuts of bolts of worship -- so that we could understand how to create meaningful experiences for our communities. Of course, there is no one set of rules that is guaranteed to work in all, or even most, cases. But knowing the basic format is a start.
Not being formally affiliated with the Reform movement, but working for Reform communities, I was glad for the chance to learn more about Reform worship and get more familiar with Mishkan T'filah, the current siddur in use by most Reform congregations. I also learned a little abut how to more smoothly integrate traditional nusach (cantorial prayer melodies, some in use for hundreds or even thousands of years) with the contemporary folk melodies now so popular in services.
The biggest surprise came on a short visit to the rare book room at the American Jewish Archives, housed on the HUC campus. Mostly I was counting on some mental downtime between intensive workshops. But when the instructor, Rabbi Rich Sarason, passed around a little book and invited us to look inside, we saw tiny, meticulously written manuscript and discovered we were passing around a Cantor's manual, one of the earliest known, dating from 1792. It had been a one-off, made by the cantor himself, since of course there was not a commercially-printed manual at the time. When it was my turn, I held the little book in my hands and looked at it. And suddenly, I recognized my place in this long chain of Jewish music. My place is small, to be sure -- actually, sort of tiny -- but I recognized that because I had made a commitment to creating and singing and teaching Jewish music, I had a responsibility to do what I could to keep this tradition going. So I guess that's the path my feet are on now. I am grateful for the clarity of direction, and will do my very best to do my part to keep the chain of music going.
Musings on this amazing journey through music, prayer and community, most of it accomplished while balancing on two wheels.