In Search Of Unity And Jewish Music

In high school, when my friends starting going to music festivals, a huge red flag started dancing in my peripheral vision.

As a shy kid obsessed with doing the right thing, I felt inherently uncomfortable with the concept.

Spending the weekend surrounded by a bunch of strangers in the middle of nowhere, with flashing lights and blasting electronic music, struggling to keep Shabbat and ingesting copious amounts of alcohol–

–it all just wasn’t appealing to me (pardon the honesty).

But part of me felt desperately curious and left out. My friends would come back with endless stories and inside jokes;

They’d describe countless moments of love and unity,

Of feeling connected to the people they had only just met,

Of watching out for each other and dancing like they were outside of time.

 

Eventually, this became a phase for many of my friends.

And like all phases, it passed, the sun set, and came back up,

And everyone moved on with their lives.

 

A part of me was very attracted to this concept–unity through music.

I wanted to feel it up-close and personal, but as I moved further into the world of Orthodox Judaism, I struggled with these ideas.

Going to a music festival didn’t seem like a “Frum” thing to do. The conflict split my Neshama right down the middle.

As my religious journey progressed and I completed my year in seminary, many encouraged me to start listening to more, if not only, Jewish music. I wasn’t entirely averse to the idea; the problem was, I couldn’t find any that I liked.

I was all for searching out G-d in the music I listened to.

As a musician and a writer I felt completely ready to do some Kiruv on my music taste.

I totally understood that listening to “inappropriate music” would eventually make me an evil person. Sure, no problem.

But where was the Jewish music that didn’t sound like the stuff that played in the religious grocery stores?

Throughout my college career I was introduced to a lot of outstanding Jewish music that was oddly good. Soon enough I had stumbled upon a whole world of Jewish music that was full of meaning and joy.

Zusha, Moshav Band, Levi Robin, to name a few.

I noticed how important it was to feel connected to the musicians that we listen to. They’re real people with real souls, goals, and homes.

This realization made me feel like I was a part of something bigger.

Something more refined than a world of musicians–a world of Jewish musicians.

It’s phenomenal to uncover how closely connected music is to Judaism. From Leining, to Niggunim, to Zemirot, the Jewish world is oozing with melody. To this day I am still discovering myself as a Jewish musician. I imagine a lot of us are.

                                                                           * * *

Two summers ago I attended The Camping Trip for the first time. I heard about it at a Shabbat meal at my old apartment in Queens, where I was lucky to host its creator, Ian Leifer. It sounded perfect to me– a Shabbat-friendly music festival in upstate NY.

I waited to hear the catch, but the catch never arrived.

I had been itching to camp all summer and was keen to get out of the city.

The lineup featured a solid amount of Jewish bands and I was excited to spend the weekend in a sweaty tent with good people.

As expected, it was the highlight of my summer.

From playing cards in the tent, to roaming aimlessly through the forest, to a woodsy Kabbalat Shabbat done right, I look back fondly on a warm and homey Shabbat.

There’s also something so strange and wonderful about hearing live music outside. The contrast of the natural and the artificial – all blending together,

A group of Jewish people of various ages, from a range of locations, all united under one sky, gathered ‘round the same stage.

The music traveled for miles, traveling through a vast and open space, stretching over every soul on the campground.

I went home itchy and exhausted – but happy and fulfilled nonetheless.

As a Jewish musician, I felt oddly connected; it was so inspiring to see a Jewish music festival executed so well. It inspired me to work harder on my music and the following school year, that’s exactly what I did.

One year later, I had the honor of being invited to play.

I had a lot to think about.

Now don’t get me wrong– I’m no professional. I have no finished album or EP, or even a Soundcloud I’m proud of sharing.

But some of my fondest memories include playing in front of other people. Accepting the offer was a no brainer.

To attend The Camping Trip for the second year in a row, but this time as performer–

I felt like a ten year old girl with a bag full of jelly beans.

It was the second full-length set I was ever given,

At an outdoor music festival filled with soulful Jewish people,

And I was going to be the only female performer.

I was absolutely terrified.

And all the doubts came pouring in.

I’m not professional enough, I’m not good enough, I’m don’t even have a band.

Music isn’t my full time job, I’m not committed enough, this is only a hobby, who will come to my set?

Luckily enough, I was scheduled to go on at 10am, the Sunday morning of the festival.

Informally known as “hangover hour.”

The Camping Trip weekend features live music starting Friday afternoon, breaking for the Sabbath, and kicking up again Saturday night past sundown. It continues nearly all night long–if not from the mainstage, then from the festival goers and the late-night performances.

So come 9am, I’m awake in my tent and anxious as anything. I peek out and scan the camp site, all scattered with brightly colored tapestries and misty morning dew.

It’s absolutely silent.

But I can’t hold still.

And I’m going on in an hour, and no one’s awake.

So I took matters into my own hands.

When the clock struck 9:30 I started making house-calls.

As I walked from tent to tent, I noticed many festival-goers had started to stir. So I did what any normal person would do.

I started talking to complete strangers.

“Hi,” I said. “Good morning, what’s your name?”

After curating a number of positive responses, I started letting everyone know that at 10am sharp, I’d be taking the main stage.

“You don’t know me, but I’d love it if you came to my set.”

“Hi there, I know you just woke up, but I’d really appreciate seeing you out there.”

“The main stage is right over there, you’ll hear me when I start playing.”

I don’t know what came over me. I don’t usually knock on other people’s doors and implore them to listen to my music. It isn’t often that I quietly bombard others with a request of such gravity.

But there I was – happily recruiting a campsite full of strangers to come hear me sing.

And it worked.

On that big stage, I felt like an ant.

But once I started playing, I felt like part of a colony.

I’ve never been able to write about performing live. As an amateur who doesn’t do it too often, it almost feels disingenuous to describe something others take much more seriously.

But there’s nothing like it in the whole wide world.

To see the head nods when someone resonates with your lyrics,

To experience the unity of being the source of the live music,

The swinging arms and smiling faces,

Sun-burnt skin and tambourines.

There’s nothing more real or satisfying than performing a slew of original songs for a crowd full of strangers.

Perhaps this moment wasn’t nearly as special to half the people there.

But those moments that day, in the middle of summer 2016,

Are the reason I’m thrilled to be playing again this year.

This year among other female artists as well,

This year among friends, old and new

This year, among big names whose shadows I duck in and out of,

This year, unfortunately not in Jerusalem,

But at a little campsite in Jeffersonville, NY.