All Aboard the Musical Express
Printed in the January 2018 Jacksonville Jewish Center Centerpieces
Music transports us. We hear a musical “lick” and it takes us back to a place and time or removes us from our present reality and brings us to a dream world. We see this when a certain tune is played for a young child learning their first nursery rhymes or when someone suffering from dementia hears a standard from their youth.
Last November, the Jacksonville Symphony’s Chamber Orchestra performed Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110, the composer’s biographical reaction to the regime change in his country, containing such specific imagery as his own initials, prison songs, and police in the dead of night. It’s a dreary piece as you can imagine. However, the conductor framed its motifs prior to the orchestral performance. We heard snippets as she explained why these “musical licks” would repeat themselves throughout the piece. In doing so, the audience experience was enhanced and each of us could be transported knowing the composers sensibilities whenever we heard those parts. It reminded me that it doesn’t need to be something from our youth to take us places.
We recently added in a few new melodies to our Shabbat in the Round Friday night experience. A Bat Mitzvah student had returned from a ruach filled summer at Camp Ramah Darom, asking if she could incorporate a new melody she had learned over the summer. After singing a few bars, I recognized the melody as something I had listened to on YouTube, this generation’s transmitter of music.
Playing the video for our instrumentalists, the melody quickly became a band favorite, with shades of Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero.” For anyone who knows our band members, you can understand why a Dylanesque melody would be a big hit. Singing the melody brought Dylan and davening together as one.
This past December, I was asked to lead services over Shabbat as part of the United Synagogue’s Biennial Convention in Atlanta, GA. This was a powerful experience to have a few hundred in attendance who are all committed to a vibrant Jewish future for the Conservative movement. We had the pleasure of hearing rising stars in the Jewish music world, one of which is Joey Weisenberg. I’ve spoken about Joey and his book “Building Singing Communities” but it was great to learn from him again. Joey painted a beautiful tapestry of his family’s story in this country, with ancestry that predates the Civil War. He described how he came to write the melody “Yamin U’smol”, the text taken from one of the final paragraphs of Lecha Dodi. As he talked through his inspiration, I kept thinking of Ashokan Farewell, the theme from Ken Burn’s Civil War series. He entitled the melody “Lincoln’s Niggun” because there’s a second layer to why this was associated with a specific paragraph of the Friday night liturgy. When President Lincoln would walk through a crowd of soldiers, they would assemble in two parallel lines, one on the right and one on the left, or Yamin U’smol in hebrew.
One melody. The composer is transported to the place and time of his family’s origin. The instrumentalist is transported as if he is hearing the sounds of his favorite artist. The song leader is transported to a magical summer experience filled with spirit and new friendships. For those listening, it may take you to an entirely different place. We all have the potential to be transported. I hope you’ll take the journey with us for all of our musical offerings in the months ahead.