Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Posts tagged ‘jewish’

How Jewish are Jewish chanting and meditation?

Today I had the privilege of teaching a workshop at a Nehirim camp at Easton Mountain. It consisted mostly on meditation and chanting exercises from the perspective of Jewish mysticism. We were talking about how Kabbalists envision the use of music as a tool to help them connect with the spiritual world and with the Divine.

At the end of the workshop, we were checking in and evaluating what role do music and chanting play in our spirituality and specifically in our meditation practice (although not all the participants had a regular practice or were particularly adept to meditation). I felt very enriched by the insides of the workshop attendance. We listed the many ways music and chanting play a role in meditation. Firstly, somebody pointed out that music helps him “fill space” when he meditates. This may seem controversial for some meditation schools and practices but I have the biggest respect for every person’s “tricks:” if something works for you, why should I question it? More often than not I find myself meditating with background music. To me, it can’t be music with words or with very clear, symmetric, predictable structures. I often choose Indian ragas or Native American solo flutes, that is, “songs” whose next pattern I can’t predict so easily.

Secondly, chanting helps quiet the chattering in our minds, which is one of the main objectives of every meditation practice. All of us struggle with the same problem: how to turn off the continuous noise in our head so we can pay attention to important things like enjoying our present and seizing the moment. Otherwise, we go around like zombies on automatic pilot. We become slaves to our memories and to our worries for the future, continuously playing in our head the movie of what wee have just done or what we’re about to do. Instead, just sit back and smell the roses.

Thirdly, music and chanting have clear benefits for our well-being. Our whole body vibrates to particular frequencies. Our heart beats to the rhythm. Music therapists have been writing about these properties for a long time. Additionally, I believe that music has another dimension, one of the spiritual kind. It is deeply connected to our feelings and helps create memories that eventually reinforce our identity, in particular our Jewish identity. Depending on your beliefs, music can connect you to spiritual realms and even to the mind of the Divine (metaphorically or not).

It is not coincidental that mysticism of all religious traditions has placed chanting (drumming, music) in a central role of its practice. Some chant mantras, others repeat rosaries, others practice whirling dances accompanied by music. Not surprisingly, often mainstream religion has frowned at these practices. Now, in what ways meditation and chanting can be claimed as genuinely Jewish? Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature are full of nigunim, different kinds of tikkun practices, alphabet permutations, and fahrbrengen full of ecstatic chanting. They are powerful tools to help Even our text study has its musical mode, the Lehrner steiger. And yet, for many Jews meditation and chanting seem to be a “New Age thing,” identified with very particular groups. Some frown at them as being merely a strategy to attract BuJews, or an unwanted osmosis from Eastern religions.

I think it is time that we acknowledge and embrace this part of our tradition, just like Rosh Chodesh or the mikvah enjoyed their well-deserved revival in our days. Meditation and chanting are also for us, the more traditionally-observant Jews. (Yes, you wouldn’t say I am that traditional; I do believe in acting kosher and thinking treif, but that’s material for another post). Although modern Hebrew prefers the word meditatsiya, our liturgy often talks about hegion ha-lev, meaning the contemplation, the reason, or even the logic of the heart. Many siddurim translate this expression as “the meditation of the heart,” like at the end of the amidah, when we pray that the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart (הגיון לבי) be acceptable before Hashem. Next time you read these words, pause, breath and check your kavanah. That’s Jewish meditation too.

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5 Reasons Why Jewish Musicians Should Network: the Shalshelet Experience

Today my good friend Cantor Jill Pakman sent me a link to a video presentation of last Shalshelet festival in New York city. I’ve been honored to participate in the last two Shalshelet festivals, and lucky to have two of my compositions awarded and published there. (At the bottom of this post I’ll insert the presentation video as well as that of my piece for this year).

In any case, this presentation reminded me of the Shalshelet experience and made me reflect on Jewish musicians and composers, and how much we need to network. Shalshelet is an international festival that happens every other year. Composers and musicians from everywhere present their work at a main concert, as well as at a number of workshops. Other than the performances themselves, it is a great opportunity to connect with other people involved in Jewish music across borders and denominations. But why should we, as Jewish composers and musicians, care so much about networking and participate in events like Shalshelet. Here is my take, reduced to 5 main reasons:

1. Creating tradition: To me, this is the first and foremost reason. Unlike what most people believe, a good part of the “traditional” melodies we use at shul are not traditional at all. Our grand-parents would not recognize the eclectic mosaic of liturgical melodies we call “traditional” today. That includes hassidic music from the 1970s, Naomi Shemer, or Debbie Friedman, z”l. How can your music become the new tradition? Only by being shared and used by other cantors, song leaders, etc.

2. Diffusion of your work: Admittedly, unlike Christian rock, Jewish liturgical music doesn’t have many forums and doesn’t get much exposition in mainstream media. Major media are oblivious to our music and, if they ever touch the subject, it is only to offer a very partial, biased view of a couple of styles and standards, not of the whole panoply and richness of the Jewish musical universe.

3. Learning from others: We shouldn’t even have to mention that. Unfortunately, the smaller our entourage, the more we find artists that choose to measure up to the wrong models. Or maybe they just do not look up to other models but to themselves, secure as they are of their own artistic ways. I think this is particularly true in certain small and endogamic Jewish circles. There’s nothing as pernicious to art as misplaced artistic self-efficacy. (No, that’s not you, so stop worrying now 🙂 )

4. Collaboration. Let’s face it, generally Jewish music doesn’t make money. Most of us simply have no budget to hire session musicians for our recordings and for our performances.  However, cultivating your network is the key for having the collaboration of great Jewish musicians in your projects. I’ve been blessed with such opportunity in my last recording, and certainly look forward to repeat the experience with more and more projects, mine and other people’s.

5. Finding new venues for what you do. My immediate community is well aware that I perform Sephardic music and lecture (in more than one sense) about its history. Of course, I don’t feel the same ease and “authority” to play Yiddish ballads, for instance. Only by networking I can bring my music to another venue and get to know what you do, so I can invite you to talk and perform in my area.

So go ahead, network, network, network. We have amazing technologies at our fingertips. Let’s put them to good use. And let’s support great networking experiences such as Shalshelet.

Closing this  rather long post, here you have the videos. First, the Shalshelet presentation, with yours truly briefly talking at 2:39.

And here’s my piece, awarded in last Shalshelet. Sorry for the quality of the recording.

Welcome to my blog

I really appreciate you dropping by! I decided to start this blog in order to open a dialogue about issues concerning everything Jewish music. In particular, I want to focus on three main subjects, which of course are interrelated:

  • Jewish Music: its history, development, variety, and future. I am very interested on how music and musical memories contribute to the formation of our Jewish identity. In fact, this can be extrapolated to all other collective identities: we live  in a world where we do not only live in two civilizations –as Mordecai Kaplan claimed– but in a multifaceted, complex combination of civilizations and societal ascription that configure us as individuals.
  • Jewish Identity: factors that are (re)shaping the Jewish identity. What is the future of this identity in a changing world.
  • New Technologies: nothing like modern technology has changed the way we deal with music nowadays. It has shaped the way we listen to music, the way we have access to it, the amount of music available; how it is distributed, popularized, and published; how it is created and composed; how we share it within any given human group. New technologies have also reshaped how Judaism –and particularly its music– faces the future.
The title of this blog, Gershayim – גרשיים, has several meanings. It designates a typographical mark in the Hebrew language that serves to indeicate an abbreviation, an acronym, a number, the name of a letter, or even an acrostic (some people call it chikchak, go figure…). To me, this is a metaphor of modernity, the multiple meanings of simplicity. Furthermore, a gershayim is also one of the trop marks we use for Bible cantillation. It is a musical sign in itself, an embellishment formed by ascending and descending notes. Gershayim represents where writing, language, and music meet; where profane and sacred touch.