Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

The 1619 Project: Changing Our Melody

Adapted from a presentation at Woodlands Community Temple
January 3, 2024 • 25 Tevet 5784

One day, many years ago, while driving my young children around town I, as usual, had music playing in the car. On this particular day I’d put on a playlist of my favorite gospel tunes. I love gospel music and have tried my hand at writing Jewish tunes that are informed by the irrepressible spirit of some of what I think is America’s greatest Christian music. As we were driving along, there was a pause between tunes when I heard a voice from the backseat ask, “Daddy, aren’t we Jewish?”

What can I say? I come by it honestly. First, regarding the lyric content of the songs, I believe in the validity of all religious messages, so long as they are kind, open-hearted and in pursuit of a just society. Second, I’ve always enjoyed a great variety of musical styles. It’s possible that comes from growing up as the youngest of six children in a home where music emerged from every room: my mom listening to Glenn Miller and to Rosemary Clooney, my dad listening to classical, and my siblings turning up the volume on everything from Andy Williams and Claudine Longet to The Beatles, Santana, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Sly and the Family Stone. Marvin Gaye. Isaac Hayes. Earth, Wind and Fire. Just a few of the superstars whose music filled my home throughout my youth. All of them were black. But at the time, I didn’t know that.

In the olden days, when record owners would read album covers over and over again while listening to the vinyl discs inside, I didn’t know that any of these performers were black simply because these weren’t my albums. I fell in love with their music from a distance, as I laid down long lines of Hot Wheels track in the hallways of our home or worked up intricate designs on my Spirograph while sitting at the kitchen table. This music was the background soundtrack to my pre-adolescent years.

What I hadn’t realized, at least not until viewing the music episode of Hulu’s “The 1619 Project” was that tunes that were written and performed by people of color, like American blacks themselves, were usually segregated out of view from my white community in Cincinnati of the 60s and 70s. “The 1619 Project,” which began as investigative reporting for The New York Times Magazine by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and has recently become a documentary series on Hulu, very convincingly asserts that our country’s entire history, to this day, links the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in profound ways that still demand a complete reckoning and change of national behavior.

My brothers listened to alternative FM progressive rock stations which, I think, were less subject to the subtle acts of discrimination that AM radio employed, including playing hit parade listings that excluded what was actually called by Billboard (and I remember them being listed as such in our local paper) “Race Music” or, a little bit later and, I suppose, less inflammatory, “Soul Music.”

I can tell you that, while I was growing up in Cincinnati, “Soul Music” was never played on any AM radio in my home or in the public places that I frequented.

I never noticed.

I really had no idea that my life was a pretty clear reflection of an America that had only barely moved on from slavery. While I never said or did anything that was demonstrably racist, and I never witnessed such things, my recent involvement with “The 1619 Project,” namely public conversations in our local library, each session facilitated by one black and one white community figure, and specifically my conversations with Rev. Freedom Weekes of Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry as he and I prepared our shared presentation, I’ve only now come to understand the role that I’d had no idea I had played in discriminatory living.

Prior to my and Rev. Weekes’ presentation at the library, we met for lunch and spent a delightful few hours getting to know each other. We spoke openly about our youth, and the ways in which each of us had experienced and been affected by black-white relationships. It was during this conversation that I heard my own words about the racism which I had been part of.

I was stunned by my self-revelations.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share with you one of the great pieces of anti-racist pop. While Sly and the Family Stone was better known for their funk and psychedelic tunes, “Everyday People” crossed over into the mainstream, crossed over the racial divide, to deliver its message of acceptance and love.

Now I’m a pretty nice guy and I don’t generally harbor anger or grudges for superficial, super-uninformed, super-selfish reasons. So I asked Rev. Weekes what I could do to be a better ally and he said to me, “Talking like this is a great first step.”

So let me urge you to do the same. Find a gathering where these kinds of conversations are taking place. Listen to others’ stories. Share your own. Be honest about it. And ask the question, “How can I better support people of color in my personal and public life?” Hopefully, you’ll find it as illuminating and challenging an experience as I have. But I want to emphasize how important an experience it is.

Since retiring, I’ve spent most of my time studying and writing music. It’s been a thrill and a luxuriant dream come true. I struggle with the value of my endeavors though. After 26 years as a congregational rabbi, it feels self-indulgent and not terribly helpful to society to be spending all my time in a little room with music (and Charlie) filling my days. But I have to remember that, despite my being 67 years old, I am still quite the newbie at this music thing. I have to give myself the time to just be a student, to acquire the skills I need to be able to bring my art to bear on the important issues of our day, something I very much want to do. In the meantime, I’m watching the world around me and am just starting to dip my toes into creating music that is responsive to these times.

Ellen and I recently wrote a piece of music together called “Panim El Panim,” which is a phrase the Torah uses to describe Moses’ face-to-face encounters with God. The song’s lyrics urge us to carefully consider how we interact with one another, and to understand that it’s when we connect with others — when we connect compassionately, lovingly, and with common humanity — “these are the moments,” the song suggests, when God is here. The piece is every bit the kind of social commentary that I’ve been used to sharing in my teaching, in my preaching, and in my writing. I hope to find a way to continue such social commentary through my music. To help further the conversation about making the world a better home for everyone.

I have no idea if I’ll ever be good at this. I’ve begun researching and thinking about a new piece that will be based on the White Rose, the resistance group that operated in Munich, Germany, for less than a year in 1942-43, urging active opposition to the Nazis but which ceased when its leadership was caught and executed. If the poet in me can get this right, the song will have as much to say about our world today as it will about the world then.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of race. All I know is that I can at least do something to try and move the needle, and to try and make sure that I’m not part of the problem.

As a young teen, I wore this button. Its text is credited to Eldridge Cleaver, a black American writer and political activist and early leader of the Black Panthers. Not sure back then if I really knew what the button meant. But I sure do now.

Why do I care about racism?

Well, probably most significantly, my family cared. My father was a doctor who took care of people his entire life. My mother marched with Dr. King. And my brothers drafted little-kid me into their anti-Vietnam War activities. I am a product of a family whose values may have made it likely, if not inevitable, that I would want to help, not hinder.

Second, Jewish tradition teaches us to care. The book of Exodus tells the story of the Jewish people’s decline and descent into Egyptian slavery, and also the story of our rescue and our redemption. As we left Egypt, it became the story of our stopping at Mount Sinai and pledging ourselves for all generations to accept others and to welcome difference.

Because we know.

We know what it’s like to be stripped of freedom, and thank God what it’s like to get it back. Judaism teaches us again and again that it is our responsibility to make sure no one has to ever endure cruelty — at the very least, to not have to endure it forever.

Third, the world needs us. Regardless of religion or family of origin, the world needs us to care. It needs us to respond, to help where we can. And even when we can’t help, to name it, to call out injustice for what it is and to keep doing so until the world no longer turns a blind eye.

I don’t know whether one person’s deeds of, in this case, anti-racism are better than another’s. Sure, it seems like it would be more worthwhile to change a law than to write a song. But how are we to know who is affected by our actions? Someone might grow up to be a Supreme Court Justice because, once upon a time, they were inspired by a song!

I have always loved the music of The Beatles. I was only seven when they landed in the U.S. for the first time. But their music had already been part of that home-based soundtrack I mentioned. So in 1968, when the song “Blackbird” was released on the White Album, I was exposed to their very British view of American prejudice toward blacks. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly.” The Beatles had seen how America treated people of color, and they recorded “Blackbird” to let us know that they’d seen, and that they hoped we’d finally do something about it.

Did “Blackbird,” which I must have heard a thousand times in my youth, embed itself inside my heart, so that one day I would want to be part of “The 1619 Project”? I can only give you a maybe on that. But I sure am glad that they put that song out into the world. Just as I’m glad to have participated in my conversations with Rev. Freedom Weekes.

Vayomer el amo … and Pharaoh said to his people … hinei am b ’nai Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu … “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us … hava nit-chak-mah lo … let us deal shrewdly with them.” (Exodus 1)

It shouldn’t have required us to know what it feels like to be the stranger, to be scorned and outcast, in order to want to do right by others. But we were the stranger and, because of that, we carry a special knowledge and a special obligation.

We may not get it right. God knows, there’ve been many times when I’ve unwittingly hurt others. But we have to keep trying, keep learning, keep getting closer to each of us producing the art, in whatever form it takes, that will shape this world into the Garden of Eden — for everyone — that God meant for it to be.

Billy

Or Zarua

Talk about taking your time! I first worked on this piece in 1981, but I didn’t finish it until 2022.

When I first wrote Or Zarua, it was performed by Beged Kefet in Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school (1982-83). Beged Kefet was a singing group. We started out as a community-service project, fulfilling Hebrew Union College’s mandate that each student, during our year in Israel, give something back to the country that was hosting us. I joined some friends who chose to give back through music. Thus, Beged Kefet began. The group included (Rabbi-to-be) me, (Cantor-to-be) Ellen, (Rabbi-to-be) Les Bronstein, (Cantor-to-be) Benjie Ellen Schiller, (Educator-to-be) Kyla Epstein and (Rabbi-to-be) David Wolfman. We performed at sites all over Israel like block parties and new immigrant absorption centers, and occasionally at our alma-mater-to-be, Hebrew Union College.

Beged Kefet in our heyday (1999)

Where did we get the name Beged Kefet? Well, first you need to know that it’s a very common Hebrew mnemonic taught to Israeli children in their elementary school grammar classes. “Beged Kefet” indicates the six Hebrew letters that, when they appear at the beginning of a word, receive an added dot (a dagesh) to modify its sound. We chose the name to give our mainly Hebrew-speaking audiences a heads-up that they’d need to be somewhat patient with us as we attempted to speak and perform in our second, their first, language.

When we returned to America, we kept the group, kept the name, added more music, and performed together for another 26 years. Our personnel adjusted slightly because Kyla and David finished their studies in another city, so our ranks were replenished by the addition of (Cantor-to-be) Leon Sher and (Cantor-to-be) Riki Lippitz, and our consiglieri Beth Sher (every band needs an attorney who can sing).

Or Zarua was performed many times during our year in Israel and, before we returned stateside in the Spring of 1983, we made an informal recording of it. Here you can listen to me, Ellen, Les, Benjie, Kyla and David singing it in its original form.

Beged Kefet would record three albums during the years that followed: The First Album, Go Out in Joy, and One Little Dot. But Or Zarua appeared on none of them. Why? Because I never finished writing it. In fact, we never again performed it … until the new recording below.

The text of Or Zarua is lovely. It comes from the 97th Psalm. “Or zarua la’tzadik ul’yishrei lev simcha … light is sown for the righteous and the upright of heart.”

I knew there needed to be another section of music for the song to be complete and I’m not sure why but it would be 40 years before I noticed that the very next verse of Psalm 97 would fit perfectly: “Simchu tzadikim b’Adonai v’hodu l’zecher kodsho … the deeds of the righteous celebrate God; every kindness radiates holiness!” That’s not an exact translation but one, I believe, that conveys the beauty of the text.

A bit more about the text.

If you’ve met me in my work as a rabbi, you likely know that while God is very much at the center of my faith, it’s not a literal belief. I don’t know that God actually exists, but I choose to believe in God because it helps me organize the principles by which I try to live my life. I like thinking that the universe wants us to be good to each other. I also like thinking that the universe feels the goodness that radiates from our acts of love and generosity. Less necessary to me is the notion that the universe will reward us for being good to each other. Frankly, if that’s why we’re doing good things, we’ve already missed the point.

In this video I made with Or Zarua as the score, I’ve provided lots of visual examples of people who are being kind and generous and selfless. They’re being the kind of people that I, in my better moments, would like to be. These are the people who bring light into our world. Light is not only “sown” for them, but they have “sown” light for all of us.

And you know what I say to that? God bless them all!

Ellen and I recorded Or Zarua with our dear friends, The Levins (Ira Levin and Julia Bordenaro), in June 2022. I added a fifth voice — a cello — to join the four of us as a quintet.

Hope you like it.

Billy

The sheet music (lead sheet and/or instrumental parts) is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/or-zarua). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

Imagine My Surprise

After writing “Kaddish,” my first piece of music, I composed a few other tunes during high school but hadn’t yet gotten serious about composition. In college, I entered as a music major with the intention of really learning what music composition is all about. Now Brandeis University, while sporting two excellent departments of Theatre and Music, was not at all known for bringing the two together. That is until then-unknown David Crane and Marta Kauffman teamed up in 1977 to direct an extracurricular student production of “Godspell” (for you Brandeis alum, Tympanium Euphorium’s very first show).

Destiny had stepped in.

Events were set in motion that led to my finally meeting the young lady who had sat in the front row of the NFTY Song Competition where “Kaddish” placed and lost. Two years after the competition, Ellen Siegel and I met at auditions for “Godspell.” Consisting of much improvisation, everyone had a great time playing together and by the time the cast list went up, many of us were already fast friends. Ellen and I were cast, she as a member of the ensemble and I as the Lord Jesus himself. Working with this irrepressible cast of amazingly talented, funny and kind actors, Ellen and I got to sing “Day by Day” together and the rest, well, would one day become history. Here we are, in the photo raising the curtain on a whole lotta fun and, in the link just below, singing our hearts out (Ellen in the lead).

Also set in motion were the events that would persuade me to pursue a career in musical theatre rather than becoming a rabbi. For a while anyway.

After “Godspell,” Marta, David, Ellen and I were all in. We wanted to produce a second musical in the coming year. But we thought that “Godspell,” particularly through its auditions, may have shown us most of the theatre talent that Brandeis could offer and we were hard-pressed to come up with a show that would fit. So we decided to write our own. (By the way, we were wrong. There was plenty of other talent at Brandeis, as the following year’s production of “Cabaret” would demonstrate.)

David and Marta wrote the book and lyrics, joined by their uncommonly talented friend, Seth Friedman. I wrote the music (and also some lyrics, a sad tale which I shall share some other day). Ellen and Marta worked together as co-choreographers.

The first show that we wrote (in 1978, my sophomore year) was a one-act entitled “Foundation of Feathers.” Chronicling the world of relationships and what we learn about them in college, this show would be expanded in 1979 (my junior year) to become a two-act musical called “Waiting for the Feeling.” Then in 1980 (my senior year), we wrote “Personals,” a show about people searching for love in the big city (Seth and his brother Joel began contributing songs too at this point).

Both “Waiting for the Feeling” and “Personals” were winners of the American College Theatre Festival, each musical earning a three-day showcase at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Producers from “the real world” of television and theatre had eyes there and, as a result, the following summer (immediately following my graduation), the cast and crew of “Personals” joined a six-week USO tour of American and NATO military bases in Germany and Italy. After that, we moved to New York City where work began for “Personals” to open in November 1985 at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.

Here’s a really (really!) low-quality video of Dee Hoty singing “Imagine My Surprise” in the 1985 production. The sound is clear but the picture isn’t. Dee sounds great, but without a DNA sample you’d be hard-pressed to prove that it’s her. Press PLAY anyway and listen to her great work.

“Personals” ran for eight months. and featured an a-plus cast of seasoned (or soon-to-be-seasoned) actors: Laura Dean, Dee Hoty, Jeff Keller, Trey Wilson, Nancy Opel and Jason Alexander. Paul Lazarus directed. Michael Skloff (who would go on to write the theme song for “Friends”) was our Music Director.

Oh, did I forget to mention that additional music for the show was written by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken? Sheesh, what a couple of hangers-on, trying to advance their musical careers by attaching themselves to my coattails. Oh well, in New York everyone’s gotta try to make it however they can.

And then the fairy tale ended.

Well, not for them. My story took a left turn somewhere in Greenwich Village, with me ending up at Hebrew Union College (a few blocks east of the Minetta Lane Theatre) where I studied to become a rabbi.

It would be nearly 40 years before I returned to music. 2019, to be precise.

In 2019, I wrote a new arrangement for the song “Imagine My Surprise” from “Personals.” I was still working full-time but, after nearly 40 years, I was itching to write music again. Not only that, I was itching to write for instruments as well as voice. I’d never done that and while I was busy rabbi-ing through the years, I’d been listening to great instrumental arrangements along the way and I couldn’t wait to begin my newest journey.

I wanted to start with some music from “Personals” because, in 1998, fourteen years after the show’s run in the Big Apple, “Personals” ran to sell-out crowds at the New End Theatre in London and a cast recording was made. Having that recording has been, of course, incredibly exciting but , two of my songs were performed too slowly. I wanted to make a “composer’s cut” that would perform the songs the way I’d originally intended.

When I wrote this new arrangement, which included parts for cello, clarinet, flute, marimba and violin. I was beside myself with excitement. I knew it would only be a first step in writing good arrangements but I certainly had to start somewhere.

We recorded all the instrumental parts and then brought in veteran Broadway singer Angela DeCicco who graciously agreed to be my vocalist for “Imagine My Surprise.” The recording took place at Studio L in Congers, NY, where sound engineer Larry Alexander — quite the phenom himself for producing albums for Janis Ian (“Between the Lines”), Diana Ross (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”), Bruce Springsteen (“Greetings From Asbury Park”) and The Rolling Stones (“Still Life”) — took the helm and major responsibility for the final sound.

I’d like to think that, for Larry, his entire career had been leading him to this pinnacle moment. But frankly, I was just happy to sit in the room with him and hoped he wouldn’t come to his senses and throw me out.

“Imagine My Surprise” is a bittersweet ballad that tells the story of a soaring love which the singer had never thought was realistically possible. Turns out, she was right. Marta and David wrote this exquisite lyric back in 1980. The song came too late for any of our Brandeis productions, and also for our USO tour; it made its debut at the Minetta Lane.

I remember sitting in a practice room at Brandeis composing this music. Never really “the ballad guy,” this was really fun for me. I loved watching the song emerge as I played around on the piano. At times, Marta or David would be there with me and we’d work together to find just the right feel. In time, we were really pleased with what we created.

As it turns out, “Imagine My Surprise” may very well be my best known piece of music. It’s used frequently in auditions and cabarets (a lot of them on YouTube).

Here’s the final product. Angela was great. Larry the engineer was great. The song ain’t too shabby. I hope you like it.

Billy

The sheet music is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/imagine-my-surprise). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.