Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Kaddish II

After sharing the story (see “Kaddish“) of the first piece of music I ever wrote (at age 17), I’m delighted to share a new development. A very talented friend of mine, Amir Sinai Weisglas, emailed me with the following:

“When I listened to the old recording of your Kaddish, I was struck by its optimistic energy and beauty. I had to do a version of mine. The last two weeks were all around this piece. I recorded a grand first version, but it was not correct. So I started again and here is the second version. What I loved the most about your composition was that this text, which is for me (and us, Israelis) is usually connected to negative, dramatic, down-pulling energy, turned to be something optimistic, pray of bless.”

Amir’s original artwork for the song

Amir is a very dear friend of mine. We met in the summer of 2007 at Kutz Camp, the Reform movement’s teen leadership program in Warwick, NY. I was a volunteer rabbi on faculty teaching Jewish Ethics, Jewish Attitudes toward Tattoos and Navel Piercing, as well as Sonic Spirituality, a deeper dive into the emotional power of music. Amir, who is from Israel, served on staff for the Visual Arts program, an all-purpose role that included not only teaching but coordinating the wildest of requests from anywhere in camp for art support, including a working, life-sized Wheel of Fortune.

These days, Amir lives in Berlin where he now spends time pursuing the musical arts, a talent of his I hadn’t known about during our summer together. We reconnected a couple of years ago, just on Facebook, first to say hi and then to discuss our musical interests and ideas. Amir is such a kind, thoughtful and rather brilliant person that it was always a treat to spend some time with him. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to listen to more of his creations as he posted them on YouTube and Spotify.

When I posted here a piece about “Kaddish,” my first musical composition (written when I was 17 years old), Amir heard it and right away began thinking about how he would cover it.

“I knew I wanted to keep some of the original recording, which in my opinion is perfect (soooo many music producers are working very, very hard to get the tape/old/low-fi sound, and here it is in its full glory) and took it to my contemporary world, mixing electronica with orchestral work.”

This wasn’t long after the massacre of October 7, and Amir explained to me that these words of Kaddish were resonating quite strongly for him. Recording my melody became one more path for his grief journey.

“Every time I tried recording vocals, I ended up crying! I feel like this is my prayer at this moment, as so many are suffering, and so much disharmony is surrounding us.”

Back when I was 17, the only one close to me who had died was my dog, Frankie. So I really had no reference for the feeling of grief. The song was innocent and naive. I wrote it in a minor key because, well, wouldn’t you have to? But I’ve never quite been able to write sad music. To then learn that 50 years later it had moved my friend to tears, that came as a surprise and (can I say this?) an honor. Amir didn’t just like the tune; he was moved by it.

“About the upbeat recording, I find it full of power — your piano playing is great with strong fingers — and I love the upbeat feeling of the song. It has the youth(fulness) in it, without inhibition! I find it perfect.”

As I mentioned in the first article, I only composed this at the request of my teacher. Imagine how surprised (and pleased) I was to witness this emerge from inside me. I suspect all art is difficult at one level of another. The song hadn’t “emerged” but rather had been somewhat “torn” from my insides. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as difficult as musical composition. From the first project to this very day, the struggle is topped with immense satisfaction and pride. I was hooked and I still am!

“I also noticed your change of tempos in the recording, as it is clearly no metronome-based recording, and this brings it a special flavor. I also wonder where you recorded this, as the piano is tuned up about 60% above 440, a bit more than half a ton.”

This makes me laugh. I’m always having trouble maintaining a steady tempo. For Amir to tell me that “this brings it a special flavor,” is such a sweet way to respond to a person’s flaw. Would that we treated everyone like this!

So now, I’m very, VERY happy to share with you, Amir Sinai Weisglas’ “ElektroKaddish.” It’s quite different from my version, and I love every moment of it. Yes, he cultivates the lo-fi sound that’s in such vogue these days, but don’t let that fool you. Listen carefully to the quiet activity taking place in the background. As promoted above in my mini-bio of Amir, it’s brilliant.

You can listen to it on Spotify or on YouTube …

About his artwork for the song, Amir writes, “The image is part of a recent series of drawings I’ve been working on using ink, acrylic, and wall paint. I chose it intuitively after extensively searching for an image to accompany the song. The lyrics are profound and abstract, so an abstract approach to the image felt appropriate. Given that the text connects to the themes of life, death, and the entire circle of life, I immersed myself in the fluidity, flow and drip of paint. This allowed me to avoid committing to a single interpretation of the image of the music. Reflecting on it further, the tension between the electronic tools I used to create the music and bring it to you, and the manual, analogue work of the drawing and the music embodies the contemporary Holy Spirit. I am grateful for the ability to bridge the new and the old, merging electronics with analogue, and connecting the United States, Germany, and Israel today. The song and the image are my prayers for a better future.”

Thank you, Amir. I’m endlessly touched that you were moved to create this moving piece. While I doubt we’re going to make it onto the Top 40 this year, if nothing else your creation should be nominated for the Kaddish Music Hall of Fame. Yashir koach, chaver.

Billy

The sheet music and mp3 for my original “Kaddish” are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/kaddish). 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.

Panim El Panim

Do you know what he said when they asked Uncle Jeffrey (as we know him in our house, but most everyone else knows him as Rabbi Jeff Sirkman) who he’d like them to commission to write a piece of music honoring him for his 36 years as spiritual leader of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY?

“Uncle Billy.”

Yep, he’s one of my closest friends. My kids call him Uncle Jeffrey and his kids call me Uncle Billy. Just the same, his temple leadership wondered if maybe he wanted them to hire someone with a more proven track record.

“Nope. I want Billy Dreskin to write a song for me. And I want Beged Kefet to sing it.”

“But Uncle Jeffrey,” I fruitlessly explained, “Beged Kefet stopped performing more than a decade ago!” Jeffrey was adamant so I agreed to ask. And surprise surprise, everyone said yes.

But now I was in big trouble. Receiving a music commission is a big deal. I had to come through.

I asked Ellen if she would work on the lyrics with me and, thank God, she said yes. In a few days I came up with a starter idea for the music but before we set our minds to finding the words, I needed to do some research. I asked Jeffrey to send me his favorite sermons and bulletin articles which I combed through searching for common themes and motives, settling on an idea that he came back to again and again:

“Punim to punim.”

That’s Boshkenazic (Ashkenazic Hebrew with a Boston accent) for “face to face.” Throughout Jeffrey’s rabbinate, he’s always been about “meeting,” about people coming together. Whether family, friend, neighbor or stranger, Jeffrey believes that we actualize our best selves when we connect compassionately and whole-heartedly with others. Including with ourselves!

And that was plenty to get us going. Ellen and I started crafting verses, which inspired more music, which led the way to more words. It took a few weeks of shuttle diplomacy (Ellen in her study downstairs and me in mine upstairs). In time, we created a piece that we felt was perfect for honoring our friend.

I arranged the music for Beged Kefet to sing, joined by Larchmont Temple’s Cantor Katie Oringel along with her volunteer choir and temple band. Parts were distributed and rehearsals were arranged.

Beged Kefet met a month before, not only singing Panim El Panim together for the first time but ANYTHING for the first time since February 2009. What a treat to gather with these longtime friends and prepare this incredibly special gift, a gift for Uncle Jeffrey and a gift for ourselves.

On Friday, November 17, 2023, we joined Jeffrey and Katie on their bimah at Larchmont Temple and, along with 700 or so other guests, sang our little hearts out. This was the first time he had heard the song but when Jeff then got up to speak, he began his words with “punim to punim.” Guess Ellen and I chose right (even if he does pronounce it wrong).

The only thing left to do was to get into the studio and mix the raw tracks from that night and make sure it was sync’d properly with the video stream (which has a bunch of glitches in it but we were able to get the music to work just fine).

And here you have it. Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in nearly 15 years, Beged Kefet — live!

Hope you like it,
Billy

P.S. The mp3 recording and sheet music (lead sheet and instrumental parts) are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/panim-el-panim). 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.

P.P.S. If you want to learn more about Beged Kefet, visit https://www.billydreskin.net/or-zarua where I tell the whole story. You’ll also find links there to hear Beged Kefet’s three albums.

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.

V’haer Eineinu

This piece got written when Rabbi Scott Weiner and I were looking for a melody for V’haer Eineinu that would work on Yom Kippur with his congregation, Tamid Westchester. There are some excellent tunes out there but not one we felt was right for this friendly, participatory community AND that fit the Yom Kippur mood.

So I sat down and worked up a melody that might be a fit. Not wanting to bias Scott’s choice, I presented mine among the other tunes without tipping him off as to its authorship. One by one, we listened to them and when we finished hearing this one, Scott exclaimed (and I quote), “Chicken dinner, we have a winner!” One of my very favorite reviews ever.

Here’s a video I put together …

V’haer Eineinu is part of Ahavah Rabbah, one of the morning prayers between Barechu and Shema. The theme of Ahavah Rabbah is the love of Torah. V’haer Eineinu asks God to open our eyes and our hearts to the teachings of Torah so that we might learn to live in such a way that we never stumble, never feel shame, and never need rebuke. It’s a tall order, to be sure, and I personally have missed the mark more than my share of the time. But a person has to have goals, right? In the musical, Merrily We Roll Along, Charley exclaims, “What’s the point of demands you can meet?” Perhaps it’s the same with lofty goals. In fact, I think it’s the point of God – a model for living that is perfection, impossible to match but commendable to try.

Living one’s life with honor and integrity seems to be a set of goals that are very much worth pursuing. That, I think, is the point of V’haer Eineinu.

Here’s a fairly literal translation of the passage. “Enlighten us with Your Teaching, help us to hold fast to Your mitzvot, and unite us in our hearts to love and revere Your Name. Then we will never feel shame, never deserve rebuke, and never stumble. Then we will put our trust in You, the great, holy and awesome One.”

While I wanted English lyrics to be included in the piece, I needed fewer of them and also wanted to convey the universal impact that loving God (if we do so carefully) can have on the world around us. I settled on: “By the light of Your Word that illumines our way, help us love and revere deeds of truth and justice, so that we’ll never fall. That’s the gift of heeding Your call. We thank You.”

I finished the song as Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Center, a bastion of justice work, was retiring. I dedicated V’haer Eineinu to her because she’s the kind of person I would point to as a Torah success story, learning and synthesizing the lessons of Jewish living into every fiber of her being and changing countless lives as a result.

I arranged “V’haer Eineinu” for two voices (duet or choral) and three horns (mostly because I was learning how to write for horns and wanted to use my newly acquired knowledge). The recording includes my and Ellen’s voices (sometimes 16 of them!), me on keyboard, plus a trumpet, a saxophone and a trombone. I admit that, while I love the horns, they may not be to others’ liking. I absolutely believe the piece can be accompanied by three gentler instruments like flute and clarinet. Or just use the piano.

Here’s a video of the two of us singing with just the piano …

By the way, while I may have composed V’haer Eineinu for the High Holy Days, it’s certainly useable on weekdays and Shabbat too.

Billy

The sheet music is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/vhaer-eineinu). 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.

Kaddish

The first music I ever wrote was due to the encouragement of my mentor and friend, Rabbi Joel Wittstein (z”l). As Educational Director in the mid-1970’s of Isaac Mayer Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH, Joel suggested I take a semester off from regular classes to study something in Hebrew and then try setting it to music. Why he saw ”the music thing” in me before I did, I’ll never know. But I’m forever grateful that he did.

That was eleventh grade. I’d spent two summers at a Jewish summer camp (URJ Goldman Camp in Zionsville, IN) and had learned lots of Hebrew prayers and songs but all in English letters. So when Joel asked me to choose something to learn in Hebrew, I settled on the Kaddish, our prayer of remembrance for those who have died. I’d learned to mimic the Hebrew pronunciations but, once given the opportunity, I knew that this was the prayer (and it’s a long one) that I wanted to study in its original language.

This, by the way, began a lifelong love affair with Hebrew that took me to rabbinical school, to Israel, and to studying and reading from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) many, many times throughout my life.

Yep. That’s me. 18 years old in 1975 and ready to take on the world.

This recording was made in 1975. The sound quality is pretty awful because all I had back then was a cheap cassette tape recorder. Amy Liebschutz, a friend from Kindergarten onward and now an extraordinary vocalist in New York City who goes by the stage name of Amy London, sang for me. The tape earned us a place that same year in the finals of Reform Judaism’s NFTY Song Competition to be held at the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. Coming from Cincinnati where Amy and I were born and raised, traveling to New York for a North American competition was a big deal.

When we arrived at the airport, however, the organizers forgot to pick us up so Amy and I had to find a shuttle into New York City, a subway to Port Authority, and a bus to Warwick, no easy feat for two young and innocent midwesterners. We were so happy to still be alive by the time we got to Kutz!

Oh, we lost the competition. That was disappointing but it was still exciting to have been there. And guess who was sitting in the front row during the performances? A young lady named Ellen Siegel from Texas. I would meet Ellen two years further down the road when we landed at the same college, fell in love and, seven years after the song competition, got married.

The tune has never gotten much use. Folks don’t really want to sing Kaddish. We used it a few times at Goldman camp. I remember Ish Tov (Rabbi Steve Goodman) playing it on his violin, which was pretty awesome. But that’s about it. Which is okay. I’m still very proud of this first effort.

Life sure is fascinating. Hope you enjoy this first work of mine!

Billy

Addendum: I posted notice of this piece on Facebook (1/18/24) and was stunned (and delighted) at the response. So many people remember “Kaddish” from temple in Cincinnati and camp in Zionsville, Indiana. I remember it being played a few times at services, but to imprint itself in people’s memories deeply enough that they remember it even now? I just never thought it was that kind of tune. Now that I think about it though, I remember how proud we all were that a new piece of music had emerged from our temple and/or camp. After all, we had always loved and sung the songs that came from elsewhere. This (along with the Ian Silver/Julie Schorsch Sapper “Yihiyu L’ratzon,” which actually has seen real life after its 1970s summertime appearance) was one of our own. That was cool and I loved getting to share in that with everyone. All I can say is thank you for letting me know, and wait til you catch my next act!

The sheet music and mp3 are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/kaddish). 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.