May the old be renewed, and may the new become holy.
This quote may be short, but it is profound to me. The old can become new by being rediscovered, reinvented, or refashioned. The new can be holy when it is authentic and touches in some way the Divine inherent in life.
The tension between the old and the new is a familiar one in Jewish music. Everyone wants to hear the “traditional” L’cha Dodi or the V’shamru they grew up with. These tunes feel like they are miSinai, from Sinai. How can we feel comfortable praying without them?
What does it mean to learn and adapt to new tunes, especially those written by living composers? It takes an openness to the new, to the potentially holy. For some of us, it means hearing and singing tunes by contemporary songwriters like Josh Nelson, Rick Recht, and Ellen Allard. For others, it takes hearing music that is more complex and maybe even challenging. Music that is accessible reflects the imminence of God; music that is sophisticated can touch the transcendent nature of God.
As most of you know, my father, David Stock, died in November. He was a passionate composer, educator, and promoter of New Music. For sure he loved the classics, but he also believed that concert music doesn’t have to be restricted to that which was written in the 18th or 19th Century. He said that going to the symphony doesn’t have to be like going to a museum — music is a living, ever-evolving art form. He also believed that new music expands beyond pop. It is possible to touch people’s souls through high level, intricate sounds. As Jewish composer Sam Adler put it – we don’t have to “dumb down” our music when many of the people who are listening to it are so highly educated.
I also believe in the power of pop music and the space for simple, accessible melodies. I was also raised to value the importance of sophisticated arrangements of straightforward tunes as well as cutting edge compositions that feel sacred, whether sung communally or rendered chorally. Some of this new Jewish music is meant for the concert hall, not only the sanctuary.
My father wrote many concert pieces. His Jewish identity was a foundation for many of his compositions. As he said, “Somewhere along the way, I changed from being a composer who was Jewish to being a Jewish composer.” He wrote many lifecycle songs for our family, liturgical music, and concert pieces with Jewish themes and musical motifs. One of many examples is his piece A Vanished World – written for flute, harp, viola, and chamber ensemble – about the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe who fell to the Nazis. Throughout this piece is woven the tune of what many of us know as the “traditional” Shalom Aleichem. May the old be renewed, and may the new become holy.
Listen to A Vanished World here:
There are many living or recent Jewish composers who have written settings for Jewish prayers and texts, whether for services or for symphonies and vocal or instrumental combinations.
Here are samples of pieces, both liturgical and not, by some of those composers (and there are many, many more!):
Shalom Aleichem by William Sharlin
Mi Shebeirach for the Community by Benjie-Ellen Schiller
Tzena Urena (“Go Forth and See”) by Yehezkel Braun
Avinu Shebashamayim (Prayer for the State of Israel) by Meir Finkelstein
I hope you will have an opportunity to listen to some of the pieces linked here. As a diverse movement, it is important for us to hold onto the “traditional,” be open to the “new,” enjoy the wonderful pop-style songs being written today, and explore cutting-edge pieces by modern composers. May the old be renewed, and may the new become holy.
Rachel Stock Spilker, Cantor