Sacred Songs at Shalom
By Christopher Stollar
The poets will come from the fields of Uganda and the streets of New York, but their words will echo one theme: the writings of Jewish liturgy.
Nineteen musicians from around the world will put prayers to music at the Shalshelet Festival this weekend at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.
The styles range from pop and jazz to South American rhythms, but the texts and goal will remain the same: to inspire new music for Jewish use and share these sacred sheets with a secular world.
"We want the audience to sing," said Shalshelet President Hazzan Ramon Tasat. "So little [of life] is about what's important. ... If there is music, there is something higher. ... Music creates a bond with the lasting values, whether love or a sense of transcendence. It brings out the human of people, because it is not tainted with any price."
The artists will turn texts to tunes, drawing from a deep history of Jewish poets, Rabbinic works and the Old Testament.
Some are simple: "Let me see your countenance; let me hear your voice. Sweet is your voice, and lovely your countenance."
Others plead: "My soul mate, merciful father, pull me, your servant, toward you. Your servant will run like a doe and bow in front of your grace."
Carol Boyd Leon from Fairfax and Jeff Marder of Las Vegas will each present "Shalom Aleikhem" ("Peace to the Sabbath Angels"), which begins, "Welcome to you, celestial angels, angels of the most high; the king of kings, the holy one, is praised."
The audience will hear this passage performed in jazz style by Mr. Marder and as American folk by Miss Leon.
Then comes "El Adon" ("Lord, Master of All"). This piece will be performed in Renaissance style by Terry Horowit from Maryland but will take on a Middle Eastern flavor when Shirona Kaufman of New York takes the stage.
"This makes the texts come alive," said Norma Brooks, vice president of Shalshelet. "Some of these melodies have been sung for generations and generations. We're not here to supplant the existing melodies. ... The goal of Shalshelet is to really find and locate liturgical music that is being done around the world and country that may not have a home."
Shalshelet means "chain" and is the name of one of the symbols ("cantillation") for chanting the Hebrew Scripture aloud. Miss Brooks and Mr. Tasat chose this name for their program because it was created to build upon the rich musical legacy of the Israeli Song Festivals held between 1960 and 1980. For many of the performers, those festivals marked the start of their own music careers.
The Shalshelet founders say they hope the composers will become better known at the festival and return with pieces they can share with their congregations and choirs.
"This music won't get played on the radio," said performer Wendy Morrison of Rockville's Tikvat Israel, who called the tunes "treasure houses of little musical gems that people don't know outside of their own synagogues. [Shalshelet] provides a forum to have these treasures disseminated."
The founders also hope their music will mute the mundane.
"There are other colors [to life]," Mr. Tasat said. "We tend to give a number to things, and then those elements of life that can't be measured are discarded. ... I strongly believe that there's nothing more beautiful than everyone singing together. Something happens. A connection is made. ... I hope our audience feels this measure of spirituality."
The festival founders chose 19 performers from among 169 who submitted compositions. Undaunted by the competition, the composers sent their songs because they see a strong connection between their work and their faith.
"The song comes from deep inside," Miss Leon said. "My personal faith is a combination of deeply held religious belief and questioning. The music I write allows me to combine both of those into melody."
The Shalshelet Festival (www.shalshelet.org) begins Saturday night and features three workshops on Sunday afternoon during which visitors can meet the composers and learn about their work.
"Music and faith go hand in hand," Mr. Tasat said. "In American society ... we think that if we work harder, more hours, buy a new car, new house, our lives will be better. Society says, 'Don't look inside of you. You'll find what you need outside.' ... Music does the exact opposite. It always begs for the other."
© Christopher Stollar