This week I invited Miranda Jacobson, CBI member, to offer a member message in place of my weekly message. Miranda joined me for the Rising Song Intensive in New York City from Sunday, Dec. 22 through Wednesday, Dec. 25th. This was my 4th time attending the Intensive, which I consider to be one of the most inspiring gatherings in the Jewish world.
My Experience at the Rising Song Singing Intensive
Guest Blogger, Miranda Jacobson, CBI Member
Just imagine… you’ve travelled from New Mexico to New York, the Big Apple to go to this Jewish singing thingie in the middle of the holiday season rush. The Rabbi of your synagogue, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, strongly suggested you attend it a few months prior. You receive your information packet in an email, have listened to a few of the Niggun (wordless melodies) on Youtube by musician and composer Joey Weisenberg. Indeed, you have listened to and sung some of these melodies on two of the Kabbalat Shabbat at Congregation B’nai Israel and were pleased to find out they were part of the compositions by Joey. So maybe the learning curve won’t be so wide after all? It should be fun at least, meet people who like to sing, increase my knowledge of Jewish music, and hang out in NYC a bissel, what could be bad about this?
You get to the synagogue where the event will take place. It’s a multi-storied building with scaffolding on the outside. Two security guards stationed at the entrance check your bag and wish you well, you receive a packet and name tag and are told the event will start in a bit at the sanctuary down the hall.
Down the hall there are multiple rooms, the sanctuary is at the end of the hall and you open a door to let yourself in. The room is quite large with stained glass windows boarder two of the walls in expression of varied light and Judaic themes, ornamented pipes from a hidden pipe organ are part of a central area on the front wall and a large upper mezzanine with chairs is above with a circular rose style stained glass window on the upper wall. The Synagogue is called Bnai Jerushun, BJ for short.
Many chairs have been set up in the center of the large room in concentric circles around an original smaller circle of chairs where a few musical instruments and microphones are standing. Some people are already sitting in chairs and you look around at a sea of chairs and few chatty individuals. You sit with them introduce yourself and find out that the row you are seated in has mostly Cantors and Rabbis in attendance who have been to this singing thingie before. “Oh this is your first time!” They exclaim, “You’ll love it!”
Soon all the chairs fill with friendly and lively individuals as well as some musicians tuning their instruments and talking in the “inner circle”. The leader, Joey Weisenberg, introduces himself and welcomes everyone to the event, it’s the largest one they have had with 230 in attendance. Most in attendance applauded and cheered. “Well this is kind of different, we’re not in the Hollywood Bowl at some rock concert, yet the leader is being lauded as if he were a personality akin to Byonce Knowles or Sting. This should be interesting.”
Almost immediately he begins to sing a niggun. Most people repeat the melody he is singing. He is leading by making hand gestures that illustrate how high or low the group should sing. The song is introduced slowly and deliberately and when it appears as if all are singing the rhythm is then increased.
This niggun was sung repeatedly throughout the three and a half days of the event. Sometimes groups were asked to repeat a counter melody or drone to the niggun theme and sometimes attendees found their own harmonies and rhythms to sing along with those singing the main melody. This was just the beginning.
Throughout the event there were specific elective events that you could choose to go to, their descriptions were offered in your booklet and you went to a room or remained in the sanctuary for these. There was always a beginning and ending plenary session where the entire group of attendees convened to sing together.
I personally attended events that had more of a Sefardi or Israeli tone to them. My maternal grandfather sang nigguns after some dinners we attended at his home. Singing in a Sefardi, Mideastern style is quite different from singing choral music, it is more similar to yelling a melody than singing. I guess if the wind is blowing through the sand dunes you have to get your message across through a more forceful style of singing than usual. (Who knows…). In this breakout session, Galeet Dardashti gave a historical background informative session prior to leading us in singing. She shared with us a Chanukah song and suggested we learn it so that when she leads it as the candles were lit we could help everyone sing. We did.
Some of the topics attendees could join were:
Yearning to Grow:Chabad Nigunim, Tefillat haLev: the Prayer of the Heart, Becoming the Song, How can we bless God? The meaning(s) of Barukh Atta Hashem, Making Space for PRAISE, Songs Nona Taught Me and other Treasures to Open the Mouth, Soften the Heart and Stir the Imagination, Mizrahi Sacred Songs (Piyutim)—From Pulpit to Pop Chart, Preparing for Encounter, and many more.
Most importantly what attendees took away from this event is that they are not alone in their singing prayers and piyyutim (poetry with a sacred text). Everyone was singing at full force, their heads off – their hearts out. Around the periphery some danced. Most clapped in rhythm and in counter rhythm. We were also taught some basic rhythms to introduce to congregations to keep everyone on the same beat, in the same boat.
There was a bold honesty present at all the parts of the event that allowed for individuals to easily introduce themselves to others if they wanted to, sing out and leave feeling like they have learned more tools than what they came with from their past experiences. Attendees came from all over the US as well as all parts of the world to sing together and learn how to share their voices in song.
But why? Why are niggunim so important in our congregational lives? What can niggun do that other forms of singing seem to fall short of? Wordless melodies and melodies to sacred liturgy repeated multiple times tend to get into the heart of those singing and send a spiritual message to HaShem. Like small children who do not speak yet, babies babble. They use syllabic utterings to express their feelings and desires. So here we all are, adults, singing out like babes to HaShem. We are His children, His creation, His babies, crying out with all our hearts for a world of greater peace, joy and connection to the creator of it all.
Indeed, all the niggunim I learned are still rolling through my head. The event has not left my heart or mind. Here is an excerpt of Joey Weisenberg leading a music session at a previous intensive: https://www.hadar.org/events/december-concert
The Rising Song Intensive concludes with a concert with both instrumental and vocal performances, the audience is invited to sing as well. There were 700 attendees at the concert. A group of ten musicians performed the niggun that we learned with an interpretive twist as well as masterfully expressing through voice and instruments, new selections. You can listen to this wonderful concert HERE.
The event is called The Hadar Rising Song Intensive by the Rising Song Institute a sector of Hadar.org, which is given once a year. The Hadar organization https://www.hadar.org/ offers different events throughout the year, with differing purposes. They have in house as well as internet broadcast events throughout the year, and scholarly offerings in Torah and current topics of interest to the public at large in relation to Judaism and ethics and current events.
Do yourself a favor and visit the website: https://www.hadar.org/ to look for yourself. There are some musical offerings but also many other courses available, given by experts in their field of endeavor.
I want to thank Rabbi Dov Gartenberg for offering to assist me in attending this mind, song and heart opening event. Next year it would be wonderful for a group from New Mexico to attend! Why not? It couldn’t hurt! It will only change your life.