The Song Is the Pen of the Soul

By Rebecca Teplow

Even though my parents think I’m in class at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, I’m taking the subway for my first day at the High School of Performing Arts, the  school featured in the movie Fame. As the train pulls out of Brooklyn, a sudden wave of nausea overtakes me. As my eyes dart up and down the car, I recognize a woman who lives in my building. A social worker, she talks and calms me down. With a little emotional fortitude, I make it to the West 47th Street exit in Manhattan without vomiting. I find my way to the school and stare, mesmerized by 750 ethnically diverse students, dancing in the streets to boomboxes. 

That night, I tell my parents where I’ve been. On the surface they fume, but deep inside they must have been conflicted. Why else would my father have come with me to the audition last January? Was it only so that he could brag to all his friends about my acceptance to “Fame High”? I found the yellow, ripped acceptance letter saying that “out of thousands of applicants, only 200 students are accepted.” My father doesn’t save many things, but that letter was protected in plastic. 

The next day I’m shipped back to Yeshivah of Flatbush, where I’m unhappy and lonely, despite the presence of my childhood friends. I don’t fit in. My passion for Humash and Navi has yet to be ignited. My soul craves music and the tools to develop my God-given talent. 

The following week I return to the High School of Performing Arts for freshman year, but the conflict resurfaces in my sophomore year, when I’m pushed back to Yeshivah of Flatbush. After the first week, my parents meet with Rabbi David Eliach, the principal, who says, “Let her go back to Performing Arts”—although I will never know if he was looking out for my best interests or just couldn’t deal with my feisty personality. 

I stay at Performing Arts for the rest of high school. Although it’s far from easy, it’s the right decision for me. If I had stayed in yeshiva, with its rigorous dual curriculum, I wouldn’t have had the time and training to become a disciplined musician. Religiously, I stay connected through after-school Judaic studies, Jewish summer camps, and Shabbatons, but it is difficult to miss the Friday night and Saturday orchestra performances, as well as the recording session of Fame on Shabbat. It’s particularly difficult holding on to my Jewish identity and ideals while exposed to such diversity at the age of thirteen. 

An Outsider in Two Worlds

I’m an outsider in two worlds—the yeshiva and the secular world—but music keeps me connected to both. When I play a Bach Solo Partita for Violin, I feel as though I enter the sanctuary. When I sit around the fire at Camp Moshava and sing zemirot, I fill the space of the Holy of Holies. In my musical compositions, I continue to fuse these two worlds, combining the complex harmonic and rhythmic techniques from classical training with the beautiful simplicity of Jewish melodies. My musical influences include J. S. Bach, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush. My biggest life influences are my husband, Josh, and my three children, Joe, Avery, and Tamara, who focus my creative juices. 

Not everyone is a musician or artist, but everyone has a rich and beautiful God-given life.

I’m not sure whether I have performance anxiety or whether the principle of  presents a strong obstacle to my expressing my love of God freely through public song. Am I afraid that I am not being a “good girl” when I sing in public? After many years of hiding from public performance, I have now taken the leap. Although I still define Jewish women’s territory in a certain restricted way—for example, singing Shabbat zemirot only in an undertone—it is time for me  to tap my inner strength, to model for my children, students, and future generations what I truly believe in my heart: It cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to encourage hearing the inner voice of the soul’s yearning for spiritual greatness. 

Sometimes I have a hard time connecting to God in synagogue. Spirituality is such a personal thing, and I feel there are too many people around me in synagogue. I am a private person, and people hear this introspective quality in my music. They tell me it evokes the core of their neshama (soul) in a private, intense connection to God.

When I’m singing, though, I’m completely focused on recognizing God’s presence in my life. Listeners feel this and absorb the emotion, and the music echoes in their soul. The occasional sadness someone hears is a reflection of my soul’s yearning for spirituality. My music directs people not to escape from the sadness of their soul—not to try to fill the void with money, fancy cars, jewelry, or painkillers. There is joy in this yearning, which should be embraced. 

The maxim, “Every Jew is responsible for all other Jews” guides us in our search for God. It teaches us to release ourselves to faith and to try connecting with God through the mitzvot (good deeds). In this spirit, and wanting to donate my concert proceeds to a Jewish cause, I came upon JOFA. On JOFA’s website I read articles about kol isha that opened my eyes to new understandings. I’m so grateful that I can contribute to an organization that is making such a difference in my Jewish life. The road to redemption is happily a two-way street. 

Jewish Women as Definers of Spirituality

“If words are the pen of the heart,” taught Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “then song is the pen of the soul.” While God’s words of Torah flow down to our minds and actions, joyous song carries our souls upward to connect with the Almighty. Women are creators of life, physical developers of the next generation. Jewish women are also the definers of Jewish spirituality in the home. Jewish women are connecting their children with words of Torah, but many aren’t tapping into the spiritual core of ecstatic singing of which Rabbi Zalman spoke. 

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s article on kol isha (see Kol Isha: Don't Drown Out A Woman's Voice) cites many rabbis, including Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, and Rabbi David Bigman, who have written that women may sing publicly. Others in our community have rejected this view—but in doing so, they risk destroying our spiritual community, if women remain “locked in a box” like Dinah. Rabbi Herzfeld says, “If we deny the girls of our community the ability to express themselves through song, we run the very real risk of allowing them to be serenaded by an alternative influence.” After reading Rabbi Herzfeld’s article, my interest was sparked to do some research of my own. I learned that the word erva (nakedness) comes from the root ayin-reish-hey, which means to uncover, to bare oneself. The notion of revelation inherent in this root seems to be more innocent than the Gemara’s later definition of erva as unchasteness or lewdness. I choose to understand the idea of a woman’s voice as revelatory, and my songs as pronouncing the Jewish truth of holiness that is a part of our lives. 

The Voice as a Loan from God

Our voice is a loan from God. We must surrender our egos and trust in God, because we are all merely God’s instruments. God is playing a melody through us. Sometimes we compromise the good we may do by assuming that humility requires stepping out of the spotlight. However, there is nothing wrong with confidently recognizing our talents and strengths. On the contrary, there is something wrong when we don’t: “You shall serve God with all your heart and all your soul and all your resources” (Deut. 6:4–5).

Two years ago I was wheeled into emergency surgery on Yom Kippur. I was still awake when the nurse asked if she could play my CD, which I had given to the surgeon. I nodded yes, and then felt a surreal gust of air push me back as I listened to “Birkat Kohanim” while the anesthesiologist told me to count backward from 20. There really was no better way for me to daven that Yom Kippur. There really is no better way for me to serve God today.


Rebecca Teplow is a singer, composer, and arranger, and a classically trained violinist who studied under Itzhak Perl-man. For bookings and  music, go to rebeccateplow.com.

 

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