Been listening nonstop lately to Basya Schechter’s new album, “Songs of Wonder.” I’ve long been a big fan of her and her band Pharaoh’s Daughter – I particularly love the way she effortlessly synthesizes so many different kinds of world musical influences to create Jewish music that is both original yet somehow utterly authentic in its energy.
In her new solo effort she has set the Yiddish poems of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to music. If you didn’t know the venerable Jewish theologian/civil rights activist had written poetry, you’re probably not alone. As it turns out, Heschel wrote them when he was just 26 years old and still a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Berlin. They were published in a wonderful bilingual edition in 2007 – according to the Amazon review:
(This) is the intimate spiritual diary of a devout European Jew, loyal to the revelation at Sinai and afflicted with reverence for all human beings. These poems sound themes that will resonate throughout Heschel’s later popular writings: human holiness, a passion for truth, awe and wonder before nature, God’s quest for righteousness, solidarity with the downtrodden, and unwavering commitment to tikkun olam. In these poems, we also discover a young man’s acute loneliness, dismay at God’s distance, and dreams of spiritual and sensual intimacy with a woman.
For her album, Schechter assembled a posse of the best of the best musicians from the downtown NYC Jewish music scene and recorded ten songs that melded the young Heschel’s spiritual yearnings to her trademark eclectic Jewish sound. It’s a fabulous, mesmerizing album.
If you’re like me and you live outside subway distance of the Upper West Side/Lower East Side, just click above to see her performing “My Song.” (The music starts at about 1:07). And you should check out this very thorough piece on her by the Forward’s Alexander Gelfand.
Looking for spiritually alternative ways to count the Omer? Click above to watch/listen to the great John Zorn Ensemble perform “Gevruah,” then below for Zorn’s “Yesod,” as performed by the Crakow Klezmer Band.
As you listen, read this rendering of Psalm 24 by Stephen Mitchell:
The earth belongs to the Lord
and everything on it is his.
For he founded it in empty space
and breathed his own life-breath into it,
filling it with manifold creatures,
each one precious in his sight.
Who is fit to hold power
and worthy to act in God’s place?
Those with a passion for the truth,
who are horrified by injustice,
who act with mercy to the poor
and take up the cause of the helpless,
who have let go of selfish concerns
and see whole earth as sacred,
refusing to exploit her creatures
or to foul her waters and her lands.
Their strength is in their compassion;
God’s light shines through their hearts.
Their children’s children will bless them,
and the work of their hands will endure.
And/or this excerpt from James Dickey’s poem, “The Strength of the Fields:”
Dear Lord of all the fields
what am I going to do?
Street-lights, blue-force and frail
As the homes of men, tell me how to do it
To withdraw how to penetrate and find the source
Of the power you always had
light as a moth, and rising
With the level and moonlit expansion
Of the fields around, and the sleep of hoping men.
You? I? What difference is there? We can all be saved
By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night and you walk with me we know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home-deep beds.
We know that the sun is away we know that the sun can be conquered
By moths, in blue home-town air.
The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under
The pastures. They look on and help. Tell me, freight-train,
When there is no one else
To hear. Tell me in a voice the sea
Would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts,
Hundreds of miles away, its fumbling, deep-structured roar
Like the profound, unstoppable craving
Of nations for their wish.
Hunger, time and the moon:
The moon lying on the brain
as on the excited sea as on
The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake
With purpose. Wild hope can always spring
From tended strength. Everything is in that.
That and nothing but kindness. More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green. That is where it all has to start:
With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
Than save every sleeping one
And night-walking one
My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.
The release of a new Steve Earle CD is always a pretty big deal for me – and I’m really loving his latest, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
Amidst great tunes about the BP oil spill, NOLA after Katrina, and the hubris of Empire is a song Earle wrote for Joan Baez some years back called “God is God.” Give a listen: it’s about as humble and lovely a spiritual statement as you’ll ever hear sung by a radical leftist country singer:
I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah I believe in God and God ain’t me
I’ve traveled around the world,
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less.
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God but God ain’t us
God of my little understanding. Don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all
I receive the blessings
And every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on Earth and maybe not
But I believe in God and God is God