Rabbi David Levin-Kruss
Director of Jewish Education for Europe for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)
Imagine the scene. Heads huddled over texts. Learners gesticulating, talking and even arguing with each other. A typical scene at a classic yeshiva, no? No. Take a little bit of a closer look and you will see that the students are not studying Bible or Talmud but teasing out the Jewish and personal implications of the words of modern songs.
I came to this method of teaching Jewish values almost by chance. I was nervous about speaking at a highly diverse retreat for young people and remembered that I had attended sessions in which popular songs were mined for their Jewish content. I decided to choose a few favorites and do the same.
It started out as a “trick” to get participants interested. But as I researched deeper, I realized that these songs are pregnant with meaning and often act as modern commentary on classic Jewish texts.
Why does this method work?
- People’s expectations are challenged. Suddenly Jewish ideas are clothed in culture that learners relate to and participants are surprised at finding layers of meaning they did not know about.
- Music speaks to the soul in a way that words cannot. Once participants feel an emotional connection they are open to hearing content.
- There is a tendency to compartmentalize Judaism and see it as distinct from everyday life. Here the two are brought together causing people to think about Judaism differently and seeing its relevance.
A few examples of insights and how they were used educationally
- In Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” he speaks about us appearing before God in “rags of light.” This is based on the story of Adam and Eve who were exiled from the Garden of Eden. Before they left, God made them clothes of leather. R. Meir, in an early rabbinic work called Breishit Raba, points out that the Hebrew word for leather – “or” – is a homophone (a word that sounds the same as another word but has different meaning and spelling) to the word “or” meaning light. Cohen challenges us to ask what people who are destitute need – something physical (leather), something spiritual (light) or both? (This is the rock song of the title.)
- In the African American spiritual “Go Down Moses” we read that the Israelites were “oppressed so hard they could not stand.” This could mean they were so tired that they could not physically stand. It can mean they could not stand/tolerate what they were going through. Or it may mean they were unable to stand up for their rights. These three interpretations are a perfect metaphor for the trajectory of oppression. Oppression starts out as physical (tired), becomes psychological (can’t stand it) and eventually becomes political (so oppressed they cannot even protest). (This is the revolutionary song referred to in the title of this article.)
- In Regina Spektor’s Samson she tells the story of how the biblical hero Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut. There is speculation that this also refers to a cancer patient who decides to cut their hair off rather than waiting for the chemo to destroy it. Lots to talk about here in terms of heroism, pain, activism, strength, and acceptance. (This is the rebelliousness referred to in the title of this article.)
Is this something I can do myself in my educational work?
Of course. Here are some of the many ways to do this.
- There are a handful of people who specialize in teaching Jewish ideas or Israel through music and lyrics. Invite one of them to present.
- The internet is a wonderful resource. If there is a song you love that you know has Jewish content, research it and teach it.
- This is a great activity for participants to do themselves. Have them choose songs or give them songs with some guiding questions and let them explore and share.
What are pitfalls to look out for?
- It has to be real. One can choose a song that has a vague connection to a Jewish concept and use it as a hook but people will soon see through this. Instead choose songs that really rely on Judaism or the Bible or that are thick with meaning.
- Don’t try to be cooler than you are.
- Don’t overuse this idea. It is good as part of a larger program, even a mini-course, but not more than that.
Can you suggest some songs to get started with?
Sure, below are my favorites:
Exodus – Bob Marley
Forever Young – Bob Dylan
Go Down Moses! – African-American traditional
Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan
If It Be Your Will – Leonard Cohen
Rivers of Babylon – Boney M
Samson – Regina Spektor
Spanish Train – Chris De Burgh
Story of Isaac – Leonard Cohen
Turn! Turn! Turn! – Byrds
I guess I am letting on my tastes and age with these but there are many more.
Feel free to be in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your suggestions or with any questions.