In Song Together: For Linda Hirschhorn, Music is a Path to Transformation

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January 24, 2012

© Janice Rubin

Singer and song-leader Linda Hirschhorn is energetic and vivacious. She dresses stylishly but with a bohemian twist: one day a fringed tunic, another day some fabulous beads. She offers praise endlessly: that sounds great, you’re doing beautifully, okay, now listen to each other. Look at each other’s faces. You’re not just solo singers, you’re part of a community, so sing like it.

Hirschhorn’s been singing since she was nine, and writing music since she was a teenager. She’s been at the forefront of the Jewish music scene for decades, ever since her ensemble Vocolot came into being. Hirschhorn writes songs in Hebrew and Yiddish and English, adaptations of liturgy and poetry, folk songs and protest songs.

A lover of Talmud and a college philosophy major, Hirschhorn sees polyvocal harmonies as emblematic of the same kind of diversity-within-unity found in the pages of Jewish sacred texts. She believes that different voices blending together in harmony is not only a metaphor for, but an example of, the kind of coexistence the world needs. And after a few hours singing under her enthusiastic tutelage, I’m inclined to think that she’s right.

I spoke with Hirschhorn recently, to talk about her music, her background, and her passion for her work.

— Rachel Barenblat

ZEEK: Tell us about your background, musically and otherwise?

LH: I went to yeshiva; my family went to Rabbi Weinberg’s shul on Shabbos. This was in Washington Heights, Manhattan. And from the very beginning, I was always in love with music. I became a soloist in our choir, and then I got into music and art high school, which helped me carve my path toward music. It was amazing basic training in theory and voice. They taught us to really develop the voice; we studied theory and composition.

ZEEK: It’s amazing to me that you learned that stuff in high school.

LH: It’s an extraordinary school. I was also a member of Zamir Chorale, which was the first and only thing of its kind, a Jewish teen chorale. We sang Jewish music, really high-caliber. And I sang in an all-city high school chorus with kids from all over New York. So I always had choral singing in my head, from the very beginning. I’ve been hearing harmonies and counterpoints all my life.

In college, I majored in philosophy—it’s interesting, I loved Talmud as a kid, and I think there’s a relationship there. It’s a little bit like chess, thinking many moves ahead and down, trying to see the implications of one train of thought vs. another train of thought. So philosophy was for me an expansion of studying Talmud.

I went to Habonim camps, where we sang folk and labor and political music, early songs of Israel. I lived on a kibbutz for a year, and started a choir there too. By the time I was 15 I was able to make a little bit of money singing for Hadassah and so on; I learned guitar at camp, so I started performing. I did a year of Dalcroze Music, where we spent a lot of time working on polyrhythms, trying to build that into our bodies. Trying to walk in 3/4 but talk in 2/4 is a wonderful training in intuition.

Nana Bagdavadze

ZEEK: My husband used to be an African percussionist, and he’s always drumming polyrhythms.

LH: It’s not my strength, but it’s a place to grow. Then I came to California and started singing in choruses there. That’s when I began writing my own songs. I didn’t want so much to interpret other people’s music as to find what was important to me and write and sing about that. So in the 70s, I did some classic singer/songwriter stuff. I wasn’t very good at first! But I got better, more discerning. I learned more about crafting.

ZEEK: What would you say was the lesson you learned?

LH: Go deeper, don’t go for the cheap rhyme or sentiment. I did improv theatre in those years, too, which I’m doing again now. Forcing yourself to write into the unknown and from the unknown, jumping into the unknown, is a little bit like the creation story. Jumping into your own total chaos, where you have no idea where you’re headed—these things just form themselves. It’s a way of being in touch with creation, over and over again. And also a place of tremendous fear. I might find nothing. Maybe what I’ll find is that I’m empty or shallow! But I force myself to be willing to risk that, because every so often there’s a gem. That makes all the anxiety and fear worthwhile.

Everybody has some kernel that’s uniquely their own that they can offer. The best of my songs are something which cuts deeper, which looks at a universal experience in a particular way. I do a lot of creativity workshops where I try to teach this lesson through theatre and music and harmonies; other people can teach it in different ways. But I think we’re all here on this earth to discover our unique expression. For some people it’s cooking, or raising children – you don’t have to become a songwriter. I see my role as trying to encourage that growth. I want to provide you with the possibility of having your own experience.

ZEEK: My sister once asked me whether I was a woman first or a Jew first, and I couldn’t answer her. I’m not going to ask you that same question, but I’m curious to know: do you do your songwriting/arranging work with the intention of somehow balancing the historic gender biases in Jewish music?

LH: I never had a rupture with Judaism, maybe because my parents weren’t religious. We did a lot of religious things, but we weren’t religious per se. So there was always tremendous comfort for me—I loved the liturgy and the singing, and we didn’t believe in it, and we knew exactly what it was we didn’t believe in! It was beautiful, it had so much poetry. My hazzans were amazing, in my shul growing up. So I never had to leave the Jewish experience as so many others did.

But I did have to discover my feminine connection, for several reasons. One, I sat in the balcony, so I was somehow lesser; I had two older brothers, and as was typical of that time, more was expected of them. I was supposed to be as smart as them, but on the other hand where I was headed did not count as much. Moving to California became the chance for me to claim my place in the world. I joined a women’s theatre group, started doing women’s consciousness-raising, and I started Vocolot. Even though men can sing my choruses, I’m writing for women; you can see where it’s set on the staff.

ZEEK: Last night in your chorus rehearsal I was sitting next to a baritone, and I asked him whether it was weird to be sight-reading treble clef. He said that it really was! It strikes me that that’s a great metaphor for certain kinds of religious experiences—how women have historically felt in Jewish spaces which were created with men’s needs in mind, and how men sometimes feel now in spaces where women’s needs or expectations are the norm.

LH: I hadn’t thought of that. That’s a great interpretation.

ZEEK: You’ve written that at a certain point you felt you were developing a split personality: half of you wanted to sing Israeli songs which romanticized Israel, and half of you wanted to sing peace songs at protest rallies. How did you resolve that—and, relatedly, have those issues arisen for you in more recent years since the second intifada?

LH: These issues are still playing out, but more and more people are seeing what’s happening in Israel and aren’t happy with it. So there’s movement there. Everything’s moving in the direction I’ve been in – also in terms of interfaith cooperation and dialogue; I’ve been doing that work for years. And of course, more and more women are cantors and rabbis.

ZEEK: I was talking with a friend recently who has a little boy, and he asked his son what he wanted to be when he grew up, and the kid listed the usual kinds of things—spaceman, policeman. And my friend said, “How about a rabbi?” and without missing a beat, the kid said, “Daddy, rabbis are girls!” It still amazes me that we live in an era when a kid could think that.

LH: It’s an amazing shift. There has to be balance there too, ultimately, but for now this is pretty amazing. And I find that I feel less split as, around me, things are integrating.

One concern I have about Jewish Renewal is, some of the Renewal communities are not as sensitive to language as I am. I’m sensitive to God-language. That’s why I did the Marcia Falk project.

© Janice Rubin

ZEEK: What was that like?

LH: The material is amazing. It’s just exquisite language. It expresses so much of what we express in liturgy, but through poetry, and following the course of liturgy. It’s really a siddur, in poetry form.

ZEEK: To take us in a slightly different direction—you’ve drawn a connection between the multivocality of Talmud and the polyvocality of choral singing. Say more about that?

LH: Harmony is like drash. Singing a song simply is like pshat; harmonies give you the chance to interpret text. If you hear a lyric, especially sung in counterpoint, the words coming at a different time, you’ll get a different experience of what the words might mean, what’s important. Major or minor, syncopated or lullaby: those communicate so much. It’s important to understand the text, to try to find how my song matches my understanding of the text. For some people “hashkiveinu” is an upbeat song; for me it’s a lullaby. Those kinds of shifts make a difference.

I’m always looking to ask: what harmony is really going to fulfill and fill out this meaning?

I do a lot of work with choirs, and there my orientation is towards community-building, understanding that the paradigm of living in this world is about finding your own voice, hearing it, but also blending it with others and lending your strength to others. We all sing different parts. We’re not all farmers, we’re not all plumbers.

ZEEK: I’d never thought of Talmud as interwoven music before, but I love the idea.

LH: There’s “Marbeh,” which is on the album Roots and Wings.

ZEEK: That’s a text by Hillel: “The more meat, the more worms; the more money, the more worry; the more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more peace; and the more counsel, the more understanding.”

LH: Right. The melody begins by weaving between “marbeh” and “basar”—you don’t get that just by reading the page linearly. Musically, you get more facility with the text when you can pair up or separate concepts.

Or take “Hafoch v’Hapech,” which is on Becoming. I had the harmonies express the song. The melody goes in two opposite directions, which is what happens when you turn a melody upside down. Spin it, spin it, everything is in it. Turn the melody upside-down, inside out. Find a new harmony. Embody the words in that way.

ZEEK: You’ve done a lot of work with liturgical texts; what draws you to those?

LH: When I was asked to do some liturgy at the first Jewish Feminist conference, I thought: I am not interested in the masculine patriarchal texts. But there’s some beautiful poetry out there! I didn’t so much change words as—one of the first songs on this CD, “Ilu Finu,”—what a beautiful text! I’m drawn to texts which don’t so much use the name of God, but make me think: how can you evoke what we have reverence for? Instead of just naming it, really invoke and describe it and give a picture of it?

I get less interested in singing Elohim, Adonai, even Shkhinah. I think I’ve used those names maybe twice on all eight of these albums. If I’m singing “Ilu Finu,” you get this vision of an ocean full of song! Isn’t that an amazing image? That longing, to be like an ocean full of song. And, hearing it, people think, what does that mean to me? I don’t have to define spirituality for people; I think sometimes when you name things you box and define and limit them. People talk about God as limitless, but my personal way is, I’d like to offer you the poetry. See if it moves you to have the experience you want to have, not the experience I tell you to have.

ZEEK: In 1994 you organized and directed the first Jewish Women’s International Chorus in Kiev. Had you been to Russia before, do you have roots there? What was that like?

LH: It was exciting! A lot of these women—we didn’t have a common language except for the music. I was able to communicate a little bit about what the songs were about, through an interpreter, but really it was about singing in harmony, which was a tremendous way to come together.

ZEEK: What a great thing to do in many parts of the world.

LH: The organizers were very focused on the women of the former Soviet Union, bringing them back to their Judaism. I had a cousin who I met for the first time at this conference, we brought her from Moscow to Kiev. That was pretty terrific, bringing all these women to explore their Jewish roots for the first time.

ZEEK: Clearly community-building through song has become a major part of your work. What are the challenges, and what are the pleasures, of working with a kind of pick-up choir like the one you’re doing here at Kallah?

LH: I do this around the country, too. Even if someone’s never had a choir before, I help them start one. Sometimes it’s community-wide. They’ll have men and women from the GLBT choir come, sometimes, who never get to sing Jewish music because most of the GLBT choir isn’t Jewish. A lot of these places the choirs continue after I leave and become community choirs, which feels great.

You never know what you’re going to get. In one community only 12 people came and a few were tone-deaf. You get different skill levels. You start from scratch every time.

I’m also doing storytelling and story-writing now. The stories are becoming part of my solo performances, which is a lot of fun. And I’m doing improv theatre again—that’s just to push me. To make me work in the tohu vavohu (“chaos and disorder,” as in the opening lines of Torah). And self-discovery, discovery of others—the writing requires that. Every Tuesday morning I attend a writing class, I go digging. Sometimes I come up with bupkes, and every so often I find a jewel I can polish off.

ZEEK: What are you working on these days?

LH: I’m waiting for the waters to replenish. I used to write songs more regularly; I should do that again. I’m working on a collection of stories. I don’t know if a new cd will come out, or a book will come but but I’m working on both. I just wait until I have enough compositions. I have 4 new pieces here for this Kallah; when I have 10 or 12, I’ll go back into the studio. And of course a lot of things I write, they don’t make the cut.

And Vocolot is still together after 21 years. We’re a quartet, these women who support and love my music and make it happen. They make my dreams come true. I can hear all the harmonies in my head, but I need the voices to bring them into the real world.

ZEEK: To what extent are the singers in Vocolot today the same singers who’ve been with you for years?

LH: It varies, but in general people stay for a very long time. Liz has been with me for 10 years; Shawn and Julia for 5 years. Before that, Rosalind for 9 years, Ellen for 16 years, Jennifer for 8 or 9. We have a lot of consistency.

ZEEK: That’s remarkable, that longevity.

LH: Last year we made it to a big Jewish music festival in Amsterdam, and we’ll be back there in October. We’ve had some spectacular experiences together. And sometimes we go to a place and there’s 17 people in the audience. You just never know.

I always have to tell myself, it’s really about one person at a time. Like the saying goes: if you’ve saved one life, you’ve saved a world? If you’ve changed one person’s life, you’ve changed the world. When my shadow says, ‘why aren’t there more people,’ I remember: if one person at a time has gotten something out of it, this is a terrific thing.

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