This Jewish Life


did you know he makes great balloon animals?

Many years ago, there was a story on This American Life about some guys who attempted to use scientific data to create the world’s most annoying song. Admittedly, I love almost everything on this American Life, and it’s not just because Ira Glass was the magician at my 4th birthday party. (Really! It’s true!) But this story was one of my absolute favorites – I listened to it again at the gym last week and elicited suspicious looks each time I laughed aloud on the elliptical. The team conducted research to determine the musical elements that people find most distasteful, and then recorded a song using just about all of them, including synthesizer, children’s music, holiday lyrics, accordion, bagpipe, tuba, opera, rap and, of course, cowboys. You can listen to the song streaming here, but be forewarned, it’s both awful and  strangely difficult to turn off.
I was reminded of this episode yesterday, after opening up the review copy of Dayenu, a new children’s haggadah and accompanying cd from KTAV publishers. Why is it that so much contemporary Jewish music seems to draw its inspiration from the same research as the guys on This American Life? Overly earnest children singing atop synthesizers, with lyrics that try to cram way too much information into way too few beats. (At least there’s usually no opera-rap.) I may not be crazy about dayenu and chad-gadya, but I have no desire to replace those classics with “Moses was a shepherd when he saw a bush a-flame” or “free to be LIKE you and me” which seems criminally close to Marlo Thomas’ glorious soundtrack of my own childhood.
I would not, in a million years, use this haggadah at my seder. But, believe it or not, I like it anyway. Sort of. As I type this, my daughters are listening to the cd for the fourth time in two days. (This time, with the door closed, thank God.) My five year old is belting out the Mah Nishtana, and after one listen, my three year old, who knows next to nothing about the story of Passover said “can we listen to the song about Moses and the burning bush again?” If they like it, I like it. If they are learning something, even better. Or to paraphrase Tevye, “God bless and keep this haggadah….far away from me.”

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posted March 25, 2009 at 9:41 pm

You went to the gym?

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posted March 25, 2009 at 9:50 pm

I go religiously. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

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Tanya Lieberman

posted March 26, 2009 at 8:44 am

I loved that This American Life episode!

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Adrian Durlester

posted March 26, 2009 at 4:41 pm

(Disclaimer: I’m the musician who made the cheezy synthesized backup tracks on the Dayenu! CD)
Amy: I couldn’t agree with your more. Much (if not most) of the contemporary Jewish music out there (especially for kids) is banal and cheesy. The songs might not be your taste (or mine) but, strangely enough, children like it.
Also, there is a large constituency out there of marginally affiliated, Hebrew illiterate Jews who really do need lots of songs in English. This work is an attempt at outreach, less so at inreach.
In her defense, Carol is a Jewish songwriter and music educator who takes her role of imparting Jewish knowledge seriously. Unlike many others out there writing original children’s songs, it’s rare you’ll find an obvious Hebrew or Judaic error in her work. She writes songs that are often gap-fillers, where no other decent song has tackled something.
As to having lots of kids singing, and not always on pitch, etc. – there is a pedagogic purpose behind it-it allows any child to feel comfortable singing along or singing out loud. It’s not about the “cute” factor (though on some CDs, notably from the dear old brothers Zim it is)–it is about empowerment.
There are no great Jewish philanthropists out there throwing money at Jewish songwriters. Few, if any, actually make a living at it. Debbie Friedman may have sold a lot of tapes, CDs and mp3s, but when you add it all up, it’s bupkis compared to any typical Xtian recording, let alone commercial ones. It’s likely Carol won’t make a nickel from this book-it’s a labor of love.
Really good production requires a lot of studio time, and a lot of money, even in this age of the “home studio.” Even with musicians like me, who’ll do the arranging and spend time recording in a studio for peanuts, it’s expensive. Carol utilizes some very good professional studios in the DC area, and that really limits the time that can be devoted to a project like this due to the enormous costs.
So the CD that goes with the Dayenu haggadah isn’t Grammy material. Yet it was fun to be part of making it, and I know there are kids out there, like yours, who will enjoy it. That sort of makes it all worthwhile.
Nevertheless, I continue to be a gadfly in the Jewish music community pushing for higher standards. We can and should do better.

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posted March 26, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Whew, Adrian, I was really afraid you would totally flame me! Thanks for your thoughtful and informative response.

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Frume Sarah

posted May 25, 2010 at 8:13 pm

OMG — do not even get me started on the banality of Jewish Children’s Music. At our shul, we make it a point to expose and teach the kids the music that they would hear as adults. There is no reason for them to suffer just because they are kids.
BTW, this is our approach to non-Jewish music as well.

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