Finding a Jewish Identity Through Music

Written by Robin Kopf

Illustrated by Jessica Fischman

My first summer and my subsequent eleven summers at URJ Camp Newman changed a lot of things about my life, but it mostly changed my view of my personal relationship to Judaism. I grew up in a gently religious, Jewish household, raised by a classic “Jewish Mother.” If Judaism was important to her, it was going to be important for her kids. I groaned when my mother told us that we would be going to Friday night Shabbat services, let alone for the high holidays. Until the fourth grade, most of my relationship to Judaism was spoon fed to me like matzo ball soup without salt. My Jewish experience for the first 10 years of my life was largely flavorless and uninteresting to me. That first summer before fourth grade was like a much needed sprinkle of salt.  

I remember standing on the basketball courts, wearing white for Shabbat with my cabin mates, counselors, and friends. We jumped and we clapped and we stomped our feet and we sang until our throats hurt. At the center of the basketball courts, on a flimsy, metal stage were two songleaders. They wielded guitars and sung into microphones what we would then sing back to them. More songleaders, sometimes also campers, milled around with their own guitars, interacting with the crowd. They had the chaos of the hundreds of campers and counselors dancing around the asphalt totally under control with smiles and beads of sweat on their faces.

They were also the people that changed services from a place to sit quietly until dinner to a place of connecting with a culture that was starting to inspire me just by singing its melodies surrounded by a community of friends. Every day they led us in prayer and in song sessions and every day I watched them with total fascination at the way they exuded confidence and joy. I grew to love not just the melodies of the prayers that we used at camp during services, but also the songs that we learned to just sing and have fun with. These songs were usually in Hebrew or combined Hebrew and English sections. This was not the kind of music I was used to hearing on the radio, but I still felt connected to the songs we sang.

These songleaders looked, walked, and acted like rock stars: they were the coolest people at camp to me. They led services for a short hour each day, led song sessions and closed out every day with songs and prayers before bed. They were the beginning of my personal connection to Judaism. It was as if the music we sang together bridged the gap from the boredom I used to feel to the feelings of connectedness and spirit that I got at camp. They salted the soup. I decided that I wanted to be just like them someday. I picked up a guitar and as the years and summers went on, I went from leading youth group services for 20 people to leading services and song sessions for upwards of 200 people with not just a smile and a few beads of sweat on my face, but with confidence that I had never felt before.

It took me becoming a songleader to learn that Jewish music is in itself a whole market in the Jewish world. The Jewish community has its own rock stars that fashion the melodies that are sung at Jewish summer camps and synagogues across the country. They record albums, sell their music, and hold concerts the way secular musicians do and many of them make a decent living out of it. The difference that sets them apart is that they write music based on religious texts, often using a Hebrew text and then translating it in a way that is meaningful for themselves and hopefully others. They do the work that inspires people through a combination of faith and music.

This market within the Jewish community started with the place that made me love Jewish music. Debbie Friedman, an American Jewish singer and songwriter, was once a camper at a Jewish camp, like me and millions of kids around the country, and she became the first songleader. In the 1970s, the music used in synagogues was mostly played on an organ, which can be hard to relate to if you are a kid or teen in the 1970s or pretty much any other era. She started writing her own melodies of prayers at camp on the guitar with the intention of writing Jewish music that sounded more like what she heard on the radio, in a more personal way than with an organ. This was the spark of a movement in Jewish music and over time her music changed the way Jews at summer camps and at synagogues pray. Friedman and other Jewish musicians, like Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander, wrote music that is still used at summer camps and synagogues today, and changed the way that Jews in the reform movement experience music.

Jewish musicians and songleaders at camp, much like the young Friedman, continue to write music that is similar to the kind of music they like to listen to outside of a Jewish context. Where modern Jewish music doesn’t sound the same as Friedman’s sound that at the time was seen either as revolutionary or inappropriate, it continues to grow and change with the kids that listen to it and grow up to sing and write the Jewish music that inspires them. They continue the work that Friedman started by making the music that will inspire the next generation of kids to keep singing to the tunes that they love in the tradition that they love.

I’m glad that I grew up to be a songleader because it taught me to be confident in myself and my skills, which was what I initially wanted, but it also made me want to spread the same joy that was spread to me through Jewish music and this effect keeps me song leading outside of camp. I believe that Jewish music is a way to give flavor to a spiritual practice that often feels outdated and that has the power to get uninspired kids into the traditions that have been passed down to generation upon generation. It has the potential to help people like me that used to not care about being Jewish at all learn to connect with it in their own way, a way that made me want to learn and understand more than sitting bored in a sanctuary waiting for services to be over.

Jewish music made me want to be Jewish and it has taught me that song can be used as a tool to make kids and teens, that connect so easily to music, connect with Jewish life. Camps have known this for a long time, and synagogues are implementing camp songleaders into their schools to teach their children about Judaism through music. In my experience as a camp songleader and then a religious school songleader, I have learned about the power of music as a learning tool to teach kids about Jewish culture, Hebrew and the more faith involved aspects of Judaism. It lets them get up and be silly, but also sit down and think about Judaism as a tradition. Most of all, it gives flavor to Judaism; it salts the soup.


Remembering Primo Levi in the 30th Anniversarry of his Death

Written by Avery Weinman

Illustrated by Rose Teplitz

April 11, 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of writer, activist, and Holocaust Survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin, Italy. Leviathan remembers him in this issue to celebrate the fascinating life of a man who was truly a great author, and to honor him for his contributions to justice and empowering Holocaust survivors to come to be able to speak about their experiences.

This piece is too short a space to provide a biography that would do Primo Levi justice.  Detailed accounts of his own life, in his own voice, are available in his numerous works and autobiographies including Survival in Auschwitz, The Periodic Table, Moments of Reprieve, and The Drowned and the Saved; these works provide more meaningful insight than anything I could hope to accomplish in this piece. I will say simply this: a chemist by trade, Primo Levi was an Italian Jew who was sent to Auschwitz after revealing he was Jewish when Italian fascists captured him as a Partisan fighter.  His life both at Auschwitz and after is a portrait of both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer.   He dedicated his life to speaking and writing about the events and the lessons of the Holocaust.


Since there was an Auschwitz, can there also be a God?


In this piece I will choose to focus on the legacy of Levi’s works, and what sets his work apart from other memoirs about the Holocaust.  To do this, it is imperative to have a sense of what Holocaust literature looked like in the years immediately following the end of the Second

World War.  In 1947, when Primo Levi originally published his first autobiography Survival in Auschwitz – in its original Italian language and title Se Questo è un Uomo (If This is a Man) – Holocaust literature was in its infancy.   The most popular Holocaust autobiography which existed at the time was The Diary of a Young Girl, known more popularly as The Diary of Anne Frank.  And, while The Diary of a Young Girl recounts in great autobiographical detail the trauma of life under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, it did not provide an autobiographical account of Anne Frank’s time at Auschwitz and her eventual murder at Bergen-Belsen.  Viktor E. Frankl’s 1946 work, Man’s Search for Meaning – part Holocaust memoir, part explication of Frankl’s psychological method of logotherapy – predates Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz by one year, but is more of a study in the psychology of how and why people survive trauma than it is dedicated to telling the history of the Holocaust. Władysław Szpilman’s memoir from 1946, The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939-1945 – the book which would inspire the acclaimed 2002 film of the same name – is similar to Frank’s memoir in that it describes in great detail the horror of Nazi rule in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland, but does not venture into the realm of the Nazi concentration camps.  

What makes Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz unique is that he recounted, for the first time in full and excruciatingly remembered detail, the reality of life at a concentration camp.  Levi’s unflinching portrait of the pinnacle of human degradation in the modern era, coupled with prose that asked the audience to question the implications of the fact that the Holocaust was even able to happen at all, set Levi apart from the mainstream of the narrative of Holocaust memoirs at the time.

In the immediate years following World War Two, talking about the Holocaust was not yet an acceptable part of our global culture.  The pervading sense was that Holocaust survivors, and more generally anyone who had any contact with the camps at all, were eager to forget and attempt to move on.  Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz made this complacency impossible; the titular poem which opens the book – “If This is A Man”  – made it clear that Levi intended to force the world whose indifference enabled the genocide of six million Jews to reflect fully on the fact that this has happened.  Levi expanded upon the descriptions of the Holocaust provided by Frank, Frankl, and Szpilman and exposed the full depravity of the concentration camps.  Levi’s prose is meticulous and comprehensive to the point that it causes the audience genuine discomfort, and the questions Levi asks of the audience are among the most acute ever asked about the Holocaust. Were civilian Germans, complicit in Nazi rule, responsible for the Holocaust?  Who are we to judge the men and women in the Judenrat or who worked as Sonderkommandos? Since there was an Auschwitz, can there also be a God?  And, most importantly, since the Holocaust did happen, will it happen again?

In the Parshat Shoftim, the 48th weekly portion in the Jewish tradition of reciting the entirety of the Torah over a one year period, Moses speaks these words unto the Israelites, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” He did not say pursue justice only when it is uncomplicated, pursue justice only when it is easy to find, pursue justice only when it is painless; he said pursue justice, in all its complications, in all of its difficulty, in all the pain that it causes you to pursue it.  Leviathan remembers Primo Levi in this issue, thirty years after his death, for his importance as a writer, as a survivor, as an activist, but most importantly for the lesson he offers us about the tenacity with which we must all pursue justice.  

Primo Levi was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 when he was twenty-four years old, and he published his last book on the Holocaust, The Drowned and the Saved, in 1986, the year before his death at age sixty-seven.  For forty-two years, Primo Levi spent his life reliving and recounting the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz.  And why? Why did he bear the burden of living in a state of excruciating trauma for so long?  In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi wrote, “Even in this place [Auschwitz] one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.”

Levi’s dedication to writing about the Holocaust led him to experience deep bouts of debilitating depression, but he continued to write because he knew that he had a deeply important and necessary job to do. In his utter commitment to reminding humanity of the Holocaust through revisiting his own trauma, Primo Levi pursued justice for the six million Jews who could not speak.  They did not live to tell us their stories, but Levi could tell us his.  This is how he could pursue justice. Through his service to us, in spite of the insurmountable tragedy he survived, he is a testament to us all about the voracity with which we must pursue justice.  We must bear witness when others cannot.  Unspeakable tragedies occur, but we must speak on them.  We must speak on them to remind us all what we are capable of, and to pursue justice for those in the past, present, and future so that no one may have to relive what we suffer.



Written by Hannah Carrasco

Illustrated by Rose Teplitz

Last year, I embarked on my second intensive Israel education trip, this time with Hasbara Fellowships. My delegation, made up of college students from the U.S. and Canada, traveled all across Israel and the West Bank during our 15 days. We would learn how to become effective campus educators and advocates for Israel through facts and first-hand experiences. Although I cannot recall everything we learned, not everyone we met, and not every place we visited, there is one place that clearly stands out among the rest: Sderot. This was not my first time visiting “The Bomb Shelter Capital of the World”.Sderot did not change during this time, neither did its inhabitants nor its security. But, Sderot changed me.

Sderot is a city less than a mile away from the Gaza Strip. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization. Thousands of rockets fired by Hamas have rained from the sky into schools, homes, playgrounds, and streets. Rockets fall regardless of wars. There is no knowing when, where, or how many. Because of the high volume of rocket attacks, an early-warning radar system was installed. By the time a rocket is spotted, there is only fifteen seconds until it makes contact. That means, that within that time, everyone has to run and seek safety in a bomb shelter. The alarm system that warns the city of incoming rockets is fallible. And because of that, people get injured and people, young and old, die.

There are four things from that visit that I will never forget: our initial conversation with our tour guide, the videos we watched, the displayed collection of rockets, and the fear in the eyes of three young boys.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Noam Bedein, our tour guide for the day. The first place we visited was an underground bomb shelter where, from what I understood, Israel Defense Forces soldiers watched security screens to identify incoming rockets from Gaza and sound the alarm. We all sat down around a large table and listened to the history of Sderot and the challenges its people face.

The most emotional part of this conversation was when we were told that around half of the people living in Sderot suffer from similar symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including the children. But, alas, they are not in a post-traumatic state, Bedein told us. Sderot citizens currently suffer from ongoing trauma. We learned that the birth rate in Sderot was declining, not because of the fear of bringing children into this world, but because people were afraid to have sex. Would they have enough time to get to the bomb shelter if they did? They had to weigh the pros and cons of all of their actions to determine what they should do, and most decided better safe than sorry. Our barrage of questions included topics like “why don’t they move, get out of this place?” And “why do parents put their children through these horrors?” Bedein told us it was because of Jewish resilience. People did not move away because they didn’t want to give in to Hamas. They would not run away and let Hamas win. They would stay and weather out the storm.

Next were the videos. We watched a handful, but two were seared into my mind. The first one was a video taken during one of the many rocket attacks Sderot continuously faces. It showed a school where the young children were outside playing and having fun when suddenly the warning alarm went off. The teachers hurried them to the safety of the school shelter. Many immediately knew what they were supposed to do: run to the nearest shelter. They are taught this from the time they can walk; it becomes second instinct. Still, a few straggled as some children are bound to do. Teachers quickly ushered them inside or picked them up and hurried inside. And then, the video shows these little children, maybe around six or seven, all singing this song and purposefully moving their arms and legs about. They knew what was happening whether they really grasped the gravity of the situation or not. The song and dance combo is a strategic technique to prevent their little bodies from going into shock. It is to keep their blood moving and to distract them from what was happening outside. But, since they are young, the singing and ‘dancing’ was made fun. The song is in Hebrew and Bedein told us an abbreviated version of the lyrics. They all sing along and smile and follow the instructions the song lays out.

Hurry to the bomb shelter. Shake one’s arms and loosen one’s legs. Breathe in deep and breathe out slow.

They sing about how it’s happening because they are a little different, but that’s ok. They won’t get hurt today. Before the creation of this song, many children would panic and freeze when the alarm went off putting themselves in danger and some faced different types of developmental regression,  like bed-wetting, for example.


We learned that the birth rate in Sderot was declining, not because of the fear of bringing children into this world, but because people were afraid to have sex. Would they have enough time to get to the bomb shelter if they did?



The next video was not actual footage of events happening in Sderot; it was a representation of the short amount of time a person has to get to a bomb shelter. The video itself is about a minute long, but it feels like an epic journey. The first shot shows a three or four-year-old girl playing with her toys in the backyard. The screen changes then to her mother laying her baby boy in his crib. She walks out and stands near the back door watching her daughter. Then, the mother walks to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. Suddenly, the alarm sounds. Fifteen seconds on the clock. Her coffee cup immediately falls to the ground and shatters. The countdown begins on the screen. She runs to the backdoor and bangs on it trying to get her daughter’s attention. The little girl just sits there with her hands over her ears. Eight seconds to go. She has to make a decision. Continue trying to get her attention or run and get the baby from his crib and pray her daughter realizes to run to the shelter. She decides. Get the baby and pray. The mother grabs him. They rush to the shelter. She looks out of the little window at her daughter. Five seconds. The girl hasn’t moved. Four. Panic fills the mother’s eyes. Three. The camera pans back to the daughter. Two. One. The screen goes black. This video shows that decisions have to be made in a split second and those decisions can alter everything. One wrong decision, and someone can get injured or die. This is a reality that the people of Sderot live with every day.

We left the safety of the underground shelter to make our way to a playground. But on our way there, we took a detour to the Sderot Police Station. But it wasn’t the police station that we stopped to talk about. Rather, it was the collection of hundreds of exploded rockets displayed outside of it. Shelves full of metal rockets ranging in size. The ends blown off and the metal shredded near each end of the cylinder. Hundreds of rockets sitting right before us. The most shocking thing was not the rusted rockets sitting on top of each other in piles. Rather, the most shocking thing was a giant menorah, the symbol of the Jewish people, of Jewish resilience, of light and hope, constructed by the police department and made out of the scraps of rockets meant to kill them.

Lastly, our final destination was the aforementioned playground. Why was this on the agenda? It wasn’t to give us a break. When we got there, we all sat down on the picnic benches. Bedein pointed out two or three bomb shelters on the playground, but the one worth mentioning was the main ‘attraction’. It was a huge concrete capitellar snaking its way through the middle of the playground, brightly painted with yellow and green, with a silly face and big happy eyes. While we were there, there were three boys sitting on top of it, talking and playing. For them, it was a normal toy. Bedein told us that all parks and playgrounds have multiple bomb shelters because of the volume of children playing there during certain times. He pointed to the three young boys and told us that they have witnessed two wars. Bedein did not know them, but still his words are true for any child around their age in Israel, and especially in Sderot where the damage of the war is exacerbated.


I get to walk away but they do not. For us it’s a visit. For them, it’s their whole lives.



Now it was our turn. Not to experience a war, but to experience how fast fifteen seconds passes. He told us to go play around, walk around, do whatever we wanted to do, but as soon as he yelled “Tzeva Adom” to run to the bomb shelter. Tzeva Adom, or “Color Red” in English, is what the warning alarm system says as the siren blares. The female voice repeats “Color Red, Color Red” until the threat passes. We followed his instructions for a minute and then he yelled out “Tzeva Adom” and we ran towards the caterpillar. Fifteen seconds is very little time. As we were running for shelter I looked up at the boys. I saw their fear, their confusion. Why did that man just yell “Tzeva Adom” out of nowhere? Why were these 25 some-odd college students running for shelter? These are some questions that probably went through their heads. They knew it was not the real alarm, since Bedein was the one to yell it, but the words themselves invoke fear for it is those words that links the people to their survival.

“Just remember, at the end of the day you get to leave. They don’t.”

The words above were told to us by our tour guide for the day. He presented this statement to us at the beginning of our visit to preface what we would learn and see and at the end to remind us of Jewish resilience and of our privilege. The reason Sderot changed me lies in those words. The first time I went, I left. It did not occur to me that I would be back. It was another emotional stop on our trip, but one that I would soon forget. Returning to Sderot reminded me that I have the privilege to live a (not bomb) sheltered life where I can pick and choose when and when not to worry about others facing catastrophes on a daily basis. I can walk around my neighborhood without seeing bomb shelters looming at every bus stop or playground. The only thing that falls from the sky that I have to concern myself with is rain, not rockets. I just go about my business, as well as countless others, without having to worry about my life being on the line. I forgot what those that live in Sderot, and other war-torn and dangerous areas, face every day.

Visiting Sderot a second time was when those words stuck. This time, I made sure to recognize the privileges I have, especially when it comes to not having to worry if each day is my last.  I get to walk away but they do not. For us it’s a visit. For them, it’s their whole lives.