Musical Choices for Observant Adults and Their Children

By Chaim

In 2007, I received a lot of emails regarding Matisyahu. Three e-mails have stood out for me and I wish to just lightly touch on them right now. All three were written by Baalei Teshuvah and people now raising their own children in a frum environment. They each wrote about the struggles they face in determining how much they allow their children to be exposed to from their past.

I think a lot of what Baalei Teshuvah deal with when it comes to their own parenting is the extreme disconnect many “BT’s” feel dealing with “FFB’s.” What they may not realize is that once they start raising their own kids in a frum community, sending them to frum schools, frum camps, their own kids become FFB’s.

There is something inherently different about a Baal Teshuvah and a Frum From Birth. A BT has something that is so pure and divine in what they have done that it often produces actions and feelings that a FFB will or struggles to have. When you discover something amazing on your own, after having experienced something else, and decide to embrace that something special, it changes you. Changing your whole life from top to bottom for the sake of your spiritual soul is something that an FFB cannot relate to.

As I have written before, I am a product of a two parent Baal Teshuvah home. My parents were there for me, they tried to help me but I knew that I would never see Yiddishkeit through their eyes. In some way the spiritual journey of an FFB is that much harder then a BT.

I remember when I was 15 I was getting a ride to Yeshivah with a family friend who had just become frum. He was asking me different questions about what Yeshiva is like because he was thinking about going to a BT Yeshiva. I will never forget that gleam in his eye. When he talked about his spirituality and how he wanted to learn more and become more, there was just something in his eyes. It was like he just “knew” what he wanted. He just “felt it” on a level that I feared I would never experience.

As I got older I had my own personal spiritual struggles. By the time I was 20 I had reconnected. Thats an experience I’d rather not share here, but it was special and in many ways I consider myself a FFB/BT hybrid. With that said I understand how many BT parents find is so difficult to raise their own kids in an “Uncle Moishy” world when they themselves feel more like “Maitisyahu’s.”

One of the BT’s who wrote me, spoke how he never gave up Rock ‘N Roll. At first he wanted to hide it from his growing children, but eventually it became something in the house where the kids knew this was the fathers thing. It’s not easy to strike those balances. How can I listen to Pearl Jam, but only let my children listen to Avraham Fried and Yaacov Shwekey.

There’s much to think about regarding this topic.

Originally Posted in 2007

21 comments on “Musical Choices for Observant Adults and Their Children

  1. Reb Ron…You said it better than I. Thank you.

    Incidentally, I don’t mean to waste time here complaining about the music in question. Music is an art, and I have come to learn that logic doesn’t really have an impact when discussing various types of music or artists. Many folks,
    as can be seen above, listen to music that “speaks to them”, which really means that they have an emotional attachment to whatever it is that they listen to. Like Phyllis and Len described, I also enjoy the music that brings me back to my youth. We all associate music with life experiences that happened when we heard those tunes way back when. I’m simply looking for something that will “speak” to my developing Torahdik sensitivities…

  2. I have heard attempts by frum arrangers/orchestrators to expand traditional Jewish tunes such as nigunim into classical orchestral pieces. The results are mixed, as the orchestration is often full of repetitions without variation, or bombastic cascades of fanfares—equivalent to padding a college term paper. An orchestrator on or near the level of a Dvorak (not many of those around!) could bring this off in the way these tunes deserve.

  3. Bob: No.

    Dovid: “It is mostly, IMHO, “kosher-candy-coated” copies of the tasteless material found in secular music circles…” Perhaps, but it is not even the best of that material. And that candy coating, by which I assume you mean musical and not ersatz-hashkofa-wise, is murder.

  4. Ron also wrote,

    “I should note that there are serious questions about our enjoyment of music in this era after the Destruction.”

    Could this concept be the actual basis, motive, or rationale for the badness of the music we’ve been criticizing here? Or maybe the excuse?

  5. Two aspects of this discussion are of particular interest to me – the “mixed marriage between two Jews” part and the music part.

    My kids (all grown) are all religious Jews but their particular paths range from Litvish to MO, with a Sephardi and a couple of Chabadniks in the mix. They all get along great with each other and all respect each other’s derech. As for me (a BT, but not sure how to define my derech other than Orthodox) oh, how I wish my husband were any kind of observant at all! But I’ve already posted at length on that topic.

    I’ve loved music probably since I was in the womb. My first time around as a BT, I willingly gave up all my rock & roll – nobody had asked me to do it. But, just like Len Cohen, traumas in my life sent me back to all the secular music I had known and loved. At present I enjoy all kinds of music with some exceptions, but the main point is that music is a big, big thing in my life. Somehow I get through Sefira and the Three Weeks each year without it (or with just a cappella), but if I didn’t have it, I couldn’t get through life as easily (and be aware that this harks back to the first point, too – it eases my sadness over having a non-observant spouse).

  6. Ron wrote…“Jewish music” as currently defined is really bad. All the albums, and many of the singers, sound the same. And not in a good way. The formulaic production is really sickening. Even a “Yiddish classic” is overlaid with blaring trumpets, sleazy saxophones and rock-and-roll electric guitars. In essence, these recordings are nothing more than advertisement for wedding bands, and they sound like it. This genre was better 20 years ago, I’ll grant that.”

    I wholeheartedly agree, Ron. How dismal is the music scene that descibes itself as being “Jewish”. It is mostly, IMHO, “kosher-candy-coated” copies of the tasteless material found in secular music circles…and whatever is left (did I mention the abundance of poor male vocalists out there?) is filled with computer-assisted harmonies and badly produced yuk…

  7. I also always had music. I was a very active disc jockey in college, actually (I did the Xmas Eve show at the station for seven years running, I think!). But by and large that stuff does not belong in my house or, frankly, in my head. And certainly not in my kids’ heads.

    “Jewish music” as currently defined is really bad. All the albums, and many of the singers, sound the same. And not in a good way. The formulaic production is really sickening. Even a “Yiddish classic” is overlaid with blaring trumpets, sleazy saxophones and rock-and-roll electric guitars. In essence, these recordings are nothing more than advertisement for wedding bands, and they sound like it. This genre was better 20 years ago, I’ll grant that.

    Not having music as a background to my life, as it had been, was, at first, hard to get used to. Now I realize that it was a little bit of an addiction, including in the sense that I “needed” it but did not necessarily enjoy all of its consumption. (“Background,” right?)

    It’s really better to be alone with your thoughts and to consume and enjoy music, as everything else, in its time and place.

    I should note that there are serious questions about our enjoyment of music in this era after the Destruction. I understand that one major posek raised serious questions about it, other than at simchas. Evidently “we are meikil [lenient],” but it might be a good thing at least to wedge ourselves from the grip “needing music” to get through the day.

  8. I grew up with secular music… the music of the 80s mostly, but my father liked “oldies” so I “inherited” a true appreciation for 50s and 60s music too. And I love Rogers and Hammerstein… but I knew my days of listening to secular music were numbered when my then-2 or 3 year old son started singing along to my Music Man CD. He knew an awful lot of the words… and I didn’t want to have to explain the words when he got a little older. (Example: “A woman who’ll kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy,” etc.) My husband, the FFB son of two BTs, grew up on a mixture of Jewish (MBD, Uncle Moishy and Shlock Rock) and Secular (Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, etc). We both need music playing as a background to our lives. So when we decided to nix the secular for the sake of the kids, Parodies, Ballads, and things you can dance to basically made up our (Jewish) music collection. Now we have MBD, Yeedle, Shwecky, Miami Boys Choir, Yeshiva Boys Choir, Shlock Rock, Gershon Veroba, Shalshelet, A.K.A.Pella, Six13, and yes, Uncle Moishy.

  9. I will never forget that gleam in his eye. When he talked about his spirituality and how he wanted to learn more and become more, there was just something in his eyes. It was like he just “knew” what he wanted. He just “felt it” on a level that I feared I would never experience.

    I am told by others that is what they saw in me as well. – I am a Convert.

    A very good article you have here.

  10. “It is possible for an spiritually attuned FFB to relate to the experience of a BT through empathy, familiarity with actual BTs, etc. FFB lives are often not seamless, either, and many FFBs have not been as isolated from the secular culture as we might think. ”

    That is a very good point. In fact, most of the categories of “Topics Discussed” are universal ones, and so I sometimes comment on such issues(although I generally don’t comment on more BT-specific topics, I have a diverse extended family, and can relate in varying degrees to certain social issues discussed).

  11. The articles and comments on this site always fascinate me, particularly the insights about differences between BTs and FFBs.

    One issue I haven’t seen fully addressed is the “mixed marriage” – between the BT husband and FFB wife, and/or FFB husband and BT wife – although Len Cohen above seems to touch upon it with his observations about his own Chareidi/MO marriage. (Not sure if this was also BT/FFB). An article on that subject would be both enlightening and entertaining.

  12. As a baby-boomer/baal t’shuva my struggle vis-a-vis music and frumkeit has mirrored my spiritual ‘roller coaster’ journey, having its ups and downs.

    In the beginning, my continued interest in the music of my generation remained strong. By the age of 30 however, when I was learning in Yeshiva, music gave way to the gemara. There was no decision to make about music, as my interest waned as a natural process of growth in yiddishkeit and learning. I never had the feeling that, “oy veh, what am I going to do without rock-n-roll in my life?”

    Strangely, this all changed twenty years and five children later with the devastating trauma of divorce. (Parenthetically, due to a chareidi [me]/modern- orthodox [my wife] rift that many good intentioned therapists and rabbis could not help us to overcome. But that’s another story altogether}.

    Suffice it to say that, unfortunately, the experience that I had in Beis Din didn’t help. It was one of the most dismal and humiliating experiences of my life, overwhelming my emunah and bitachon. It sent me on a slow descent away from yiddishkeit, having become totally disillusioned by the so-called Orthodox “rabbis” on the Beis Din (also another story altogether).

    Where did I find solace during those painful years? You guessed it…in the music of my youth. I started an almost obsessive pursuit to replace every LP in my extensive collection with its re-issued CD version. The music was the only thing that kept me sane. My rebbe suggested that, due to my severe depression, this might be okay (altz pekuach nefesh). But the truth is, I would have listened to the music even if he had ‘assured’ it, and he knew it, too.

    What followed was years of growing interest in secular music, as my CD collection grew by the hundreds in order to bring it up-to-date with the music of the day. But again, as I clawed my way back to yiddishkeit, my interest in secular music gradually diminished on its own.

    BUT…my need for music as an outlet for reflecting my emotional (spiritual?) state did not diminish. The problem was, most of what is classified as “Jewish” music today I cannot tolerate. I rarely agree with
    R’ Harry Maryles on his blogsite, Emes V’Emunah, but I found his recent critique of “Jewish” music right on. Baruch Hashem, I found a solution…albeit one that, perhaps, cannot be universally applied. I picked up an old Diaspora Yeshiva Band (DYB) CD and was enthralled. YES!!! Here WAS Jewish music that I could relate to. Why? Well yes, admittedly because it borrows unabashedly from the Rock/Pop genre of the sixties and seventies. But hey, that’s MY music!

    And so I searched: for more DYB/Avraham Rosenblum CDs, and for other bands which might exist who are melding the genre that I love with Jewish sensibilities. Today, Moshav Band, Even Sh’siyah, Teiku, Yood, Soul Farm and many others are fulfilling my basic human need for emotional expression through music. If this is the genre that works for me, than so be it.

    One might legitimately ask, how do I justify this? In the western music scale, there are a mere 12 tones, 7 major notes (the white keys on the piano) and five minor ones (the black keys). These 12 tones exist in nature…they are innocently a part of the briyah of Hashem.

    It is no less of a miracle-within -nature how these 12 tones can be combined and interweaved to create a seemingly infinte variety of musical composition. Add to these twelve tones the concepts of beat, tempo, instrumentation, etc. and you get what we call various musical genres. These genres can themselves combine and interweave with one another in fascinating variety, to create a smörgåsbord, or amalgam of sound.

    Can these creations of sound within nature be deemed “Jewish” as opposed to “secular?” To my mind it’s like asking, “are the Rocky Mountains Jewish or secular?” I am not discounting the fact that we humans can invest otherwise “innocent” aspects of nature with negative symbolism. The tree that is worshiped as avodah zara didn’t ask to be so worshiped! The ground upon which Auschwitz was constructed did not ask to be the repository of such absolute evil! I do not, therefore, deny that there can be genres of music which are either wholly or partially co-opted for uses which are anathema to the Jewish conscience and/or halacha. For example, Rap (to which the appellation “music” is generous, if not downright disingenuous) has been so thoroughly thuggish, misogynist, racist and obscene that I don’t thing it’s possible to ever rescue this particular genre. And if the genre is ‘innocent’ in itself, the composer may not be, witness the debate over the propriety of listening to Wagner, in spite of his obvious musical genius.

    And so we come to Rock/Pop as a genre to be evaluated with an eye to Jewish sensitivities. Is there an issue here? Well, “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll” WAS the anthem of my (secular) generation, and certainly elements of the first two were incorporated into the last. But, was a large part of the genre co-opted by destructive influences? Was the genre so corrupted that it is, and ought to be, anathema to halachic Judaism. I don’t think so. Issues of love, hate, war, peace, compassion, loneliness…
    indeed the entire spectrum of human sensitivities and emotions including religion (Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” comes immediately to mind)…are the largest part of the eclectic mix labeled Rock and Pop. And certainly, Jewish hashkafa is thoroughly imbued with these most human of issues. I can recognize the influences of the Grateful Dead to Radiohead, Marvin Gaye to Coldplay (how’s that for alliteration) on the Jewish bands of today. It is a rich musical heritage from which to borrow and build upon.

    Is this all just post-facto rationalization? I suppose a critic might argue such. But, I am grateful to the Jewish musicians who have filled the musical vacuum in my life by providing listenable-to options for one such as myself.

  13. Nice article, Chaim. I’m glad you brought up the Matisyahu phenomenon. As a BT, I expected my new friends to be into bagels and lox, NOT dread locks!

    My whole attitude towards music changed when I became a BT. It is no longer just the music itself, but the musicians playing the music that is an important componant of the overall picture. It doesn’t take much research to find out about what a particular musician’s / band’s values and beliefs are. It is the SOURCE of the music that holds much more meaning for me now. Most of the Jewish music “Top 40” artists these days are copying secular musical styles, be it hard rock, disco ;( or worse…even reggae. Personally, I feel these are all bad vehicles to try to deliver a Jewish message. For example, one good glance at the sources of Reggae music, and the lifestyles of the most popular reggae artists over the years should be enough to turn anyone off from listening to music based upon it. The same can be said of most rock music, too. But we BT’s are starved for good music (after all, we, better than anyone else in the frum community, are more attuned to rocking out). Sadly, I don’t have the answer to what may (if ever) satisfy my musical yearnings for some really great Jewish music.
    I’m not suggesting we all stock up on chazonus CD’s, but I do feel that hard rock and other driving secular music is not the way to go…

    Bob Miller is right on the mark when he suggests that most FFB’s have not been so cloistered as we may have thought. Tis’ a rare FFB that I have come across that has virtually no knowledge of secular music, or has no clue as to what MTV is. That point is actually a dispointment for me. Still, perhaps it gives them a glimpse of what it is that I walked away from.

    As a former full-time musician and touring proffesional, I may just have to start up my own band to fulfill what I see to be a great need for us former Rock n’ Rollers. Hmmm…
    I know! We can call ourselves The BTles!!

  14. s/b “a spiritually attuned” above! Oh well.
    One of my smaller Elul projects has been to edit my stuff better in advance, and this has definitely been lagging.

  15. It is possible for an spiritually attuned FFB to relate to the experience of a BT through empathy, familiarity with actual BTs, etc. FFB lives are often not seamless, either, and many FFBs have not been as isolated from the secular culture as we might think.

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