Texan songwriter launches new genre of Jewish music

In the colorful world of Jewish music, there are many genres; for example, there are secular and religious types. Among secular Jewish music there is Klezmer, Yiddish and Ladino folk.

New Jewish music is broadly defined as “a form embracing the latest developments, taking Jewish music beyond the traditional and into inspiring dialogues with contemporary culture.” An example would be Jewish fast and Jewish rock.

Among the religious genres are music sung in synagogues, cantorial and choral music, songs and niggunim from various Hasidic communities, and popular (neo-Hasidic) music from the Orthodox community.

Mark Kligman, president of UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, Department of Ethnomusicology, in an article titled “Contemporary Jewish Music in America,” noted: “Every sector of the Jewish community – from the most ancient Orthodox to right to the laity – participates in the Jewish musical endeavor, creating, playing and listening to particular music that meets their tastes and needs.

Larry Lesser occupies a niche within a niche. He is a contemporary Jewish songwriter whose lyrics emphasize Jewish texts while going beyond narrow confessional interpretation. His album, “Sparks”, contains 24 original songs, unlike most collections of Jewish music.

To get an idea of ​​where Lesser comes from, consider the lyrics to “Deep And Wide”:

“I have friends whose faith is wide / not a yoke, more a guide / They say it’s our job to choose and heal the blues of the world / their tent opens wide / to embrace what is out with broad faith.

“And I have friends with deep faith / who learn daily the laws they keep / They are quick to bless / and modest in their attire / and they open their homes to travelers they don’t know.”

“Straddling this division, always growing / I refuse to choose / I need both for the growth of my soul / Deep and wide, deep and wide, deep and wide.

Judaism is too big to exist in a silo, Lesser told JHV by phone from his home in El Paso.

“I have spent time in various faiths,” Lesser said. “I grew up in Houston in a Reform-Conservative culture. I got married in an Orthodox culture. In both communities, I encountered a lot of assumptions that were neither correct nor constructive.

“Marriage in an Orthodox family was the catalyst that brought me to approach pluralism. But, it took me a while to put it into songwriting. I didn’t grow up keeping kosher or Shabbat, for example. Because I didn’t grow up doing what I’m doing now, my songs have become a way of sharing my process with others. The wide and deep sides have their beauty and blind spots.

“I like the challenge of writing things that no one else writes about, like Jewish pluralism.”

Lesser started writing songs while a student at Rice University. His first album, a collection of secular, folk, and non-Jewish songs, was released on cassette in 1992. “Sparks” was released a month before the start of the pandemic.

In the song ‘Everyone’, which Lesser wrote over two decades ago, he confesses, ‘The songs I play won’t bring in a big paycheck / not much chart space / but with sacred discipline / we can all live a work of art / if you harness your passion / you will be honored… ”

Lesser’s approach to songwriting is very cerebral. He looks first at the painting as a whole, then at the details.

“You have to learn the angles to make a song believable,” he said. “But, you have to have the big picture to sum up a song to its essence. If there’s a Jewish topic that appeals to me, I’m learning enough to be able to write a song about it.

“For example, I was drawn to Pirkei Avot. What struck me is that the company tells us that there is only room for a few on the charts. Judaism, in the Pirkei Avot, offers an antidote to this. Maybe I can’t quit my job and become a full time Jewish songwriter. But, I can bring passion to both tasks.

Lesser’s work involves another of his passions: mathematics. He is professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso.

In 2019, Lesser led a team of UTEP faculty and students who won a Grand Prize at the National Science Foundation. The prize was for a video in the “We Are Mathematics” video competition. The video combines interactive learning with educational songs.

“Who is wise? The Pirkei Avot (4: 1) teaches: He who learns from everyone. I take classes in Chabad, as well as conservative and reformist classes in El Paso. I also do a weekly apprenticeship through Partners In Torah, a personalized program, by phone or FaceTime, where you are matched with a study partner. No matter where you live, there are no longer any barriers to Jewish learning, ”Lesser said.

The music industry has changed a lot, even before the pandemic. The public tends to find Jewish music on Jewish rock radio and on artist tours in synagogues.

“Even before COVID, touring was tough for me because I have a big day job,” Lesser said. “This year, I performed at the New Mexico Music Awards. Because my songs are as much about education as they are entertainment, I took classes and weekend residences. The world of Jewish music is a small space with a lot of networking. It’s nice to be a part of this community. Although I can never highlight a festival, it is about the songs and not the notoriety that I will become. “

El Paso is the location of the Anusim Center, a project led by Rabbi Stephen Leon. Rabbi Leon helps descendants of crypto-Jews (b’nei anusim) to find their Jewish roots. Lesser tells the story of the song “Lights Lead Home”.

“I didn’t know that when I moved to El Paso in 2004,” Lesser said. “We have had a number of workshops on anusim and we have rabbis who have helped people return to Judaism. As a songwriter, I discovered the power of ritual to open up a conversation or an entire journey.

The “Sparks” CD contains 24 tracks. Why 24 tracks? A CD can contain more than 70 minutes of music. Trying to create a complete, nuanced version of Judaism, Lesser felt he couldn’t leave out any of the songs on the album. Also, given that it was three decades between the release of Lesser’s first and second album, it’s unclear how long we would have to wait for a third album.

“Most of the songs are part of what I want to share. I knew most people would release “Sparks”, but I still wanted the album to have a trajectory. It was intentional. There is even a ghost track at the end of the CD.

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