For me, one of the most significant parts of being at camp is the opportunity to gain important perspective on the work that I do year-round. Last year, I reflected on the intersection between my work at camp and my work at my synagogue the rest of the year. This year, I’m mindful of the power of contemporary popular music, and the power it still has to fuel our Jewish identities.
I started thinking about it the other day in the midst of the Kesher course I was teaching for entering 8th-10th graders. As you may know, every Eisner camper spends one period daily engaging in informal Jewish education with a member of our Faculty. In Lower Camp, this engagement happens during Limud, when Faculty members implement the camp’s educational curriculum/lesson plans. With young people in Upper Camp, that engagement happens during elective-type mini-courses that we call Kesher.
I am a huge fan of poetry. And so I planned a weeklong Kesher course that would use a range of Israeli and Diaspora poetry to explore Jewish reflections on War and Peace.
I had originally planned that each day would focus on one of these poems:
- “When That Man Was Killed” by Admiel Kosman
- “Poppies” by Zalman Schneour [and “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae]
- “Memorial Day for the War Dead” by Yehuda Amichai
- “Miriam’s Song” by Eleanor Wilner
On the first day, I mentioned that poetry was just one textual tool we could use for this survey. I assured them that if they had an interest in other artistic expressions (i.e. drawing/painting, music, or film) and wanted to bring that to our group, I’d be excited to spend some of our class time either creating or studying those modes.
Most of the campers’ faces were on the blank side when I put this offer on the table. Honestly I wasn’t sure if it was the midday heat, or the students’ lack of interest in the general topic of the mini-course, or that they just weren’t motivated to think outside the box about my offer. But: there was silence, and I let it be…
So: imagine my joy, when…later in the week…I sat down under the trees outside the Tzofim Beit Am…and the students were eagerly waiting, with a list of contemporary songs addressing War and Peace that they wanted to look at together.
I spent that evening online downloading two of the songs, so that we could listen to (and study) them together on the last day of the course.
And that’s how my poetry course looking at Kosman and Amichai also came to include Snoop Lion and Matisyahu.
It was awesome because the teens were invested in the material, and had done their part to bring what spoke to them to the table.
It was awesome because our discussion went from the wars of today’s world and current events, to what is going on in their personal lives.
It was awesome because the moment the first song started playing, I felt like I was being transported back in time. No longer was I a rabbi teaching Jewish thought to my teenage students using rap. Instead, I imagined that I had a bird’s eye view of my teachers, a whole generation or two earlier, sitting together in the 1960s and 1970s – discovering that their Jewish identities didn’t just have roots in Torah, but in Seeger and Dylan too.
The power of music lives on. We experience it when we sing together daily here at camp. We are literally moved by it when we dance together on Friday nights. And we allow it to mold us, and teach us, when we study it as faithfully as we study the sacred words that have been handed down to us from a thousand generations ago.