Hearing the Torah Singing Back at Me

It happened in my second year of cantorial school. One of those moments to which my entire life had led, but I couldn’t see happening until there I was - deep within it - recognizing how my past, present and future all served a purpose. Cantor Faith Steinsnyder was demonstrating “Ahavah Rabbah” mode, perhaps the most “Jewish-sounding” scale known to humanity, when it dawned on me that Jewish music is everywhere. As she sang these notes in this order, I found myself humming the opening guitar line of The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play (Keep Em Separated),” a favorite melody from my middle school days. And it didn’t stop there. I was flooded with “Eureka!” moments of instances where lyrics and sounds from my favorite childhood songs resounded with Jewishness.


Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” is Jacob’s wrestle with a mysterious figure - he is “lost in a dream...waiting for some small clue” as to the identity of his opponent. Madonna’s Open Your Heart can be reinterpreted as a plea for Pharaoh to soften his heart to Moses. The Beach Boys’ “In My Room” (heard quite often in the Zell household in the 1980s) is a modern day Hashkiveinu reminding us we are safe in our beds, in our rooms, at night.  When I relive my favorite 90s playlist I hear Alanis Morissette’s “One Hand in My Pocket” through the lens of a famous Chassidic teaching:  I’ve got one hand in my pocket (with a slip of paper that reads “I am but dust and ashes”) and the other one holds the “world was made for me.” Today I actively listen for our stories. Sinclair’s “This Too Shall Pass” is our famed adage from a story of King Solomon.

There's a reason the bible is called the "good book," and a reason we turn to Jewish text for guidance. It is filled with stories and morals that express the quintessential human experience and remind us that since the beginning of time we have grappled with: life, death, love, heartache, war and peace. For me, reading our Torah never gets old. Each time I hear a familiar tale, I extrapolate new meaning from old words, find new light between black letters and take comfort in knowing that these morals will never age, never fail to provide new insight. Most importantly, in times like these the words of our Torah move us to do good and act righteously. Our Jewish values are truly, “Everywhere."

The tropes found in our Torah, and in our liturgy, run rampant in contemporary culture. We cannot escape our history; as a people, faces and names may change but the stories do not. For this reason, and because art imitates life, lyrics heard in today’s secular songs are informed by ancient sacred texts. In fact, I can't listen to Spotify without hearing the Torah singing back at me.

Our secular music, when heard with open ears, is the gateway to something greater. All music allows us to tap into emotions that can otherwise lay incapable of expression. Music allows us to understand words and sounds in fresh ways, and if we listen carefully, perhaps we can hear our Jewish history coming through in stereo.

Shanna Zell is a singer/songwriter turned cantor who is thrilled to be serving as the new Assistant Cantor at Temple Beth Elohim. Shanna lives in Brookline, MA, loves keeping her finger on the pulse of the underground music scene, exploring new neighborhoods and eating sushi. 

This is one of a series of posts exploring the intersection of rock and spirituality, leading up to the release of In Pursuit, an album of original Jewish hard rock.  Sign up for the mailing list to learn more.