“Larry Lesser is a rebbe sharing a beautiful Torah in tune, and doing it with
passion, wisdom, and love – of all Jews, of the entire tradition, and genuine
appreciation of how each of us journeys with it. An amazing accomplishment,
Sparks packs an incredible amount of Torah – along with equal measures of
sweetness, beauty and joy – into just over an hour of music. One could spend years
unpacking the texts which inspire this album’s tracks, which add up to a method
for living with greater meaning, purpose, and love – both of one’s self and of
others. What more could we need? And when could we need it more?”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
President of CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership)
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Lesser has written dozens of innovative Jewish songs, some recorded on other artists’ CDs (Sababa; Ellen M. Wilson; Larry Bach) and performed at festivals, concerts, conferences, classes, services, or community rallies. In summer 2019, Lesser recorded SPARKS — an ambitious album of 24 passionate, profound and playful original songs grounded in Jewish text/lessons – and these songs work in a concert or class setting, and are accessible to audiences of varied backgrounds. The album’s February 2020 release quickly led to airplay (so far, at least 5 different songs 1 or more times on stations including KTEP-FM, WCUW-FM, and Jewish Rock Radio), an NPR radio station 15-minute interview (to be posted here), successful in-person release events (and even an online concert), and praise across from current/recent heads of national organizations across the 3 major denominations (CLAL, USCJ, Mussar Institute, Partners in Torah, Women’s Cantors Network, etc.)! The album is available on major platforms for streaming, digital download, or physical CD (see https://larrylesser.com/sparks).
“Healing Song” (Lesser’s best liturgical song) appears on CDs (by former UTEP voice instructor Ellen M. Wilson’s 2008 Songs of Ascent and former UTEP Religious Studies instructor Larry Bach’s 2013 Openings), was featured in an NPR station interview, was featured in a blogpost of the literary journal of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University, has been used in congregations in several states (TX, CO, ME, NC, etc.), and was the featured live song at an interfaith panel for UTEP’s 2019 “Trauma, Resilience & Resistance” program.
Other publicized songs include “Lights Lead Home” (in a 2010 national resource guide on B’nei Anusim compiled by Rabbis Stephen Leon and Juan Mejía), “What We’ll Bring” (based on Parashat Terumah, it’s on Sababa’s 2007 CD Pray for the Peace; sheet music), and “Sederot Sky” (to open a 300-person community-wide “Stop the Sirens” program). Lesser’s national and regional songwriting awards include awards for some of his Jewish songs such as “Jerusalem” (2nd-place award in the songwriting contest of the 1993 Celebration of Jewish Arts and Culture held in Austin). Larry’s songs sometimes bridge Jewish and general audiences, such as when his peace-seeking song “Break” premiered at the Fox Fine Arts Recital Hall in 2018 by UTEP’s stellar middle eastern music ensemble.
He also has many songs about Jewish dynamics, history, and culture that provide a blend of meaning, warmth, and humor. Lesser has performed at most annual Sephardic Anusim Conferences (for which Cong. B’nai Zion received a 2009 Solomon Schecter Gold Award for Synagogue Excellence in Celebrations and Dedications): see photo and video1 or video2. He has performed at museums or congregations of virtually all denominations and has also provided guitar or percussion (e.g., here or here) for local artists. Also, he has performed with diverse touring artists, ranging from Shmuel “Torah Fiddler” Geller (raising money for his Ohr Yaakov school in Zichron Yaakov) to Robbi Sherwin. In 2012, Lesser performed in the “Los Tres Larrys y Alison” concert that raised several hundred dollars for the Kelly Memorial Food Pantry, and in the followup concert in 2014 (reported here) that benefitted food pantry Casa de Peregrinos and soup kitchen El Caldito. He was a featured performer in the 2015 Café Andalus debut at El Paso’s Anusim Center, a Lag B’Omer concert, a community-wide Jewish music festival Yom HaShir (at which he did a half-hour set to open for headliner Chava Mirel; see story), a 2019 Café Europa performance, and his original music was played to open presentations by award-winning authors Genie Milgrom and Karen Treiger.
Lesser has taught classes on song for general audiences (e.g., UT-Austin Informal Classes) and for varied Jewish audiences, including classes for secondary school students (at El Paso’s Chai High and Houston’s Emery HS), and classes for El Paso’s Yom Limmud. Lesser published a letter on music and Judaism in CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism and made contributions to Rabbi Tzvi Gluckin’s book Knee Deep in the Funk: Understanding the Connection between Spirituality and Music. He is a former music director of a Jewish congregation in Austin and a former teacher at a Jewish day school in Houston. His first paid gig was Austin’s 1990 Israel Independence Day event (where the stage collapsed!) and he’s also performed original songs at other events in Texas Jewish history, including: Austin’s first Celebration of Jewish Arts and Culture festival concert, a city-wide interfaith service for the 50-year commemoration of Kristillnacht, the Kerrville Folk Festival’s first Shabbat service, and a town meeting for the planning of a JCC campus in Austin.
In addition to Jewish songwriting, Larry has published Jewish poetry in Poetica Magazine: Contemporary Jewish Writing, DRASH: Northwest Mosaic, BorderSenses Literary Magazine, Mizmor Poetry Anthology, and a visual poem in CCAR Journal. Also, two top national pedagogical newsletters published his “Opening Intentions” piece inspired by a siddur reading.
While he has published scholarly papers connecting Judaism and math education, his overall commitment to his decades-long career as a university math education professor means he can consider only a few selected Jewish-related engagements each year, especially during the 9-month school year. But he thoroughly enjoys those opportunities to use his award-winning pedagogical skills to give engaging concerts and/or interactive talks for varied multi-congregational settings, audiences, and formats on music and other topics, such as:
“How We Count” — an engaging exploration of how Jewish values are embedded in the very way we mark time, count in holy texts, and count our fellow Jews.
“Lots and Lotteries” — an engaging exploration of Jewish texts and views on chance — ranging from the ancient casting of lots to modern playing of lotteries
“Who is Wise?” — a professor discusses secular and Jewish perspectives of what makes someone wise
“A Great Sage of the Talmud” – source-based discussion of Bruria, the Talmud’s top woman sage
“Composing a Path: A Songwriter Connects to Jewish Spirituality” — a published, award-winning songwriter shares examples of spiritual songcraft deeply grounded in Judaism, but accessible to all
“What is Jewish Pluralism?” — Pluralism is rooted in Jewish text and goes beyond tolerance or relativism. Informed by a Jewish path that has been greatly enriched by friends, family and experiences in almost all denominations, A provocative and respectful conversation on inspiration and challenges pluralism offers all of us.
“Attitude of Gratitude” — how Jewish is Thanksgiving? Let’s be thankful for this interactive discussion to explore how gratitude matters and how this character trait is built into the Jewish people: our text, our prayers, our mussar tradition, even our very name!
“Power of a Smile” — more than personality, this act is a Jewish text-based value