Jewish Music

“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   Larry has written dozens of innovative Jewish songs, some recorded on other artists’ CDs (Sababa; Ellen M. Wilson; Larry Bach) and many performed at festivals, concerts, conferences, classes, services, or community rallies. Recently, Larry released SPARKS — 24 passionate, profound and playful original non-liturgical nondenominational songs grounded in Jewish text/culture that work in concert and class settings, and are accessible to audiences of varied backgrounds. The album’s release has led to airplay (so far, 13+ different songs!), NPR station interviews (#1 & #2), newspaper features, peer-reviewed journal articles (TJE & ISJHR), concerts/presentations, and praise across from current/recent heads of national organizations across denominations (CLAL, USCJ, Mussar Institute, Partners in Torah, Women Cantors’ Network, etc.), was a Finalist in the 2021 New Mexico Music Awards in 4 categories (including Best Album) and the Winner for Best Humorous Song! The album is available on most major platforms.  As a still-seeking often-unconventional Jew whose journey has spanned nearly every stream, he is able to connect with diverse audiences with his strong belief that the power of Jewish music goes beyond the boxes of genre, denomination, occupation, celebrity, and age.

 

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Larry’s first Jewish “hit” was “Healing Song”, which has been featured on albums and NPR station interviews, and used by congregations in several states (TX, CO, ME, NC, etc.) in bikkur cholim and worship settings.  In his other Jewish songs, Larry has felt drawn to write not prayers, but explorations of Jewish experience and teachings in a way that includes seekers as well as believers, across denominations. Some of them have even included humor, such as “Max (The Bark Mitzvah Song)”, which won Best Humorous Song at the 2021 New Mexico Music Awards and was a semifinalist in the 2021 International Songwriting Competition. Other songs that have had visibility include:  “Lights Lead Home” (see https://larrylesser.com/crypto/), “Sparks” (a song video was featured in a special “Music by Scientists” issue of an international biweekly newsletter on science, music, art and culture), “What We’ll Bring” (a parsha song on Sababa’s 2007 CD Pray for the Peacesheet music), “Sederot Sky” (to open a 300-person community-wide “Stop the Sirens” program in 2014 and on a Cantors Assembly program on Oct. 11, 2023), “Night Will End” (posted on the website associated with the post-2020 election event “A Time to Embrace: A Ceremony Toward National Healing and Reconciliation” sponsored by 60+ Jewish organizations and attended by 1200), “One-Way Train” (used in Holocaust commemorations and at an NEA Big Read event curated by Albuquerque’s Poet Laureate), his local “spin” on a Chanukah classic, several songs (“Fallow Field“, “Seven Circles“, “Let Go (Take Down the Fences)“, “Rowboat“) for Hazon’s 2021 Shmita Prizes Gallery.  and “Kind” and “The Best” (see 18.6-min. mark of this) for events associated with the 2023 world premiere of the opera The Fox and the Cookie.

Recognitions for Lesser’s Jewish songs include being a 4-time finalist in the New Mexico Music Awards, having peer-reviewed articles since 2020 in The Jewish Educator and The Israeli Journal of Humor Research as well as various older recognitions such as a 2nd-place award in regional songwriting contest (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 by UTEP’s stellar middle eastern music ensemble and performed subsequently at a book release event organized by Texas Beat Poet Laureate Belinda Subraman.

He also has many songs about Jewish dynamics, history, and culture that provide a blend of meaning, warmth, and humor. Lesser has contributed songs (or videos) such as “Lights Lead Home” at a dozen annual Sephardic Anusim Conferences (for which Cong. B’nai Zion received a 2009 Solomon Schecter Gold Award for Synagogue Excellence in Celebrations and Dedications) as well as the biennial meeting of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies: see photo and video1 or video2. He has performed at museums or congregations of virtually all denominations and has also provided percussion (e.g., here or here) or guitar 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, his original music was played to open presentations by award-winning authors Genie Milgrom and Karen Treiger, and he was a featured performer (with Amalia Zeitlin) at the 2023 Jewish Food Festival.

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 reading in the Mishkan Tefillah siddur.

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:

Divinity and Infinity” — beautiful and surprising parallels between the infinite in mathematics and in religion/Judaism (part of a funded international speaker series)

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