JHV 2022 interview

Texas songwriter sparks new genre of Jewish music

Thu, Jan 06, 2022

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

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

Mark Kligman, chair of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Department of Ethnomusicology, in a paper “Contemporary Jewish Music in America,” noted, “Every sector of the Jewish community – from the most right-wing Orthodox to the most secular – participates in the Jewish music endeavor, creating, performing and listening to the particular music that meets its taste and needs.”

Larry Lesser occupies a niche within a niche. He’s a contemporary Jewish songwriter whose lyrics emphasizes Jewish texts while going beyond narrow denominational interpretation. His album Sparks features 24 original songs, quite unlike most Jewish music collections.

To get an idea of where Lesser is coming from, consider the lyrics of “Deep And Wide”:

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

“And I have friends whose faith is deep / who daily learn laws they keep / They are quick to bless / and modest in their dress / and they open their homes to trav’lers they don’t know.

“Astride this divide, still 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 the JHV by phone from his home in El Paso.

“I spent time in various denominations,” said Lesser. “I grew up in Houston in a Reform-Conservative culture. I married into an Orthodox culture. In both communities, I encountered a lot of assumptions that weren’t accurate or constructive.

“Marrying into a Modern Orthodox family was the catalyst that got me to address pluralism. But, it took me a while to put it into songwriting. I didn’t grow up keeping kosher or a full day of Shabbat, for example. Because I didn’t grow up doing what I do now, my songs became a way to share my process with others. Both the wide and the deep sides have their beauty and their blind spots.  “I love the challenge to write the things no one else writes about, like Jewish pluralism.”

Lesser began writing songs while he was a student at Rice University. His first album, Afterglow, a collection of secular folk  songs, was released on cassette in 1992. Sparks was released a month before the pandemic began.

In the song “Everyone,” which Lesser started more than two decades ago, he confesses, “The songs I play won’t bring big pay / not much room on the chart / but with sacred discipline / we can all live a work of art /”

Lesser’s approach to songwriting is very right-brain. He looks first at the whole picture and then the details. “You have to learn the angles to make a song believable,” he said. “But, you have to get the big picture to boil a song down to its essence. If there is a Jewish topic I am drawn towards, I learn enough to be able to write a song about it. For example, society tells us there’s only room for a few on the charts. Judaism, in Pirkei Avot, offers an antidote to that. Maybe I can’t quit my day job and become a full-time Jewish songwriter. But I can bring passion to both tasks.”

Lesser’s day job involves another passion of his: mathematics. He’s a professor in mathematical sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso.  In 2019, Lesser led a team of faculty and students that 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? Pirkei Avot (4:1) teaches: One who learns from everyone. I attend classes at Chabad, as well as at Conservative and Reform congregations in El Paso. I also do weekly learning through Partners In Torah, a personalized, phone- or FaceTime-based program where you are matched up with a study partner. No matter where you live, there are no barriers to Jewish learning anymore,” said Lesser.

The music industry has changed a great deal, even prior to the pandemic. Audiences tend to find Jewish music through Jewish Rock Radio and through artist tours in synagogues.

“Even before COVID, touring was hard for me because I have a heavy day job,” said Lesser. “This year, I played the New Mexico Music Awards. Because my songs are as much about education as entertainment, I’ve done classes and can do weekend residences. The Jewish music world is a small space with a lot of networking. It’s nice to be part of that community. Although I may never headline a festival, it’s about the songs and not how famous I’ll get.”

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

“I didn’t know this when I moved to El Paso in 2004,” said Lesser. “We’ve had a number of workshops about anusim, and we have rabbis who have helped people make their return to Judaism. As a songwriter, I’ve discovered the power of ritual to unlock a conversation or a whole journey.”

The Sparks CD contains 24 tracks. Why 24 tracks? A CD can hold 70-plus minutes of music. In trying to create a nuanced, big view of Judaism, Lesser felt he couldn’t omit any of the album’s songs. Besides, given there were almost three decades between Lesser’s first and second album releases, there’s no telling how long we’d have to wait for a third album. 

(from the Jewish Herald-Voice, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community of Houston, with a few typos corrected from the half-page version published on Jan. 6, 2022, vol. 114, no. 45, p. 7)