Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From The Archives-Beijing China

Over the years, I have kept journals, documenting the experiences I've had singing all over the world. With time, I hope to share all of them on the blog. Here is one excerpt. 

January 9th, 2007
Beijing China

"Neehow! That is hello in Chinese and the one and only word I learned on my trip which I will now proceed to tell you all about. We land in Beijing airport Thursday evening after a long flight. We travelled along with the extended Freundlach family who came in, as we did, for the opening of the first women's Mikvah in Beijing, China. Dini Freundlach, the Shlucha of Beijing, greets us at the terminal with a warm smile and a big van with enough space for all 18 pieces of luggage that her husband, 2 daughters and mother shlepped in from the states. We packed on board and headed to the Chabad house for supper, and the first of many meals we were to have there. 

At the Raskins
We were pretty exhausted after the 13 hour flight so we called an early night at the Raskin's apartment where we were so graciously hosted the 5 nights we were in Beijing. Friday morning we contemplated travelling to the great wall of China but being Shabbos came in so early there simply wasn't enough time. Instead we hit the marketplaces for an day of bargain hunting for scarves, handbags, ties, shirts, and just about anything else you could imagine. At first the clever Chinese shopkeepers quoted us exorbitant prices but being pre-warned we bargained like pros and got all kinds od goodies for absolute bubkes (although we did manage to spend a lot of bubkes!). 
We bought coach bags like they were going out of style. Not one lasted more than a year.Hmmm...
My husband kept telling the vendors to give me whatever I pointed at. I had 10 of them following me.
After shopping we jumped into a taxi and headed to the Forbidden City was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In English? It's a Chinese Disney land of old castles that takes about three hours to see properly. The weather was frigid so we did a quick run through to be yotzei zein and then rushed back home just in time for Shabbos. 
I don't know why I assumed China would have tropical weather. Apparently it's close to Russia.
That's a lot of stairs for a vacation.
Now that's how I roll.
Frday night the Shluchim was incredible! After davening we sat down to a scrumptious Shabbos meal that we shared with 60 'regulars'. The singing, and Divrei Torah carried on late into the evening and I had to keep reminding myself that we were actually in China! The warmth of Yiddishkeit was burning bright and strong that cold Friday night in a little house in the Far East, that's for sure.
Erev Shabbos in the Chabad House. Their 5 year old daughter Chavi was making a cake. I kid you not. When you're on Shluchos, everyone chips in (plus child labor is more acceptable in China. jk)
Sunday morning came too quickly and we headed out to the Chabad house at 9 a.m. for the big event. Our taxi driver was a little confused by our misguided directions but after a few phone calls and an animated conversation in Chinese he got the directions and brought us safely to the Chabad school. 
We passed this Starbucks. I was excited the first time, then certain we were lost the 4th time.
The Chabad House
The entire school was decorated in beautiful purple tule and ribbon and a yummy breakfast buffet was set up with treats imported from NY special for the 'Spa for the Soul'. The women were divided into two groups for the morning spa sessions and while one learned about skin care and facials, the second learned about the color palette and dressing accordingly.  
After the interesting classes we were invited to watch a fascinating slide show about the Chinese culture compared to the American culture in regard to pregnancy and childbirth. Did you know in China, the law allows only one child per family? There are 1.4 billion Chinese and I suppose there has to be some restrictions or the they will eventually take over the world! The class was interesting but by 12pm we were all smelling the yummy luncheon that was being prepared in the adjoining room. 

After the last slide flickered across the wall, the lights were turned on and we were cordially invited to a scrumptious brunch consisting of mini vegetable quishes, onion soup, salmon and cream sauce, and vodka penne followed by hot chocolate cake and ice cream. I ate quickly and when the lights dimmed after dessert I headed on stage for the concert. 

I sang 'Crown of Creation', 'Perfect by Design', 'Vatispalel Chana','Sister, Sister' and 'It's All My Mother' before the intermission and speaker. After Mrs. Lipsker (who came in all the way from South Africa!) spoke about the importance and beauty of the Mitzvah of Mikvah and marriage, I sang a few more fun songs and thanked everyone for being my audiance in Beijing. 
Probably the most beautiful Mikvah in the world.
The ceiling of the Mikvah, reflects INTO THE WATER!
The women sang with me and really seemed to enjoy the songs. Although I've sung in Anchorange, Baranquilla, South Africa, and Israel. the excitement of perfoming in China and sharing my music with women who lived so many thousands of miles away from me, is and will probably always be, unparalleled. 
The Shluchos in China
Thank you Rabbi and Mrs. Freundlach for inviting us to share in your event and for giving us the opportunity of a lifetime. It was so wonderful!"

I sing tomorrow night at Rosie Gurkov's Bas Mitzvah. I'll be back Friday with some pictures of that. Til then,  follow this blog and let me know so you can participate in Monday's giveaway. Remember every Monday is giveaway Monday so don't miss out. I have some amazing products you WANT to have.

Choir Club tonight. We are really sounding great, rehearsing for our first performance January 22nd. I'll get you that information as we approach the date.

Thank you for all the love towards Morah Blanka. Her son had her read Monday's post and she was thrilled with the feedback.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stories Under The Mitzvah Tree + Giveaway!

 Music has the unique ability to trigger powerful recollections. A piece of familiar music provides an instant soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or certain place and you might all of the sudden see the person's face in your mind's eye. I think about this soundtrack when I chose a cd for my children to listen to while they play. 
The selection of Jewish music and dvds has grown quite considerably since I was a child and there is no shortage of options but perhaps its for that reason I find myself reaching for the music that reminds me of my childhood. The music that brings me back to a time when Bubbeh Sarah was alive and spent her winters in our backyard watching us play in the treehouse attached to the wooden swingset.  To a time when Zeidy Fellig's visit would have us running to the door for a rectangle fruit candy and a warm smile. The memories are fleeting, fading slowly over the years, pushed further and further back in the recesses of my mind by the new ones we are creating in our own home these days. 

What music will bring them back here?
My first real childhood flashback was produced by Shalom, Shalom Aleph, an album I picked off the shelf because it claimed to be "the classic Aleph Bais tape you grew up with". The first notes of the piano turned me into my five year old self again. It's simple; repetitive and monotonous, but it's a peek hole into my past, providing me with not much else than a feeling I can only identify as home. 

Recently another album from my past inspired me to make a long over-due visit to the the woman who wrote them. 
Still vibrant and dynamic, Morah Blanca is a musical pioneer; the first person to write and record Jewish music specifically for children with the record "Stories Under The Mitzvah Tree" released in 1973.  Morah Blanka is a legend in her time and I am proud to have a unique connection to her. To me Morah Blanka is 'Tante Blanka', the only sister of my Zeidy Fellig o'h, and my great aunt. Yesterday she opened her home, heart and photo albums for me. And told me her story.

In 1938, Blanka was all of ten years old when her mother sent her with the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took place 9 months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Blanka recounted boarding the train happily, completely oblivious to the circumstances. She remembers how her mother smiled and laughed with her, not wanting her only daughter to leave her arms in tears. 
Morah Blanka's mother, my great grandmother Bubby Itty

Blanka was placed in a foster home in England where she was rasied as a gentile, alone and without any contact with her family. In 1946, the chief Rabbi of England arranged a religious woman from Montreal to retrieve her. After 9 years(!!) living with strangers, she was reunited with her two older brothers Yosef and Nussen.
Nussen, Blanka and Yosef reunited in Montreal
My grandfather Yosef (to many known as Joe as my grandmother called him) was married at this time, raising his young children in Montreal. Uncle Nussen arranged that Blanka room and board with a frum family in Williamsburg in hope they would find her a Shidduch. At 20 years old, Blanka again was on her own. She recalls a memory where she sat eating soup in the living room of her new landlords, and as she eats, her soup bowl continues to fill with her tears. So many years later she remembers the loneliness so vividly, it brought her to tears to talk about it. 
She marries a quiet Litvisher boy soon after and moved to Lakewood where she spent the first few years of her marriage. Soon after her husband meets the Skverer Rebbe and they settle in New Square where she and her husband raise 7 children, all Skverer Chasidim, who live there until this day. 
Morah Blanka (right) with Rebbetzin Dr. Gruenfeld who brought her back to Montreal from England. She was  in charge of the Jewish Secondary School in London and the one responsible for all the  jewish children who were evauated to shefford from London during the war. She had a tremendous influence on Morah Blanka and guided her into the life  she leads today.  
Tanteh Blanka describes how excited she was to have a home all of her own. She takes painting lessons so she can paint pictures to decorate her house instead of buying them. Her love of children is manifested when she becomes a preschool teacher, a career she has cultivated and nurtured for over 50 years. (Not a person in Monsey hasn't passed through her classroom!) As a young teacher of Jewish children (Yeshivah of Spring Valley in Monsey) Blanka notices a tremendous need for Jewish children's music. (Can you even imagine a time when there were absolutely no recordings of any Jewish children's music at all?).

Sitting in her parlor, she describes how the words to the songs come down straight from Shamayim, and in frantic inspiration she begins to write the songs for what becomes "The Mitzvah Tree", "I Hear A Mitzvah", "Free To Do Mitzvos" ,"Stories Under The Mitzvah Tree", and "The Mitzvah Tree Triplets Make A Kiddush Hashem". Her cassettes produce the classic songs that hundreds of thousands of Jewish children learn every year, songs like "Hashem Gave Us A Present" and "Latkele, Latkele".
Her stories are narrated and recorded by young children and she remembers each one by name. Many are still in touch with her today.

Tanteh Blanka impressed so much on me in the few short hours we spent with her. "I love the Eibishter!" she proclaimed more than once. "My goal in life is to get closer to Hashem!". She sang me the songs she is still writing and teaching to her preschool students and showed me a picture of the bulletin board they had put up in school this month. Warm, positive, excited and generous are just some of the words that came to my mind as spoke.
It was powerful.
Congratulations Natalie Turetsky and Very Thankful Mother who won Miriyam Yerushalmi's beautiful book set. Please email me your contact info to

Today this story comes with a special giveaway that has a direct connection to Morah Blanka and myself. As I mentioned above, Morah Blanka had only two brothers, my grandfather Joe and Uncle Nussen, both infamous for their Gemilus Chasadim and larger than life personalities. Uncle Nussen is the father of another very talented woman, another famous Morah that we all know and love as Morah Music.
From right, my grandparents Joseph and Miriam, Blanka, and Suri's parents Nussen and Shoshana.
Suri Levilev is my father's first cousin and a close friend of mine. Her five Music and Movement albums are incorporated in school curriculums and play on repeat in my house since my little one is a tiny baby. One random commenter on this post will receive the entire Music and Movement set plus Morah Blanka's only album on CD "The Mitzvah Tree's Simchas Yom Tov".
All you gotta do is follow this blog (by clicking Join This Site on the top right) and leave a comment. What do you remember about the music of your childhood?

Friday, November 4, 2011

High School Choir Club!

Just a little announcement before Shabbos comes in:

 Teenage girls of Crown Heights, this is for YOU!

I am so excited to announce the debut of an exciting new after-school program custom-designed for the girls of our neighborhood, called the Choir Club.

The Choir Club will be open for all girls of high school and available for grades 7-9 and 10-12. The program will include an annual performance, solo opportunities and recording potential. 

The club will also encourage song-writing, and personal expression in any form of singing, harmony or musical instrumentation. Iy'h by the end of the program you will have gained singing confidence, song-writing skills and an extensive library of traditional and contemporary Jewish music. 

Join the Choir Club and be part of an after-school singing program that will bring out your Inner Song!   

Performance, Songwriting and Recording Opportunities!

Monday and Wednesday

7th, 8th, 9th grade
6:00 pm sharp

10th, 11th, 12th grade
7:00 pm sharp
Call 347 750 7957 to register TODAY. Spaces are limited.

Affordable and Located in Crown Heights
Endorsed by Bais Rivkah and Bnos Menachem 

Cant' wait to get started!
Good Shabbos

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Behind The Music-Vatispalel Chana

This post is a "behind the story" special post I will be writing twice a month, recounting the experiences and memories that came into play when writing some of my favorite songs. Many of these stories, you might have heard at concerts but I hope to add a little something extra each time. All my music can be purchased here. 

As a songwriter, I am constantly looking for inspiration for new songs. Sometimes it can be intangible and illusive, random inconclusive ideas floating in my head as I fall asleep, only to be forgotten in the morning. Often they come as an epiphany and seem so obvious; why have I not thought of this before.

Its hard to remember the exact experience I had writing each of the songs on my albums. Some came easy, melody and lyrics written in under and hour while some challenged my skills and forced me to think out of the box, resort to a thesaurus, a Siddur, some exterior inspiration to trigger my creativity. There were the songs I had to completely restructure, even go back and start from the drawing board.  Many uncompleted lyrics sat on the shelf for a while and were later merged into other songs. A few I collaborated on, allowing myself to trust another writer to seek out the imbalance and imperfections in my material. Many were just abandoned, scribbllings in notebook, languishing in a bottom drawer for years to come.

These days, with deadlines looming and the limitations my homemaking provides, the writing process is much more of a logical process. I used to believe I wrote by instinct, without a rhyme or reason, but now I am aware that songwriting is a honed skill like any other and these days I go at it with a plan.

Part of the plan is to write a song that moves people. What is the purpose of a song if not to touch hearts, changes moods, uplift spirits, and create divine inspiration?

When I access my index of songs I've written over the years, it's not hard to identify the songs that truly took on a life of their own. And these are the songs I have received the most feedback whether at concerts or in letters. These are the ones that can still bring me to tears even as I sing them for the hundredth time. Those songs have become much bigger than me; greater than the paper I wrote them on, than the keyboard I played them on, than the voice I sang them with. I believe Hashem has occupied them and they are holy. Chasidus teaches that any physical matter a Jewish person manipulates with good, can be raised to incredible spiritual heights.

In the words of Yossi Green,

"What does it mean to be a singer? What does it mean to be a singer of Jewish music? What do we accomplish when we sing? What does it mean? My opinion always know the world says that people sing with a voice  and my opinion is that people don't sing with a voice. A person sings with their heart. The question is, how much does he let his voice get in the way?"

One of the most unique songwriting experiences I had was writing the song "Vatispalel Chana"  Everything about that song is holy. I wrote is shortly after I got married, in Eretz Yisroel, on a train ride from Chaifa, where we visited the cave of Eliyahu Hanavi on Har Hakarmel. The lyrics are practically verbatim from the Navi and the tune I came up with on Friday night. While I cut up the salad, I sang it to an empty apartment without a pencil and guitar. Until today, that song moves me like it is not my own. And it's not. It is Chana's. I just try not to let my voice get in the way.

It's always remains a challenge for me to come up with the cd artwork as the visual aspect of art remains my achilles heel. With Vatispalel Chana, I wanted to tie Chana Hanaviya, my namesake, into the original artwork we were creating. The graphic artist hand drew the mountain baron Chana walked on, and included Kever Shmuel Hanavi, where her son remains buried to this day. You can see it better in the pencils. 

I insisted in vibrant colors and the floral theme, all representing fertility, growth and femininity. 

The rays of the sun brought Hashem's blessing for Chana into the picture and my guitar, an extension of myself basks in His light.

After some work on the logo, this is the final cover. 

You can listen here, you can buy here.