Finding her way to Jerusalem

Born to Chinese-American parents in Seattle, songwriter Hadassah Lee explored a variety of cultures before converting to Judaism, moving to Israel and recording her debut album.

September 25, 2006 10:27
hadassah lee 88 298

hadassah lee 88 298. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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National, racial and religious identity play only a limited role in the work of most songwriters, but for Chinese-American-Jewish-Jerusalemite Hadassah Lee, identity baggage is a repertoire unto itself. Many of Lee's songs focus on her evolving religious beliefs and the exploration of her various heritages, while her live show centers on the spiritual journey that has made her who she is now. Roughly based on the format that made VH1's Storytellers a hit, Lee's concerts feature the singer speaking with audiences about her upbringing and the changes she has undergone since, with songs from her Bamidbar EP and upcoming Underneath Your Smile album mixed in. Between private music tutoring sessions, ulpan classes - she's now in her third course - and seminary classes in Har Nof, Lee is working to develop her musical career as much as she can. In the past year, she's performed for a birthright tour group, at the Tikva Center for at-risk youth and at a pair of women's study centers. "This is my service of God. It's not a hobby and it's not a career," she says. Lee's career in Israel got started largely through Wanna Be a Star Professional Women's Theater, an arts contest and collective. The theater's shows began as open-mic events, culminating with two showcases at the Pargod Theater. The finalists - Lee, along with an opera singer, a rock band and a folk guitarist - combined their talents into a multi-act performance piece, but Lee is unsure about the collective's future, and she's now looking for new outlets. Lee's Chinese parents had been happily married and living in Seattle for 13 years before they traveled to Taiwan to bring their first-born daughter, born Heidi Hsiao Chien Lee, closer to their families. Lee spent her childhood in Seattle, studying at an elite private school where she was ridiculed for being the only non-white student. "I got made fun of for my 'pancake nose' and funny eyes," she says. "So I wanted to [distance myself from] the Chinese language, because then, of course, no one would know I was Chinese anymore, right?" As a schoolgirl, Lee found her relationships with Jewish students especially intriguing, and says that learning about Jewish culture and identity was a big part of her youth. As her mother slowly died of brain cancer, Lee's focus was elsewhere: "I was married to my studies, went to therapy and support groups and remained a part-time student and full-time spiritual seeker," she says. She describes her parents' household as a "haredi goyish home" - one that was strict, wary of outsiders and demanded modest dress, no touching boys and no dating. The restrictions have become a source for some of her music, with "Little Mei Mei," a song on the Bamidbar EP, telling the story of Lee's aunt, whose life of alienation as a lesbian ended in suicide. "It's a culture that doesn't value life," Lee says of the song's subject. Music became an early interest and outlet for the young Lee. "Basically, I knew at nine I wanted to be a singer, either like Whitney Houston, or Little Orphan Annie on Broadway or at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle," Lee says. She spent five years as a young adult performing regularly with fringe theater troupes, an experience which helped her gain the confidence to perform and write music. She explored a number of cultures during the following period, naming Chinese medicine, acupuncture and meditation and Japanese- and Korean-style Zen among the topics. "I assisted a Hindu-practicing American-hippie kindergarten teacher in Oakland for my first year out of college, then flew off to my birth city, Taipei, to teach English in an after-school program," she recalls. Lee's wouldn't find her way to Israel for several more years, when her dreadlocked then-boyfriend encouraged her to study Judaism as a way of appeasing his religious parents. "What we didn't expect was that I wanted to be a real Jew - and the deepest Jew, to get my Jewish soul back that I had been detached from," she says. Lee studied for two years in New York and Seattle at Chabad institutions and adult education centers before coming to Israel and joining Bat Ayin's women's seminary, a program for both potential converts and the newly religious. "For us, it was boot camp," she says, referring to Bat Ayin's less-than-luxurious living conditions. "It was like living in a succa all year round." Lee completed the program after a year, immersing herself at the Bat Ayin mikveh and converting to Judaism with the Jerusalem rabbinate. Lee's father is extremely supportive of her new life, and a song thanking him for his love appears on the new disc. Lee's extended family is tolerant of her Judaism but not happy about it, she says, mostly because the family's secular Jewish friends talk negatively about religious Jews. "I have a tremendous responsibility," Lee says of her identity. "I'm at the crossroads of a lot of [people] shooting at each other. I just want to live, and I feel a responsibility to break people's stereotypes. I have to not fit what people hate." "Right now," she says by way of example, "I have a foot in the haredi world, a foot in the National Religious world - although I'll probably be kicked out of the haredi world when the new CD comes out." (Underneath Your Smile will be marketed to all audiences, including men, a move sanctioned by Lee's halachic advisor, who believes that a woman's voice is less of an erotic temptation recorded than live.) Largely funded by benefits she received after making aliya, Underneath Your Smile was created in three studios, with recording sessions taking place in Seattle and Tel Aviv and mixing completed in Jerusalem. Most of the songs were written over the past year, but some were composed before Lee's conversion. The music is inspired by Tori Amos' piano-based, theatrical trip-hop balladry, though Lee's more recent songs explore some new realms. "I'm still learning what I'm capable of," she says of her writing. "I really like jazz, and I haven't been able to write jazz yet." Lee wrote one song on the album, "Waiting Room," about her frustration with the slow conversion process, while another song expresses her yearning for marriage. It's a very personal project, and nearly all the songs work with biblical imagery. The album, Lee says, is "about how to laugh, how to smile, how to fly." Holding up the master recordings for the new album, she says, "These songs are prayers. I'm lonely, but God is with me. I think I was able to make them into cool songs. I'm finding my voice."

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