New school offers music training in a religious setting

Mizmor helps religious students live out their passion for music and develop professional skills, without compromising in their lifestyle.

November 14, 2010 02:46
3 minute read.
MUSICIAN MIKA KARNI teaches a class at the new Miz

mizmor 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

Strike up the band. A new music school is for the first time ever offering musical studies in an atmosphere that religious students can tolerate. The Mizmor (hymn) School, established as part of the Givat Washington Campus of Education, near Kvutzat Yavne, recently began the first of its three-year program with fifty-odd men and women of varying degrees of religious observance, aging 20 to 35, all of whom sought a place where they could live out their passion for music and develop professional skills, without compromising in their lifestyle.

The program’s staff is headed by Daniel Zamir, one of Israel’s leading jazz musicians who recently released his eighth album, “Missing Here,” and was appointed academic director of the program. In addition, leading musicians such as Mika Karni and Aharon Razel will teach and set out to “encourage original, contemporary Jewish- Israeli creation.”

It was Itzik Weiss who approached director of Givat Washington, Yaki Saada, a year ago with the idea. Weiss, 34, administrative director of Mizmor, is himself a musician and identifies with the national-religious sector. He studied music by himself and with teachers, but didn’t pursue his passion in an advanced framework such as the Rimon School, which provides a stimulating musical environment, but plethora of Halachic and spiritual obstacles for an observant Jew as well.

The setting of music students learning, playing and creating together for hours on end is an essential component of creating outstanding musicians, and one that lacks in religious society, Weiss told The Jerusalem Post, saying that’s what he is out to change.

It is therefore no surprise that most of the outstanding religious musicians in Israel did not grow up observant. “This is a revolution,” he said. “We want the next Eviatar Banai to start off religious,” he noted with a smile, referring to the outstanding musician and composer who became observant over the years.

Though Weiss stresses that the school is not for “Jewish music” per se, Judaism is a significant component of the students’ spiritual world, and inevitably part of their creative output and aspirations. Zamir, who he asked to head the school, epitomizes both the professional standards the program aims at, as well as having the artistic outlook that is not divorced from religious belief. The saxophonist recorded three albums under John Zorn’s prestigious Tzadik label during his New York stint, which is also when he became observant.

“Maimonides teaches that before the Levites began playing music in the Temple, they were trained for no less than five years, thus making the Temple the place of significant connection between music, harmony and sanctity,” Zamir told students at the opening day late in October. “When the People of Israel were exiled, it all dissipated, but now, with the return of the People of Israel to their land, it’s all coming together again.”

To the Post’s question of what Jewish music is, Zamir said that it is such “created by Jews, out of awareness to our connection with our creator.” From a musicological point of view, the music created by Jews was always similar to that of the Diaspora they were part of, he noted, be it Moroccan, Eastern European or other musical styles.

The students at Mizmor, who were auditioned by Zamir, have varying musical backgrounds and levels, unified by the underlying desire to create music. “We are here to provide them [with] that musical backbone,” Zamir said, through a curriculum “not inherently different from that of Rimon or New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music,” where Zamir studied. He added that the difference was that it would take place “in an environment accommodating to religious people.” For example, classes involving women singing, or intimate forms of expression, are held without men. The school also has the supervision of a rabbi, and wishes to promote the creative process among its students through writing as well.

The first few weeks have so far been “amazing. It’s a very special feeling,” Zamir said.

Meanwhile, forward-looking Saada has started to lay down the lines for what he hopes will be a music-yeshiva, bringing yeshiva students abroad for half a day of Torah and half of music.

But, even in its current form, Mizmor is another significant landmark in the journey of religious society to reclaim the arts from decades of abandonment and a mindset deeming creative expression inferior or superfluous, without apologizing or compromising in faith. And that trend is here to stay.

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