The sounds of change

Musician and teacher Bat-Ella Birnbaum introduces tens of thousands of children to tradition.

‘I TEACH that there’s more than one way to be a Jew, more than one way to pray... You can sing a prayer, dance a prayer. You can pray out loud, or silently,’ says musician/teacher Bat-Ella Birnbaum. (photo credit: MOSHE CHITIAT)
‘I TEACH that there’s more than one way to be a Jew, more than one way to pray... You can sing a prayer, dance a prayer. You can pray out loud, or silently,’ says musician/teacher Bat-Ella Birnbaum.
(photo credit: MOSHE CHITIAT)
Thousands of Israeli children first experience Jewish tradition through the magic of Bat-Ella Birnbaum, performer and teacher. She weaves an artful web of music, storytelling and movement on topics such as Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh.
Although she defines herself as secular, her work revolves around musical interpretation of Jewish prayer. It comes naturally to her. Born to a Syrian/Iraqi family, she was immersed in traditional prayers and melodies from birth.
“On Shabbat night, we’d sit at the table and sing Syrian piyutim [liturgical poetry] for half an hour before starting the meal.
My mother’s fabulous cooking waited until we had sung ourselves out,” she says of her beginnings. “We have a precious heritage that’s going to waste. I aim to help preserve it.”
Her venue is the pluralistic TALI education fund. TALI is the acronym for Tigbur Limudei Yahadut (enriched Jewish studies). It began as one classroom that opened in September 1976 in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, the brainchild of Conservative rabbis who, on making aliya, found no school in Israel that offered both rich Jewish education and a tolerant, pluralistic approach.
TALI now has a network of 110 schools and more than 200 kindergartens throughout Israel. There are 47,000 children enrolled in TALI schools, and thousands of graduates.
Birnbaum modestly says she’s “the house singer,” but in fact her workshops in Jewish prayer and life cycles are a highly effective part of the TALI efforts to nurture Jewish-Israeli identity and promote Jewish continuity.
“I teach that there’s more than one way to be a Jew, more than one way to pray. It’s a human need to reach out to God, or whatever you call the higher power, in times of joy or hardship. You can sing a prayer, dance a prayer. You can pray out loud, or silently. I teach the kids the vocabulary for a prayer in sign language, then ask them to close their lips and sign the prayer. You should see their focus, how something holy emanates from them as they talk to God with their fingers only.”
Birnbaum developed her talents during her teen years as part of an Israeli choir performing in the US, and later in the IDF performance troupe. By the time she married her American-born husband, Danny, she was a seasoned musician. She and Danny lived in Cincinnati for several years, where she developed a project to make daily prayer more engaging for the children studying at the Yavneh school, as it was then called. It was called “I Pray” – a disc and a teacher- training manual. Danny, a businessman (today CEO of the SodaStream company), is still cantor of the Adath Israel Congregation in Cincinnati. His grandfather was one of the original TALI founders.
On the family’s return to Israel, Birnbaum aligned with the TALI school movement. In 2003, she created a musical program for TALI on the theme of Rosh Hodesh. Called Niggunei Rosh Hodesh, by now it has touched more than 8,000 children, 1,000 teachers and 5,000 parents. A workshop may focus on Shabbat, events in the Jewish life cycle, or a particular holiday.
“Take our Seder for Israel Independence Day, similar the Passover and Tu Bishvat seders. We sing songs and tell stories from Independence Day, and learn the prayer for the safety of the state, set to music. After the children sing that prayer, we lead them through ‘Hatikva.’ It’s moving to witness their pride and emotion.”
“Some of the adults – parents and teachers – feel uncomfortable around anything that smacks of religion,” she continues. “We have to introduce words like Shabbat, synagogue and tradition in a non-threatening way. You see how some adults start off standing in the back of the room with their arms folded, then slowly get drawn into the music, and even dance. People have come to me in tears after a Kabbalat Shabbat workshop, talking about memories of a father or grandfather who used to make kiddush.”
Birnbaum and the TALI Education Fund created Yachad B’Tfilah, a simplified prayer book and three-disc musical accompaniment for elementary school. Schools all over Israel, including some outside the TALI system, use the light, engaging program.
In addition to her work at TALI, Birnbaum performs as a solo artist and has recorded her own interpretations of prayer in two albums, L’chi Lach and My Prayer.
The Birnbaums bring up their own children with strong values of Jewish spirituality expressed through music. Nitzan, 18, is a jazz drummer and pianist. Nitai, 20, is currently serving in the IDF. Shai and Gal, 15-year-old twin sisters, play the guitar and the piano, and Danny himself is an admirable pianist. All sing and play hand-held percussion instruments. They love getting together for an impromptu jam session, harmonizing popular Israeli songs, jazz, music from Birnbaum’s albums and even a little pop, thanks to Danny. It’s a pleasure to hear their music, which comes as naturally as breathing to them. Her position as musical director for TALI schools is but the natural outgrowth of her family’s culture. She explains how TALI’s musical program developed.
“By 2007 we wanted to widen the experience beyond my workshops. So we formed choirs. Last year, we held eight Shirat HaLev [Songs from the Heart] choir festivals with 51 schools and thousands of kids participating. We also established a dance event.
“As children share the spirit of music with their parents and siblings, they are planting the seeds of a vibrant Jewish experience in the home.”
Now TALI is celebrating 40 years since that first class sat down in Jerusalem. A gala event, “Salute to TALI Teachers,” is planned at the Roman theater in Caesarea on September 12 with performances by Rami Kleinstein, Kobi Aflalo, Yishai Ribo and Birnbaum. Guests of honor include Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Miriam Peretz, former TALI principal and national figure.
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