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The Son Of A Cantor Man: Noah Aronson

The great thing about being in a room with Noah Aronson as he’s talking about his music is seeing the passion in his eyes.  The son of beloved Cantor Theodore Aronson, Noah has decided to follow a similar path and devote his life to making his music accessible and tangible for Jewish audiences.  Noah has just released his latest album of Jewish synagogue music entitled “Am I Awake.”  While we were talking he sang for me more than a dozen times. Last week we sat down in his apartment and home studio to talk about the album, people who inspire him, and his unique sound.

What inspired this album?

This album is really a personal reflection of my connection to Judaism…

I am constantly striving to create a personal connection.  What is my connection with God? What is my connection to Judaism? I find that if I am open with people about my journey and my personal struggle with these questions, it creates the opportunity for others to openly grapple with these questions for themselves.  I believe that when a person comes to a synagogue to pray it is the clergy’s job (and my job as a ‘prayer leader’) to give them space to deal with these tough questions.  Are you ready?  Are you open to meditate? Are you open to letting go?  Are you coming in with all of the baggage from the week or are you open to being truly present?

Am I Awake is a reminder to be mindful. I infuse that melody at different points of the service. Hopefully it serves as a sort of checkpoint to remind people to be mindful.

What was the thought process behind writing the song “Modeh Ani”?

I’ve written four or five different melodies for Modeh Ani. It’s a morning prayer that thanks God for renewing and restoring our souls.  People in my generation are always surprised when I tell them I believe in God. It’s as if as soon as you mention God they think you’re a crazy zealot or something.    But the way I like to think about it is I simply ask; ‘if God doesn’t exist, then who do you thank for your life?’  To me, God is not a him or a her or whatever.  God is just who you thank.

My obsession, of course, is your version of “Shalom Aleichem.”  Where did you come up with this melody?

I was just thinking about ways to make this prayer more engaging for the congregation. I had this image of one group of people greeting another group saying ‘Shalom Aleichem’ (Peace unto you) and the other group responding.  And then everyone joining to sing the prayer together.  On the album the song is structured a bit differently than the way I present it in a service.  In general I was trying to create an album that was fun to listen to and easy to pop into your car or on your ipod as opposed to an example of what one of my Shabbat services look like.

Do you have a favorite song on the album?

That’s hard.  I guess it’d have to be my setting of “Shalom Rav” because it was written with my father when we were traveling in Jerusalem together.  We were in a hostel which happened to have an amazing view of the wall that surrounds the Old City.  We were looking out and having a discussion about the fragility of peace in Israel. We took out the text of Shalom Rav.  He sang a note, I sang a note.  He’d try to trick me with a dissonant note and I’d try to bring it back.  He kept jumping around and I would fix the jump.  Over the next two weeks while we traveled I would take out my guitar any time I had a moment adding parts until it became the evolution you hear on the album.  Perhaps our struggle in writing this melody is a reflection of the eternal struggle for peace…or maybe it’s just a nice melody!  Verdict’s still out on that one.

How did you get into writing Jewish music?

I was studying at Berklee College of Music working on a degree in Jazz Composition.  While at school, I took on a part-time job as a music teacher at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass.  Over time, the Cantor there, Jodi Sufrin took me under her wing and began to prompt me to set texts to music. After my first year teaching, the synagogue sent me to the Hava Nashira Songleaders workshop. It was there where I met Craig Taubman for the first time.  After watching and learning from him, I knew immediately that THAT was what I wanted to do with my life. I went back to the synagogue and asked to take on more responsibility.  I wanted to be involved in all aspects of synagogue life and get totally immersed in Jewish music. Eventually they asked me to compose an entire Shabbat service for their community; something that reflected the interests and personality of their community.  So, with the guidance of my new mentor, I created a service for them called ‘Shabbat Menecha’-which means A Restful Shabbat.  Interestingly enough in the Hebrew word ‘Menecha’ can be found a ‘nun’ a ‘vav’and a ‘chet’ which make Noach, or Noah.  We tried to create a service that allowed people to connect and to let go. That was their mission and now, 5 years later, their community has distinct and unique musical identity that reflects their mission.  I think that’s pretty cool.

Which Jewish musicians are the most inspirational to you?

I’m always inspired by people…Craig Taubmam has been a huge inspiration and mentor for me.  Dan Nichols, who is really big in the Jewish summer camp scene, has also been an  incredible force in Jewish music the past 10 years. I’m also inspired by a singer/songwriter named Josh Nelson; a fabulous musicians and producer who is really, in my opinion, raising the bar for Jewish music in America.

How would you define your sound?

My music is a reflection of who I am.  The music sort of comes out of me and I’m not really sure what the influences were that create it.  My experiences and the things that I’ve heard throughout my life dictate the sounds you hear.  The reason that the melodies and the sounds are so eclectic is because I’m sort of an ethnic mut in a lot of ways. My mother is from Haiti and my mother’s side of the family is Sephardic.  My great grandmother moved from Egypt to Haiti at the turn of the century.  She had my grandmother and her brothers and sisters.  All of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters moved to the US and became part of the strong Sephardic community in Brooklyn, but my grandmother stayed in Haiti, met my grandfather and they had my mother.  Growing up, my mother had to go to a Christian school and her knowledge of Judaism was very small.  She had a yearning to be around more Jews so of course when she moved to the US for college and met a young-hip cantor (my dad) they married and created a Jewish life here.  Growing up I spent a lot of my childhood in Haiti.  My time was spent going back and forth between the heavily Judeo-centric areas of Northern New Jersey and the incredibly ‘un-Jewish’ environs of Petion-Ville, Haiti. So, I think that splitting my time between Haiti and South Orange, New Jersey growing up and combining my Askenazi and Sephardi backgrounds has definitely influenced my ‘sound’.

What’s coming up for you in the next few years?

I’m just trying to dip my feet into as many pools as possible.  I am the Artist-in-Residence at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA and will be teaching alternative worship as well as writing a new brand new service for them throughout the year.  In December I will be the Assistant Music Director at the URJ Biennial which is the largest gathering of Reform Jews in the country. I’m also excited to get involved in movements like Next Door Shabbat/Synagogue 3000 which focuses on engaging with Jews in their 20s and 30s. There’s a gap and a need there.  I’m in that group of people who wonder, “What does a synagogue have to offer?”  The next five years will be how to reach out to my peers who strive to connect but don’t necessarily know where to turn to find it.  We are a tribe, we are a group that is connected around the world, the state, the city, the town.  There is a yearning for that connection and I want to find that connection with others and I want to bring people back to their Judaism as a way to connect.

It’s my favorite question to ask because I love the answers people give me: In your own words, please define Jewish Community.

When I think of my ideal Jewish community the first word that comes to mind is ‘openess’.  I want to be around a group of people who allows each other the space to connect to God and to pray. Everybody connects in different ways and everyone, I think, is searching for something.  My ‘ideal Jewish community’ is a one that is open to letting everybody experience and create that connection on their own but supports and comforts you to help lift you towards that as opposed to alienating you and pushing you away.  I’d feel most comfortable praying in that community.

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