Many of us hear the same melodies over and over again on the High Holy Days. The words to which they are set are so deeply familiar that we tend to flow right into the music without paying attention to the words.
But although Rebecca Teplow of Teaneck, a composer and musician, knows how primally important music is in reaching the depths of our souls, she also knows how important the words are. She sings and composes liturgical music, and she has written new music to some of the most totemic poetry we sing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When we hear the familiar words set to new music, we will be able to hear both the words and the music, Ms. Teplow said.
“My purpose in singing is to have people recognize the presence of God,” she added. “My goal is to awaken the soul to the comforting presence of God through my music.”
She will perform some of her work, including a few new pieces she has written for the holidays, at the Glen Rock Jewish Center on Sunday. (See box.)
“When I compose a new melody, I walk around for days, just saying the words out loud to myself, over and over again, until I absorb their pulse, their inflection, and their meaning,” she said. “They have to become part of me before I can even try to write music for them.
“And then at some point it becomes easier for me to get across their deep meaning with music than it would have had I tried to use words.” That’s when she writes the melody, and then, “just listening to my music, people can get it,” she said.
How does she choose which poems or psalms to get to music? “Usually I am drawn to works that I am struggling with,” she said. “In Avinu Malkenu” — Our Father, Our King, one of the most thematically prominent and constantly repeated of the season’s prayers — “we are begging God to save our lives. To me, it about that. And it is also about asking how I am going to change personally. And how am I going to become closer to God?
“As a woman, I am so busy cooking, getting ready, so that when I walk into synagogue on erev Yom Kippur, and I know that I am going to hear Kol Nidre, it is hard for me to transition to it.
“You rush and rush, you wonder if you will make it on time, and then you get there and go in, and it’s like ‘Okay. Connect me.’ Sometimes I feel like I’m almost scared of it, because I don’t know if it will connect me. If it will work for me.”
Ms. Teplow wrote new music for Avinu Malkenu. It does not replace the traditional melodies but instead allows listeners to react to the words as if they were hearing them for the first time, while being moved by the emotion in the music.
She has also set “Limnot Yameinu” — Count Our Days — to new music. “Count our days, so we may acquire a heart of wisdom,” she said, quoting Psalm 90. “Let us value our days. Let me slow down. Let me be in the here and now. Let me, let us immerse ourselves in the precious moments we are given.”
The meaning and liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also “give people a heightened awareness of death at this time of year,” Ms. Teplow said. She has written music to Psalm 23, which includes the words “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” “When you listen in the beginning, the notes sound like someone is acting walking in the valley, overshadowed by death,” Ms. Teplow said. “And then when the music resolves, you hear ‘I will fear no evil, because you are with me,’ and you feel the warmth.
“I wonder if I will have that faith in that moment,” she continued. “I wrote that music before my parents passed away — that was very recently, and in the same year. So I took the song and I played it at my mother’s bedside. She was in a coma, and I played it over and over again, and it was very therapeutic.”
She also set the words Ani Maamin — the song’s title means I Believe, and the words include a belief in the coming of the Moshiach, even if he tarries — to music. “In the measure where it says I will wait for him, the rhythm of the music changes to incorporate extra beats,” Ms. Teplow said. “It is a question of timing, of waiting for the coming of the messiah, and the commitment to wait with full belief, even if you think about all the pain in the word.
“And by singing these songs this week, two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, I am becoming more in the moment, so that when I go into those days I will be a little more ready.”
She has been rehearsing for her concert at home, Ms. Teplow said. She will be working with three other musicians — Tamara Teplow, her daughter, on flute; “world famous cellist” Daniel Hess, and pianist Toru Dodo, a 19-year-old Israeli prodigy who just has graduated from Juilliard.
“The other day, we were practicing at home, and my heart was so wide open, and I used my voice to beg God, to thank God, to rejoice in God, and that day it was so intense that the house was shaking,” she said. “It was physically shaking. Everybody noticed it. It was so very intense.”
Because, as she said ruefully, it is hard to make a living as a singer and composer, she also teaches piano, and she is a speech pathologist. And as makes sense, given how deeply music and spirituality are connected for her, and how deeply entwined in her life they are, Ms. Teplow hosts a Carlebach minyan that meets at her house on Friday nights.
Her children also are musically gifted. Her daughter, Tamara, not only plays flute but also teaches. And her sons are involved in Sofar concerts. “It’s a really cool thing,” Ms. Teplow said. “Somebody volunteers to host a concert in a living room or backyard, and they announce it, and the first 25 people who sign up get access to the concert.
“When I said to my son that I was willing to perform, he said ‘Why don’t you just announce a Sofar? So I am. It will be on November 18, and the first 25 people who email me, at firstname.lastname@example.org, will get access to it.
“I’m hoping that it will be free, but there is a suggested donation,” she continued. “It will be an intimate setting, in my living room, by candlelight, on a Saturday night. You can do that instead of going out to eat.
“No musicians make money doing this, but it is a beautiful way to bring communities together through the arts,” she said.
As for her own music, “what really differentiates it is that it is word painting,” she said. “There is such a deep connection between the music and the words. It can be magical, even for people who tend not to like Jewish music.”