Something old, something new

Something old, something new

Making Jewishtext and music more accessible through online crowdsourcing

Michelle Citrin, who grew up in Fair Lawn, is using Kickstarter to make a new album of old-turned-new Jewish music.
Michelle Citrin, who grew up in Fair Lawn, is using Kickstarter to make a new album of old-turned-new Jewish music.

If a community can commission music, then certainly music can help create community, contends singer/songwriter Michelle Citrin. Raised in Fair Lawn, the musician, composer, and producer is working on a new album “dedicated to taking the old and making it new.”

But it’s not just those liturgical texts, and most specifically the psalms, that Ms. Citrin will render in a more modern and accessible form. Her fundraising approach — seeking community support online through Kickstarter — “is taking the old form of supporting the arts and making it new via the internet.”

“We’ve come full circle,” said Ms. Citrin, who now lives in Brooklyn. “Before there was recorded music, communities that supported the arts sponsored musicians to write, and then perform, their new compositions. Just think of Mozart and his many patrons.”

Drawing on that approach, Ms. Citrin has created a video explaining the importance of bringing ancient Jewish wisdom into everyday life and is asking those in the community who endorse that goal to help her do it by contributing money. She believes the music industry is in flux. Today, “with fewer people buying CDs and more people streaming their music, the model is changing.” To help defray the costs of producing her new album, she has turned to Kickstarter, which calls itself “the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects — a home for film, music, art, theater, games, comics, design, photography, and more.”

Citrin’s upcoming album, her second, due out in January — her first, called “Left Brained Right Hearted,” explored the struggle of heart versus head — will be solely Jewish music. “I’ll be looking at ancient texts and finding modern connections, finding a way to make them new,” she said.

Jews have always reinterpreted texts, “making them relevant so people can connect to them,” she continued. “They contain beautifully rich pieces of wisdom, and as my grandfather instilled in us, ‘ein kol chadash tachat hashamesh,’ ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’” (Her grandfather, of course, was quoting Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes.) “Now I appreciate what it means. My hope is to find ways for people to embrace and celebrate Jewish identity.”

Some things have changed, however, such as the platform through which music is funded, eliminating geography as an obstacle to reaching fans. Thanks to the internet and home recording technology, more artists have the ability to share their works and be supported by an audience who enjoys it.

Ms. Citrin, who co-leads services at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., during the High Holy Days and spends a good deal of time performing at synagogues and other venues around the world, said, “I have a lot of people coming up to me and saying, ‘I didn’t know what this prayer was about. I’ve just been going through the motions.’” The album will contain pieces Ms. Citrin has been doing over the past couple of years, which she describes as “mixing Hebrew with the English translation and offering an interpretation.”

Her Kickstarter campaign has been extremely successful. “We have a 30-day campaign to raise $25,000, and in just one day, we fulfilled 30 percent of the album’s funding, which led to topping the charts of most popularly funded music projects on Kickstarter on Day 1,” she said. Now it’s up to about $17,000, and she is more than halfway toward her goal of $25,000.

To make contributors feel even more a part of the effort, donations are acknowledged with rewards. One, the “sip of gratitude” mug, is printed with the prayer Modeh Ani. “It helps people start off the day with gratitude,” Ms. Citrin said. “We need hints and reminders of what prayers are about. Everyone can appreciate that message even if they’re not observant.”

Asking for money — and watching people step up to help — is “so humbling,” she continued, and working to create the rewards also has been “an amazing learning experience.” She said that her entrepreneurial spirit was invaluable when she had to learn about producing mugs. Rewards vary with the size of the donation. Some people will get the digital version of the CD, while others will get the product itself. Still others will be sent videos of the recording process, “a phenomenal thing to watch,” Ms. Citrin said.

The singer also will offer her expertise, and rewards include Skype counseling sessions on songwriting and singing. Those synagogues that have contributed will receive a visit from Ms. Citrin. “There’s been a wide range of responses, ranging from $10 to $3,500,” she said.

Why do people contribute? “I think that if people like what you do and believe in investing in the Jewish future and finding ways to make it relevant, this is an attractive idea.” Some contributors, she said, are fans of her music and interested in hearing her new pieces.

Ms. Citrin is no stranger to the internet. Her YouTube videos (“20 Things to do with Matzah,” “Rosh Hashanah Girl,” and “Hanukkah Lovin”) have received millions of hits, and she has sold thousands of her albums without the help of a record label. “It’s a testament to modern technology,” she said.

“It’s a very intimidating thing to ask the universe for money,” Ms. Citrin said. “You have to have time and a community to reach out to. I’ve spent many years on the road connecting with people. It’s been incredible to invite my community to join me in the creation of this album. So much of the inspiration for the songs and projects I create come from my travels and interaction with people around the world, so it feels very natural and exciting to be able to engage this beloved community to help make new art possible.

“It’s very rewarding to be a part of creating something together, making this project that much more meaningful.”

There is more information about Ms. Citrin and a link to her Kickstarter campaign on her homepage,

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