Thoughts Before Thanksgiving

If I Die Tomorrow

I am not planning on dying anytime soon but, if I die tomorrow, please know that I was happy.

I got to spend my days alone, creating.
I got to spend the rest of the time with the people I love the most, my family.
I failed a lot. I became fearless and stopped caring if I failed. Creating things was too much fun to care what people thought of what I made.
I never made it big as an artist. I created on my own terms without having to deal with the pressures of success, money, and fame.
I got to be a link in a rich, enduring tradition dating back thousands of years.
I observed Shabbat. Every week I got to unplug for a full night and day and our children got to play hide and seek instead of on iPads.
I stopped being afraid of and limited by other people’s fears.
I had enough of everything I needed.
I had a partner who made me laugh.
I had a relationship with God.
I got paid to sing with kids.
I forgave my family.
I forgave myself.

Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

Love,
Julie

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Breathing New Life into My Family’s Shofar

The shofar, or ram’s horn, is one of the most enduring symbols of the Jewish people. Its use predates the siddur, the menorah and nearly all other ritual objects. For me, the shofar – and specifically my father’s – is also one of the most enduring images of Judaism in my own family. As far back as I can remember, my father has owned this shofar:

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This shofar was, and continues to be, the perfect shofar. It is easy to blow. I can’t get a sound out of most shofars but I can always get a gorgeous tone out of this one. Which, by the way, is exactly what you would want: a sad, low, hollow sound. Not piercing, but strong. It doesn’t smell when you blow it. And, because it’s hard to break a shofar, I have many memories of my siblings and me blowing it every time the High Holidays rolled around.

Throughout my childhood, my father was the chaplain at a Jewish senior apartment complex. Every Rosh Hashanah, he led the services and blew the shofar. After services, we would walk across the street and take the stairs up to the tenth floor (we did not use the elevator on the Sabbath and holidays) to blow the shofar for Mrs. Soffen, who could not make it to the synagogue. If there were others we knew of who had not heard the shofar, we would also visit them in their apartments, schmooze for a while, and my father would blow the shofar for them, too. Because everybody in that community was of advanced age, the conversations on Rosh Hashanah were real. Residents spoke lovingly of how the sound of the shofar brought them back to their own childhoods. Some cried. And the High Holidays were no joke. They were truly pleading for something: to stay alive a little bit longer, or maybe to be reunited with a spouse or family members who had already died. Even as a child I felt the gravity of their prayers.

But as usual for me, with everything related to Judaism, there was a catch: I am a woman. And a shofar, like almost every other Jewish ritual object, was for men. Growing up, I never once heard a woman blow a shofar in public even though I don’t know of any halachic (Jewish legal) issue with that. And even now, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a woman blow a shofar, even in the more liberal synagogues I’ve attended as an adult.

When I was eighteen, I spent a year studying Jewish texts at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an all-girls yeshiva in Jerusalem. The students all arrived around the start of the Hebrew month of Elul, the time of year when the shofar is sounded each morning in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Since we had an all-female prayer service, one of the rabbis asked if any of us girls wanted to blow the shofar. At the time I found that to be shocking, since it never occurred to me that it was acceptable for females to do so. I was probably one of the few girls who had practiced blowing a shofar before, but I didn’t feel comfortable stepping forward into that role publicly. In the end, the rabbis ended up blowing the shofar for us.

Fast forward to two years ago. I was praying in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and I noticed the following prayer (truncated a bit for the sake of good songwriting) in the shofar service: “May it be Your will, God, that angels will ascend from this shofar and stand before Your throne and advocate on our behalf for You to forgive our sins.” I was so moved by that image and those words that I set them to music. The song I wrote is called Sheya’alu (And They Will Ascend).

I recently released a music video for this song. I began with footage of me singing and playing the song. But, as I watched it, I knew what the video needed: footage of me blowing the shofar. I had a moment of panic: But would that be OK?? I knew that the answer had to be yes. Let our girls – my two daughters and yours – grow up with an image of a woman blowing a shofar. And let us women see that image, too.

I borrowed my father’s shofar for the shoot and I added images of me blowing the shofar to the video. And, since then I’ve held onto the shofar, and every day I take it out and I blow it — for me and my own need to wake up, but also for my children to see. And every week now, when I play music for Jewish preschoolers, I bring the shofar and I blow it for them, too. Let them see a woman blowing the shofar. Let that not be a jarring image for them, as it was for me.

The shofar holds an inherent paradox. On the one hand, it is familiar and soothing. We hear it year after year and its vibrations resonate deep within our bones. On the other hand, the sound of the shofar is meant to jolt us awake and remind us that we can do better. Let this year be no different, the ancient alongside a sense of freshness, the comfort alongside the striving.

Head Shot Lo ResJulie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is healing the world one song at a time with original, uplifting music. She has been releasing one music video a month since June of 2013. Enjoy her videos here.

The Story Behind the Song “Hareini Mochel (I Forgive)”

Last year, a friend asked me to set part of the Bedtime Shema – an extended version of the traditional shema prayer that we say at bedtime – to music. When I looked it over carefully, the opening line jumped out at me:

I hereby forgive anyone who has angered me, provoked me, or sinned against me.
(Hareini mochel lichol mi shehichis vihiknit oti oh shechatah kinegdi)

What moved me so much about this prayer is that we are offering forgiveness to people we perceive as having hurt us throughout the day and they are not even present. We are in our beds, on our own, offering forgiveness and the people who hurt us are not even there.

What this indicated to me was that forgiveness has less to do with the one who harmed us than it has to do with ourselves. We forgive others not to let them off the hook but to allow ourselves to continue to live our lives without the burden of carrying around hatred and anger. 

I had been mulling over these words and their implication when, driving home that same week, I heard the following story on NPR:

Jennifer Thompson was raped in 1984 and she identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence, and the perpetrator, who had died in prison serving time for another crime, was identified.

When Jennifer came to terms with the fact that Ronald Cotton was innocent, she said, “I knew how to be a victim of sexual violence… and now I became an offender… Fear set in and it just took hold of me, and you know, terrified that at any minute he was going to spring up behind any dark corner and want to set the record straight and, you know, hurt me or take something away from me.”

Even though some of her friends tried to convince her otherwise, she knew she had to meet Ronald.

It took two years until they met face to face. Jennifer said that, “We met in a small church not far from where I’d been raped 13 years before. And as soon as he walked into the room, and I just started to cry, he just immediately gave me forgiveness. And it was the first time, truly, in 13 years that I could physically feel myself starting to heal. And oddly enough, it should be the one person that I had learned to hate so much during that time that would teach me about grace and mercy, and it was the most amazing – outside of the birth of my children, it was the most amazing experience of my life.”

I drove around listening to Jennifer’s story, crying. (You can read and/or listen to the full story here.)

Years before, I had come across The Forgiveness Project. On this website are stories of people who have been victims of heinous crimes, whose family members have been murdered, who have lived through wars – and they have all chosen to forgive their perpetrators. In the words of one woman, “They wouldn’t know if I felt hate toward them and the only person it was hurting was me.” These stories moved me deeply and made me begin to think very seriously about forgiveness. If people who had lived through the unspeakable had forgiven, it gave me hope that I could find it in my heart to forgive others for ways in which I perceived that they had hurt me. 

So, here we are in the aseret yimei teshuvah – the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – the day in which we ask God to forgive our own shortcomings and allow us to live in spite of them. This forgiveness work is real, and it’s deep and it’s very serious. And you can’t fake it. 

I know I’m still carrying some unecessary stuff around. I feel pretty clear with people I see regularly because we can deal with things as they come up. We mess up, we apologize and talk about it, and we move on. But, often I bump into someone I haven’t seen for a long time and I realize that I’m still carrying around some sort of old grudge against them. “Let go,” I gently tell myself. “It’s OK. You don’t have to carry this around any longer.”

So here’s my blessing for us all: May we each break through this week, lighten our load, let go of some old or new grudge, choose acceptance over anger, love over fear.

Shana tova,
Julie

Mommy and Musician: Eleven Creative Parenting Tips

ImageToday my son Ilan turns eleven. He was the first of my three children and the child who made me a mother. It was through parenting Ilan that I initially learned how to continue to work as a musician while being available as a parent. So, in honor of the occasion, I’ve decided to write this post highlighting ways to balance creative work with parenthood. Happy birthday Ilanster!  

1. Let Your Children See You Pursue Your Passion
Every day my children see me working to sustain a career as a singer/songwriter. They witness my passion, dedication, hard work, and persistence. While every once in a while I have to leave for a gig or go out of town amidst the scene of a crying child tugging at my leg, most of the time my children understand that I do my thing and then come back home. Also, my husband is more than capable of taking care of them for an evening or when I am out of town. It is good for my children to see their mother excelling at something outside of the realm of parenting.

2. Allow Parenthood to Make You More Creative
One reason that my husband and I waited a while to have children was that I was afraid that I would stop writing music once I had a child to care for. This is true in the short term. After each of my children was born, it took me a good two or three years to ramp up to my previous level of professional engagement. However, having children awakened something in my heart that I hadn’t been in touch with before: a huge new well of openness, creativity, vulnerability and depth that I can tap into creatively.

3. Separate Work and Family Time
So, how does one have time for creative endeavors? You set aside time. Mornings, when all of my children are out of the house, are my time to write music. Even though I’m at home, I don’t use that time for laundry, cleaning the house, or any of that stuff. That’s when I write music and blog posts, book shows and build my career.  Then, later in the day when I’m with my kids, I do my best to actually be with them (you can read about my struggles with that here). After we put them to bed or before they wake up the next morning, I put in a few more hours in my music studio.

4. Involve Your Children in Your Work
While it is good to have boundaries around the times you work (see #3), it is also good to engage your children in it when appropriate. Example: One night last year, Ilan came down to my studio around midnight. He wanted to hear what I was recording and, somewhat annoyed that he was up and bothering me so late on a school night, I reluctantly agreed. He listened through once to my song and immediately had a great idea for me. I got so excited that I threw the headphones on him, put him in front of the mic and had him sing his idea through (it made it onto theCD). My kids have also been camera people for my videos, with Ilan giving me staging directions (and me taking them!). In fact, I let him miss a day of school so he could drive around town with me filming a video. My kids love selling CDs at my concerts. I feel great about giving them life skills related to creating, leadership, vision, execution, and running a business, as well as the technical aspects of producing music, concerts and videos. 

5. Learn to Do More With Less
I have very few hours in the day to work on music so I don’t waste them.  Before having children, I could waste an entire day (not) writing a song. Now, I’m much more efficient. I’ve spoken with other artist parents who have also come to appreciate the value of short bursts of concentrated work. Consistency is the key. Use the time you’ve got; it’s more than you think.

6. Work Through Your Own Issues
Never worked through your childhood grievances? Still angry? The best investment in being a good parent (and person, and artist) is sorting through your own issues. Make peace with your past, yourself and your family of origin. The clearer and more comfortable you get with yourself and your family of origin, the better parent (and child!) you will be. Plus, the more extended family members there are around to love your children, the better for everybody.

7. Become the Person You Hope Your Children Will Become
Do you want your children to be comfortable in their skin? Then become comfortable in your own skin.  Want them to be fearless? Then cultivate fearlessness in your own life. Charitable? Involved? Creative? Children learn how to walk in this world through observing how their parents do it. Do your best to embody the values that you want to impart to your children.

8. Give Your Children Time and Space to Be Themselves 
Let them wear pajamas to school, dress up, be who they are. Let your boys wear dresses, play with dolls, let your girls play with the diggers in the mud. Don’t squash their inborn creativity by insisting that they be a certain way or look and act like mini adults. Kids are innately creative and, unlike many adults, unafraid to express themselves. They are not yet the sheep that so many of us are, needing to conform to gender/class/race/community expectations  Don’t rush them from activity to activity. Give them time to experiment, explore and just be.

9. Let Your Children Know How Much You Love Them
This will go a long way (I hope!) toward offsetting the many parenting mistakes we are all making along the way.

10. Unplug as a Family
My family is blessed to observe shabbat, where we unplug physically and emotionally from sundown Friday through sundown on Saturday. This is when we have long, relaxed meals with family and friends, catch up with each other, and enjoy the sound of children of all ages running and playing throughout our house – without electronics. It’s what keeps our family and community together.

11. Create Shalom Bayit (a Peaceful Home)
For the sake of everyone who lives under your roof, do everything you can to create a peaceful environment in your home.

So, what have your children taught you about being a parent? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Lo Res Head ShotJulie Geller is a singer/songwriter based in Denver, CO. She is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting, positive music in English and Hebrew. Sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.

Why This Jewish Artist Sends Her Children to Day School

ImageAbraham and the Three Angels by Marc Chagall

Last summer my husband and I took our three children to Europe for a friend’s wedding. While we were there we went to the  MusĂ©e National Marc Chagall, or the National Museum of Marc Chagall in Nice, France. It is a gorgeous little museum that houses seventeen Chagall paintings based on the books of Genesis, Exodus and the Song of Songs. My takeaway from the visit, aside from being deeply affected by the paintings, is that it reinforced that the money we invest in sending our children to Jewish Day School is very well spent. 

When we were at the museum, I told my then-nine-year-old son, “Chagall spent his childhood in yeshiva, which meant he had a solid grasp of the stories from the Torah. When he grew up, he was able to take his expansive textual knowledge and turn it into something new and beautiful. That is why we send you guys to day school. We’re making sure you get knowledge and tools. You can do whatever you want with them.” Had Chagall not had such a strong grasp of our holy books and had he not lived with our ancient stories, he never would have been able to create art of that depth related to our heritage. 

I am a singer/songwriter and today I played a concert for Jewish women.  Afterward, someone approached me and asked me if I had a Master’s degree in education. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant and then I realized that she wanted to understand how I have a strong enough grasp of the prayers and texts to pick out words that move me in order to set them to music. No, no Master’s degree, but I do have many years of Denver’s strong Jewish day schools under my belt as well as a year of Yeshiva in Israel. That education is what has given me the tools to forge my own path professionally and as a Jewish community leader (my husband and I co-founded an independent minyan ten years ago).

My children attend a modern Orthodox day school. While neither my husband nor I would consider ourselves to be party line Orthodox, we chose to send our children to the school because we were impressed with the rigor with which the students learned Hebrew language and gained access to our ancient texts and prayers. I am not sending them there because I want them to be Orthodox; how they choose to worship now and as adults is their business. I had to go through many twists and turns in my own religious journey and I expect that they each will as well. But, by sending them to day school, I am ensuring that they will have ample tools through which they can connect to their tradition on their own terms.  Maybe they will become charedi. Maybe they will reject it all outright. Most likely, I imagine they’ll end up somewhere in the middle. Regardless of how they turn out, my husband and I know that we did our best to give them the most access to an ancient tradition that is deep, enduring, and meaningful.