When Things Fall Apart: The Story Behind the Song Don’t Put it Back Together

When I was 18, during a year I spent in a year in yeshiva in Israel, I wrote my first twoScreen Shot 2016-06-23 at 4.34.28 PM complete songs with lyrics. I was so excited that I decided to book a recording studio in which to record them. As you might imagine, it was a challenge for someone with imperfect Hebrew to locate a recording studio in Jerusalem. I did finally find one that had a special, affordable hourly rate after midnight. Perfect! So, I booked a couple hours, and proceeded to practice my songs tirelessly so that I would be prepared. After all, time is money in a recording studio (and, by the way, I still always go into the studio crazy prepared). My set-up that year was a Roland Keyboard and this eight-track that had I bought from a friend the summer before I left.

As the recording day (night) got closer, something started to happen: my eight-track began to crash on me. Repeatedly. And every time it did that, I had to reprogram all of the tracks (drums, piano, horns, etc.) for the song. I was starting to freak out because I didn’t know if the tracks would even be on the machine when I arrived at the studio.

I was a mess emotionally and existentially. I wasn’t sure whether I should abandon the whole project. Were all of the hardships associated with this project meant to make me work harder to realize my goal, or were the hardships a sign that I should abandon it altogether? 

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 4.50.20 PMI asked one of the rabbis that question and he must have told me to stick to it because that is what I did. I remember having to rebuild the songs the day before the recording and, when I arrived at the studio, they were miraculously still on the eight-track. Here’s the tape of that recording (oh, how I love that I wrote “1st recording” on it!).

I tell this story because I think that this is a crucial skill for being alive: knowing when to fight for something even through it’s very hard versus knowing when to give up on something even though you really want it. Back then, I didn’t know how to handle that dilemma so I sought counsel from a rabbi. Now, I know: it’s a gut thing.

This new song is about that moment when, even if you don’t know what the next thing is and even if you are scared out of your wits, there is something inside of you that says that it’s time to move on. And you do.

I originally wrote this tune as an upbeat song. You can watch a video of that version here. The more I sat with it, though, I decided that I wanted to hear it as a hymn. So, now I’ve got two versions and I must say that I like them both. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll see if I can combine them in some way?

Lo Res Head ShotJulie Geller is a Denver-based singer/songwriter who writes and performs original music in English and Hebrew that inspires people to become their best versions of themselves. Hear more at www.juliegeller.com.

 

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This Heart Can’t Be Unbroken

I have always believed in God. I absorbed it as a little girl first and foremost from my parents. I stood by my father’s side many times as he soulfully led prayers in synagogue. I brought our mezuzahs to be checked the winter when things we going badly for our family and we wanted make sure that they were written correctly and would continue to protect our family. I was there when my father couldn’t stop laughing when someone stole the all tires from his car because, ultimately, it’s only money, and nothing at all in the big picture. Even today, when something goes wrong, someone in my family will say, “It’s a kapparah,” a small bad thing that happens in place of an unknown, larger one.

And it is.

I also learned to have faith in my Orthodox Jewish elementary school, where the purpose of our religious education was to teach us 1) to believe in God, 2) to understand what God’s will is, and 3) how to execute it.

There was something curious about this God of mine, though: He felt very close and present in times of joy, but inexplicably far away in times of sorrow and despair. In my greatest times of need, it felt like God abandoned me.

“That’s OK,” little me would think. “I’ll get through on my own.” But it wasn’t. I needed help.

The week after September 11th, 2001 I sat down and wrote a song, Lord Above. The lyrics are:

Lord above I want to walk with you
Want you to fill my heart with love
But when I call your name will you be there?

At that time, I felt like God was not only male (also absorbed from my environment), hence Lord, but also above – very far away and out of reach. I felt like God had abandoned all of humanity.

Fast forward to September of  2005.  I had given birth to a stillborn baby two months prior. I couldn’t bring myself to face God and attend prayer services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Instead, I stayed home and wrote a song called Show Your Face. The lyrics are:

So come out and show your face like any grown man would
Come out a show your face to me
I’m getting tired of asking and I’m getting real tired of your not answering
Won’t you show me your face

So, again, God seemed male to me, and again, I felt like God had abandoned me when I most need help.

But, something else happened when my baby died, something new. My heart got shattered. I don’t mean broken. I mean shattered, as in unable to ever be put together again in the same way.

So, slowly over the course of the next year or two I began to negotiate a new relationship with this battered heart, and with this God of abandonment. During that process I learned some things about myself: I was terrified of getting hurt. I was terrified of falling apart. I was terrified of things not working out. I was terrified of failure.

So, how had I always protected myself from those things happening? I had placed a shield around my heart. My heart was whole and beautiful because it was well protected. Nothing could reach it. There was no way I was taking big emotional risks that could in any way harm that perfect, unblemished heart.

But, on September 11th, cracks started to show in that armor. I was trying mightily to protect myself, but the heartbreak was just too much. And then when the baby died I couldn’t even begin to protect it. Things hadn’t worked out. BIG TIME.

With that shattering came unbearable pain, but, surprisingly, also these: openness, softness, compassion, even relief. An openness to what was going to happen without having to control it. A softness to life, without needing to always have a hard, protective edge. Compassion for others, because I now understood the pain with which they were living. And finally, relief in being able to let my guard down because the worst had already happened. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.

And then the most curious thing happened with my relationship with God: With my broken heart, I could finally make room for God in my heart. God had always been my Lord above, but that was because I hadn’t made any room in my own heart. With this new shattering, there was a way in, a place for God to live inside of me. And over time, God felt like less of a Lord and more like both the divine female and male energies that the Jewish tradition embraces.

The Kotzker Rebbe, a 19th century Hassidic master, taught this as well. He wrote that “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Paradoxically, when your heart breaks, there exists the possibility of it becoming whole in a new way.

I once read that life tries to help us grow, and that we can either pick up on the clues as we go along, or we can ignore them and then be forced to grow very quickly in a difficult way. For me, change came in the form of the latter. It wasn’t pleasant or easy, but it softened me and made me more aware of the heartbreak of others. It taught me how to connect with my vibrant, courageous, beating heart, even when it is filled with pain and heartbreak. I don’t have to run from those things. They are part of the mix. And now, when being alive hurts so much, I whisper to God, “Help me!” and God whispers gently, “I know, my sweet child, isn’t it painful?”

And I am not alone.

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 “Da (Know)”

“Know from where you come and to where you are going: to the Holy One.” – excerpted from Ethics of the Fathers 3:1

Unlike anyone my age that I know, death is a huge motivator for me.

About six years ago, I was thinking about becoming a full time musician but was terrified of taking the leap. I remember driving home alone from the shiva house (house of mourning) for the family of a woman in my community who had been a complete powerhouse – strong, vibrant, passionate. She passed away at the age of 54.

As I drove home (well, in circles actually), I had tears streaming down my face. In that moment, I understood to my core that I couldn’t mess around forever. I could no longer hide behind mediocrity and fear. I couldn’t blame others for my own failure to move forward with my music. If I was going to continue to be unhappy, it was because I was making a decision to do so. I realized that, at some unknown point, this would all be over and that would be that. It could be next week, next year, or in 60 years. Who knows?

Within three months I was working full time as a musician.

Knowing that this journey on Earth will end at some point and in some way over which I likely have no control keeps me focused on what is important: How do I want my kids to remember me? What can I teach them? How can I help them succeed? Beyond that, I really don’t care. Will the rest of the world remember me or not? Who cares.

Carrying an awareness that this could all end or be drastically changed for me at any time severely dampens my interest in getting involved in unfolding dramas or anything that’s out of my control. There’s certainly no time to be a perfectionist. And, instead of expending energy to care what others think of me and my music, I’ve chosen to expend my energy living my life and creating music.

I wrote this song immediately after returning from my grandmother’s funeral and shiva earlier this month. This song is my tribute to her. My grandmother was an accomplished pianist who was unable to play in her later years due to arthritis. Not surprisingly, upon returning home, I also filmed this video about the connection between creativity and healing. Ask any artist and they will tell you about the power of the creative process to heal.

My grandmother lived a long, full life. In her teens, she and her family escaped the Nazis and traveled from Vienna to Paris to Morocco to Montevideo to New York. She literally had diamonds sewn into the soles of her shoes. After a journey that lasted well over a year, her family finally made it to New York, where she met a young Rabbi from Texas, a third-generation American. Together they later settled in Portland, Oregon, where they both lived until their deaths.

I miss my Oma. I miss speaking with her on Fridays before Shabbat. I miss my Opa, too, who died seven years ago. I can’t believe they are both gone.

My grandmother was the last of her generation. She showed me and all her family nothing but love. I trust that she is with her beloved and her parents and siblings once again.

And with the Holy One.

Lo Res Head ShotJulie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting music. She has been releasing one new music video a month since June of 2013. Find her on Facebook and Twitter and sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.

The Story Behind the Song “You’re With Me” (Or, Why Gradual is Awesome)

If you’ve listened to the song You’re With Me, you won’t be surprised to learn where the inspiration came from: the ocean.

I live in Colorado, a land-locked state, so it is always kind of a big deal to get to visit the ocean.

I wrote this song a few years back when I was visiting Los Angeles. I spent the afternoon at the ocean and the next morning it poured out of me. It was one of the first times I traveled out of my state to play a concert. I felt like I was on the cusp of something big.

Looking back, was I? Not really.

For years I’ve felt like I’ve been on the cusp of something big. But truthfully, nothing big has happened to me in my career yet. From the beginning, it’s all been about gradual growth.

I learned about the beauty of gradual twelve years ago when I signed up to do  a Century Ride (biking 100 miles in one day) with Team In Training. I was scared out of my wits to do it but I somehow pushed myself to sign up. I think the most I had biked before that was twelve miles and I figured that if signed up with them (I had to raise a bunch of money to do it) that they would train me for the ride.

And train me they did.

But it wasn’t rocket science. The first Sunday we rode 20 miles. The next Sunday we rode 30, then 40, then 50 all the way until we reached 100. It was awesome because what had at first seemed unreachable – biking 30 miles in a day, say – by the end became my new norm. That day I became someone who can bike 100 miles in a day. That’s huge to have that knowledge and confidence inside me.

For years I’ve run three miles and not a step more. I couldn’t even fathom running father than that. But one day this summer a friend invited me to run four miles, so that quickly became my new norm. So, why not run six? If I can do six, then how about eight? What about ten? Then… bam! I just ran a half marathon. Now my new norm is someone who can run 13 miles at a time. That’s in me. Again, huge.

And so it’s been with my career: With every concert I’ve played I learned a little something and have gotten a little better. Over the years I’ve gradually gotten better gigs, been given better opportunities, gotten more press, built a fan base, and on and on. The steps have for the most part been incremental and manageable.

So, will that huge bump up come at some point? Maybe.

But for now I’m sitting tight with my ol’ buddy Gradual.

Head Shot Lo ResJulie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting, positive music in English and Hebrew. You can watch her latest videos here. Sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.

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

The Missing Piece: The Story Behind the Song “Ana Avda (I am Your Servant)”

PART ONE:
Before Passover of this year, I was putting together a concert/workshop on the theme of moving from slavery to freedom in our lives.  I needed a Jewish song about freedom but couldn’t think of one. So, I asked on Facebook whether anybody had ideas for words about freedom that I could set to music.

Within minutes, my friend Rabbi Avi Heller responded with the following words: “Ana avda dikudsha brich hu (I am the servant of the Holy One, blessed be He).” These words are taken from the Aramaic prayer we say before removing the Torah from the ark on shabbat and festival mornings.

I thought about it and realized that, indeed, these words are the essence of freedom. When you are a slave to your highest purpose in this world, you are free from being a slave to anything else. You don’t have to be a slave to money, fame, what others say, societal expectations, or anything. You are following your highest purpose and that is all you need.

So I set the words “Ana avda,” a shortened version of that sentence, to music.

PART TWO:
Two years ago, I was in the park with my daughter when I received some scary news over the phone. I was afraid. Instinctively, I started chanting the following words to myself: “I am Your servant, I am Your servant” over and over again. It calmed me down.

But, the song itself was strange. It had no beginning and no end.

It didn’t go anywhere.

PART THREE:
Last week I was driving home with my family. As we were transitioning out of the activities of the day into the evening, I started thinking about how I was going to finish up recording Ana Avda that night.

Out of nowhere, that unused, two year-old melody for “I am Your servant” popped into my head.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed out loud. “This song goes with Ana Avda!”

When we got home, I ran to the piano to see if the melodies to Ana Avda and I am Your Servant worked together. They did. So, that night, I recorded the last part of the song, “I am Your servant.”

The last piece of the song that I had written two years prior.

The missing piece that I hadn’t known was missing.

The Story Behind the Song “I Miss You” (a Song About Prenatal Loss)

In the summer of 2005, I gave birth to a stillborn daughter. She a was a child that my husband and I very much wanted and her loss was devastating for us. The period that followed was excruciatingly painful. At the time we had a three year-old son.  We now have three living children, ages three to eleven.

I wrote this song about a year after our baby died. After I sang it to my husband, we both just sat and cried. And when I went in to the studio to record it, the vocals just poured out in one take (if memory serves correctly). Although I still experience pockets of sadness, it is nothing like the crushing pain I felt when we went through that experience and during the period of grieving and healing that followed. Although there are still times when I think of our daughter and reflect on what we went through, it has been many years since I felt buried under the weight of it all. The pain is muted, not immobilizing.

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The Story Behind the Song “Elokai”

“My God, guard me tongue from speaking evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. May the one who brings peace to the heavens bring peace upon us and all of Israel. And let us say Amen.”

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The germ of the song Elokai began at a point in my life when I needed to make some positive changes but wasn’t sure where to begin. At the time I was teaching at the Denver Jewish Day School and there was an initiative to educate the student body, parent body and the faculty about the negative impacts of lashon hara (evil speech) on our community. Everybody connected to the school went to hear the noted speaker Lori Palatnik speak about lashon hara. I was very moved by her speech, which planted a seed for thinking deeper about how I utilized speech in my own life.

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