A Musical Invitation to Shabbat Peace

By Mimi DuPree

January 4, 2010


Review of “Step Into Shabbat” by Julie Geller, available at her website or on Amazon.com.

step into shabbat
We have two tracks from this album available for you to hear right now, Nigun and Shalom Aleichem. To learn more about Julie Geller, try her website www.juliegeller.com. We think you’ll see why Mimi’s family likes her work so much!

On a recent drive up to the mountains of North Carolina to visit relatives, I popped in Julie Geller’s album “Step into Shabbat.” I thought I could test-drive it on my kids, and my ulterior motive was, of course, to keep them quiet. A little peace and quiet in the back seat generally earns adults a few hard-won minutes of conversation, and I was expecting 15 to 20 of my husband’s company. I didn’t get it–not because holiday marital ennui had set in early, but because Julie Geller’s joyous, warm and rich vocals pulled us all in. We were spellbound, and at the end of the CD, my youngest shouted, “Again!” (I wish I could say that was the last thing she shouted on that car trip, but her “Again! Again!” was more like the opening chords of a four-movement symphony.)

Geller’s CD walks the listener through the sounds and wonders of a Friday night in a Jewish household, from a haunting nigun over candlelighting to the blessing of the children, Kiddush, motzi, birkat ha-mazon and all the way to a raucous “Shabbat Shalom” that had my kids screeching along and kicking the back of my seat in joy. It’s an educational CD combining narration and music, but it manages to escape the pitfalls of the genre; there were no tedious moments of over-explanation that made it impossible for adults to enjoy, and yet the light-hearted sophistication of the music–both that of Geller’s composing along with other, traditional songs–drew the little ones into the experience too. In truth, the experience was like being invited to a seat at Geller’s Shabbat table, complete with music, stories and gentle explanations. I never felt patronized; instead, I felt like I was watching someone dance with my children around the Shabbat table and the effect was magical.

As a writer, it’s not surprising that I was drawn most of all to the narrative selections. The retelling of the “Sweetest Sound” folktale and the even more charming story, “The Nigun from Habonim,” captivated us the most. The latter, a creation of Peninah Schram, weaves a Carlebach nigun into the story of a poor old man and his wife who sell all their sabbath treasures–wine and challot and candles–to buy a tune. It was one of those stories where I kept expecting the moral to be something dreary like, “Don’t spend money foolishly,” with the old man being duly punished for his heedless ways, so I was charmed by its ending: bereft of everything with which to make their Shabbat, the old man and his wife have only this dearly bought tune. Holding hands, they dance endlessly around the table, singing at the top of their voices far into the night and into the next morning, in the most beautiful and joyous Shabbat of their lives. It’s a moving little tale about the centrality of music not just to the Jewish tradition but to the sensory experience of Shabbat itself–and, of course, it’s a neat testament to the point of the album.

Though the album flows seamlessly between music and narration, there are a few moments where the music seizes center stage: Geller’s exotic original setting of the “Shir Ha-maalot” seeps into your bones, as does Ben-Zion Shenker’s “Eishet Chayil.” But in truth, this album is at its best when Geller is singing the tunes everyone knows, in a voice remarkable for its richness and clarity at all points of its considerable range. “Shalom Aleichem” and “Bim Bam” are the stand-outs here, and it was musical moments like those that made me think this album would make a great gift to non-Jewish friends to whom I’d like to introduce some of the wonders of Shabbat. I could also see slipping this CD in on Friday evenings to play in the background, or as prelude to our own Shabbat.

That’s part of the magic of what Geller has done here. Listening to her album, I was inspired to start thinking about our family’s rituals. In re-creating a quiet Friday evening around the Shabbat table, Geller invites her listener into what is essentially private space, so I found myself thinking about ways to incorporate some of Geller’s world into our own experience of Shabbat. My oldest daughter has even begun work on our family’s “Shabbat Book,” inspired by Geller’s music. Geller’s gentle individualization encourages the listeners to find their own ways into Shabbat. Music as spiritual invitation and as end in itself, as boundary between public act and private space, as educational experience and as heartfelt prayer. Geller’s album, like the tradition of Shabbat music she draws on, bridges all these divides and leads the listener into the heart of Shabbat.


About Mimi DuPree

Mimi DuPree lives and works in Atlanta, Ga., where she teaches Latin at The Westminster Schools and raises her three children. She is a member of Temple Sinai, where her children will be attending Sunday school in the fall.