On a Wednesday morning shortly before Passover, in a sunny room overlooking the Henry Hudson Parkway, Dafna Israel-Kotok is in her element.
Joyously shaking her long, straight black hair as she plays guitar and sings for about 10 small children and their moms, the 30-something Sabra musician freely alternates between English and her native Hebrew.
“Now, yeladim [children], are you ready to do a morning stretch?” she asks with a smile, launching into “Yadaim Lemala” (“Hands Up”), a song that teaches the Hebrew words for body parts and then “Eyfo Hayadaim” (“Where Are Your Hands”), another Hebrew body parts song.
Her large, elegant Middle Eastern gold earrings swing as she sways around in her long denim skirt and taps her stylish black platform boots. The children and their caregivers — nannies and moms, jeans wearers and those with covered hair and below-the-knee Modern Orthodox skirts — sing along, jump and dance on the large brown rug.
Welcome to Shir Fun, a Jewish children’s music class that Israel-Kotok, a music therapist, started two years ago and which is now in Manhattan, Riverdale, Brooklyn and Englewood, N.J. Similar in format to secular “Mommy and Me” music classes like Music for Aardvarks and Music Together, Shir Fun (“shir” is song in Hebrew) offers children an opportunity to sing, dance, play percussion instruments — and learn Hebrew. The all-in-Hebrew repertoire includes traditional Jewish and Israeli tunes, many of them holiday-related, along with folksy melodies written by Israel-Kotok and her husband/business partner Adam Kotok.
Israel-Kotok, who also performs in concerts and has recorded two albums, is one of several emerging stars in the burgeoning Jewish kids’ music landscape, the Jewish counterparts to hip parent-pleasing acts like Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner and They Might Be Giants.
Although Shir Fun is one of the few classes of its ilk, other spirited Jewish artists like Shira Kline (see sidebar), Craig Taubman and the Funkey Monkeys (which do Jewish music, as well as non-Jewish music) are also creating quality Jewish children’s music that does not assault parents’ aesthetic sensibilities.
“There’s a demand for kids’ music that’s not kiddy, that you can grow with,” explains Israel-Kotok.
Indeed, these new musicians, whose albums are selling nationally and whose participatory concerts are in great demand at synagogues, Jewish museums and other venues, come on the scene as informal education — particularly summer camp (both Kline and Adam Kotok were longtime Jewish campers and camp counselors/song leaders) — and the arts, have risen in stature and prominence in the Jewish education world.
Last month the Jewish Education Service of North America’s Lippman-Kanfer Institute held a “convening” with The Foundation for Jewish Culture and Avoda Arts, a “nonprofit educational organization that uses the arts as entry points into Jewish learning,” and a joint project is in the works.
According to a paper drafted for the meeting, “the arts engage learners on multiple levels; they open up new dimensions of understanding of text and tradition; and they encourage creative expression of our deepest spiritual and ethical impulses.”
One of the many virtues of Jewish kids’ music is its ability to bring together diverse groups of Jews. Shir Fun’s adherents include Conservative, Reform and Orthodox, along with unaffiliated and interfaith families.
Ruby Shamir, an Israeli American who lives in Riverdale with her non-Jewish Italian American husband and 3-year-old son, says she was drawn to Shir Fun because “I was looking for something that would evoke the music of my childhood, without being overbearing on the religious side.”
Classmate Daniella Fuchs, who is a member of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, says she has been impressed with the Jewish educational aspect of the class.
“I was not necessarily looking for more [Jewish exposure for the kids], but the truth is it’s really been great for them,” she says. “They get little tidbits about the holidays. [Three-year-old] Yair learned to count in Hebrew, which is great. And there’s such a strong Zionist component to her class — [Israel-Kotok] really instills a love of Israel.”
To be sure, haredi Jews, and even some Modern Orthodox ones will not listen to female singers like Israel-Kotok and Kline because of kol isha, the prohibition against men hearing women sing.
Not surprisingly, Kline, who colors her spiky short hair in outrageous purples, magentas and blues, and often performs on Shabbat, has a mostly liberal Jewish following. However, the Reform-raised singer notes that her concerts at communal venues (later this month she will perform at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust) attract a mixed crowd.
“A lot of families with payes come to my shows at museums,” she says.
Israel-Kotok, who is a member of the Modern Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and does not perform on Shabbat, has more of an Orthodox following than Kline. Next week she will headline a Hebrew Institute Yom Ha’Atzmaut concert. However, both she and her Conservative-raised husband are reluctant to call themselves Orthodox.
“I don’t like labels,” she explains.
Although Shir Fun classes are only offered in metropolitan New York right now, Israel-Kotok and Kotok, who live in Riverdale with their 2-year-old and infant daughters, have larger ambitions.
Starting with one class, shortly after their older daughter was born, Shir Fun “sort of boomed,” Israel-Kotok says. “We feel like we’re on to something there’s a demand for.”
Kotok says they are getting e-mails “from all over saying please start a program here.”
The issue, Israel-Kotok says, is quality control, finding “the right people that have our vision and what we’re looking for” to teach the classes. So far the only other Shir Fun teacher beside Israel-Kotok is Shiree Kidron, an Israeli-born vocalist and educator who Israel-Kotok trained in the Shir Fun method.
“It’s not just the music but how you relate to the kids,” Israel-Kotok explains, noting that she draws heavily from her music-therapy training in engaging her students.
In addition to growing the class network, the couple wants to produce more albums — one for each major holiday — and perform more widely, perhaps even internationally. They are also hoping to create some books and DVDs.
Raised on a semi-agricultural moshav on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, Israel-Kotok, the youngest of three children, has been making music her entire life.
Together with her father, an amateur musician who taught her to play guitar, Israel-Kotok would lead the moshav’s holiday services. On other days, neighbors dropped by their house for impromptu sing-alongs in the front yard.
When she was in high school, the family moved to upstate New York. Israel-Kotok returned to Israel for her army service, but, inspired by a TV performance of an autistic children’s choir, she came back to the United States to study music therapy, something not offered at the undergraduate level in Israel.
While studying at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Ga., the secular-raised Israel-Kotok began observing Shabbat and kashrut.
“I realized it’s not like Israel where Judaism is all around you and you don’t have to work for it,” she explains. “If I don’t observe, it would just be gone.”
For over a decade she worked as a music therapist in New York hospitals, including Mount Sinai, serving patients of all ages — from children with cancer or autism to senior citizens suffering from dementia.
Six years ago at a mutual friend’s Shabbat dinner, she met Kotok, a lawyer and amateur musician who plays bouzouki and mandolin.
The two married in 2005; a few years later Israel-Kotok began itching to start Shir Fun.
“I needed a change” from music therapy, she explains. “It was getting very difficult for me to work with very sick children.”
Israel-Kotok’s music blends many styles, from folk to Middle Eastern to Irish, and her influences include The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, along with Israeli artists like Yehuda Polikar, Arik Einstein and the band Teapacks.
Among her fans are Neshama Carlebach, daughter of music legend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and a prominent musician in her own right.
Carlebach describes Shir Fun, which her 3-year-old son Rafael has been enrolled in for two years, as a “very brilliant program” and Israel-Kotok as “incredibly engaging.”
“As a mother and performer I can’t recommend her highly enough,” adds Carlebach, who recorded a song with Israel-Kotok on the first Shir Fun album.
Back at her Wednesday morning class, Israel-Kotok gently commands her young charges to “lashevet [sit] everybody al ha’tusik [on your tush]” and brings out some puppets for “Nimusim,” a blue-grassy song about manners.
“See,” she says, holding up the puppets. “This one says todah rabbah [thank you], this one says bevakeshah [you’re welcome] and this one has a little cold: ahh choo!”
Delighted, the whole room joins in with, “Omrim [we say] todah, dah, dah! Omrim todah rabbah!”
Dafna Israel-Kotok and the Shir Fun Band will perform at the Bronx Israel Independence Day Celebration on Tuesday, April 20 at 5 p.m. Seton Park, Riverdale (Independence Avenue, between West 232nd and West 235th streets.
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