Putting Heschel To Music

Putting Heschel To Music

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

It’s unusually warm for November, which may be why this morning Basya Schechter looks like a handkerchief with a singer-songwriter attached to it. Maybe it’s jet lag, since the lead singer of Pharoah’s Daughter has been back just a few days from performing in Vienna. Whatever the reason, she’s been sneezing and sniffling between sips of herbal tea, but her enthusiasm for her latest project, an album of her settings of the poetry of Abraham Joshua Heschel, is undiminished.

Schechter, who will perform material from the album — “Songs of Wonder,” on Tzadik Records — here on Nov. 30, came to Heschel’s writing in a roundabout way. “I had never read his books before, and I wasn’t even that familiar with his thought,” she admits. “My journey started with his poetry.”

Of course, you could say the same of Heschel himself. As Schechter notes, “The poems were early seeds for his later works. That place of pure inspiration from which they come, he spent the rest of his life developing that place.”

Heschel began writing verse when he was a student in Germany in the 1920s, seeking a secular education as an alternative to the heavy burden of family pedigree that came with being a descendant of Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, the Kotzker rebbe and the Apter rebbe, for whom he was named. Although he would never stray from the Jewish fold, his many-layered learning would enrich the Yiddishkeit in which he was steeped as if genetically.

The poetry itself, written in Yiddish, reflects the themes that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life. Schechter ticks them off:

“Man’s relationship to God, pantomimes on nature, love songs, and a compulsive need to feel that he is being of service to the world, cultivating a tender heart.”

Schechter’s own music and the music she makes with Pharoah’s Daughter partake of the same concerns. When Rolando Matalon, the rabbi at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, called her a few years ago and asked her if she would set some poems to music for use in a Shavuot evening devoted to texts from Heschel, she agreed to give it a try.

“I had the book and I had a deadline — eight months,” she recalls. “It took a long time. I had to read them over and over. These are poems where the words lift off the page and you have to try to grab them — they’re alive and ethereal. No matter how many times you read them, there’s always something that eludes you.”

Then there was the problem of language. Although her music draws heavily on Mizrachi traditions, Schechter is Ashkenazi. But she didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish, even though she heard it all around her in Brooklyn.

“I had to get the language back into myself,” she says. “I had a problem with the accent; I wanted to do the best I could. And it’s through the language that the music comes.”

After those first attempts for BJ, she found herself increasingly comfortable with Heschel’s idiom and began developing a writing style suited to the material.

“With Pharoah’s Daughter, the music is mostly Mediterranean-sounding,” she says. “But this is Yiddish, so I found myself writing more in the singer-songwriter style. That’s nice, because it’s a way of honoring the place that I wrote from when I first started out. And the results were very guitar-based, a lot of finger-style playing.”

The album closes with a churning rendition of “Youngest Desire,” which is the closest thing to outright rock-and-roll that Schechter has recorded thus far, with a searing, soaring guitar line reminiscent of Roger McGuinn’s classic 12-string riff for “Eight Miles High.”

“Yeah, ‘Rock-and-Roll Heschel,’” she says, laughing. “It seemed right for that poem, though. It’s less ‘heady,’ the words are really raw.”

The penultimate verse certainly is the work of an ardent, even angry young man: “So many gifts have I prepared for you/that even I don’t know/the sum of what my loneliness, my dreams/has bought for you.”

Yet it isn’t that hard to read those words and hear the seedlings of Heschel’s idea of “radical awe,” especially as performed by Basya Schechter.

Basya Schechter performs material from “Songs of Wonder” on Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. For information, call (212) 505-FISH or go to www.lepoissonrouge.com.

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