Recording artist, composer/singer, teacher and cantor, Shirona, is exploring the many facets of her bi-cultural, and multi-dimensional art.Daughter Of The Arts chats with Shirona about many of her Israeli and Jewish pursuits in this exclusive feature interview.
DOTA: Explain how your bi-cultural heritage had an effect on you?
S: Speaking both languages at an early age is probably the most significant aspect of being “bi-cultural.” My mother was into Broadway musicals, Frank Sinatra, jazz, swing – all very “American.” My father’s interest was mostly in classical music, but he taught me songs in Hebrew. By age two, I was able to sing in both languages.
DOTA: How did your parents meet?
S: My mother was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, to Russian immigrants who came to America in 1920. She was active in the Zionist youth organization “Junior Hadassah.” She traveled to Israel with her group for a leadership course in 1949. My parents met at a “mixed” party, (Israelis and Americans), fell in love, and made plans for my father to join my mother back in the US and go to college. A year later they got married (yup, in Brooklyn) and started a family…Five years later my father moved the family back to Israel.
DOTA: Your parents were both musically gifted..
How did you first discover your own personal flair for singing?
S: Everyone sang in my family. I was unusually shy, and I didn’t like to sing “solo.” My mother was a natural performer. She could get up and sing with confidence in private or in public, but I was too shy for that, so I stuck to “communal” singing.
DOTA: How did you express your early artistic talents in music, singing, and art?
S: Drawing was a talent I had no problem expressing, and I was always very good at it. I became the “class artist” and later, an art student at “Talma Yellin” – Israel’s prestigious high school for Music and Art. Singing was a private thing though. But, in Israel, communal singing is a popular activity, and as I learned how to play the guitar I began to sing and play in group settings.
DOTA: What were the circumstances that led you to buy your first guitar?
S: It was the late 60’s and there must have been something in the air…I was very drawn to the 60’s culture, especially the music, and I saw myself playing the guitar. I thought it was cool. So, I saved up babysitting money and went with my mother to Tel Aviv to buy a guitar. It was a moderately priced Japanese classical guitar (“Aria”). It had an intoxicating smell. I never considered taking lessons though; somehow I expected to be able to teach myself how to play, and I did, using mostly Beatles song books.
DOTA: What led you to make the decision to enroll in a voice- workshop after focusing on art?
S: Another one of those mysteries! I needed another liberal arts class and without much thought I signed up for this class. But, when it came time for the actual audition (necessary for enrollment) I felt as though my life depended on this audition. I didn’t know why it was so intense. My knees were shaking uncontrollably as I sang “Summertime.” In retrospect, I believe that on a soul level we somehow know when something we’re pursuing is profoundly significant. It was that kind of a feeling.
With Danny Maseng “On Silver Wings”
DOTA: Describe your feelings about joining Danny Maseng’s Musical review?
S: I was very excited and a little nervous. I didn’t expect to get the part, at the first audition. It was right after I graduated from college with a degree in Fine Art and with a career in graphics. However, my interest in singing was starting to get more real. I was taking private voice lessons and gaining confidence. Even though I wasn’t necessarily into Jewish/Israeli music – I knew this was a great opportunity. I had no idea that this experience would be kind of a “sneak-preview” into my future… Working with Danny Maseng was amazing; very suited to my way of “doing art.” Danny is a perfectionist and he demands extremely high quality in every regard. He trained me in all aspects of performing the show, and the lessons from that period are still with me today.
DOTA: Talk about becoming part of the musical department at Temple Israel Center (TIC) in White Plains, NY?
S: I had just joined Temple Israel Center (with my ex husband and kids). Someone heard me sing and asked if I was willing to do a Torah reading for the Sisterhood Shabbat. I agreed, and when Hazzan Jack Mendelson heard me sing he offered me occasional parts in the Musaf service. Reading Torah was absolutely profound, and singing Jewish Liturgy had a mysterious appeal… At that time I also started teaching third grade Hebrew in the Hebrew School.
DOTA: Describe your simultaneous activities as an artist, with your studies in Port Chester? What was your focus?
S: At that period of my life I was focusing on art, starting an ambitious project. I needed more work space, so I rented Port Chester Studio, (a classic “Atalier”) in Port Chester, NY, about 10 minutes from my home in Rye. Now that my youngest daughter was in school – I finally had the time to get serious about my art. Teaching third grade Hebrew, in all honesty, was only a means to pay the studio rent. Once again – I had no idea that this would lead to another, very significant, turn in the road. The following year TIC’s music teacher had to suddenly return to Israel…During my first year of teaching I observed her work – I realized that this is something I can easily do, naturally. I got the job…
DOTA: Tell about your first ventures into musical composition? Did you compose lyrics as well as music?
S: Going to synagogue was not something I grew up with being a “secular” Israeli. As I started attending services regularly, for the first time – I experienced strong reactions – to the prayers, the liturgy, and to the music we sang. I must be honest here. …On the one hand I was struck by the beauty and majesty of our sacred texts – and quite “underwhelmed” by the music. I remember going home thinking, “I can write a better song that THAT” (like the Germanic tune to “Ein Keloheinu”.) In fact, that was one of my first attempts at composing a melody to a given text. My idea was to compose a tune that sounded like it’s been around for 150 years, no known composer.
My biggest surprise was how easy it was. I just looked at the text and the melody simply “showed up.” I actually called Rabbi Gordon Tucker to ask whether it was “kosher” to write a new melody to an existing prayer. “Why not?” was his rabbinic answer. I memorized my new tune and sang if for Cantor Mendelson. “You’re a very talented composer,” he told me. “Composer”??? Mozart was a composer. Beethoven was a composer. I was just a…I’m not sure what “title” to use. Artist? Hebrew School music teacher? Wife and mother? Perhaps, but I was no “composer.”
DOTA: Describe your journey into producing your first CD “Judaic Love Songs?” Talk about some of the songs that have interesting stories behind their composition (such as Ki Eleicha, Al Mishkavi, etc.?
S: My good friend Danny Maseng asked me to sing harmonies on a new project he was working on “Souls on Fire.” Who would pass on such a request? This is where I met Alec Shantzis, my future producer. I knew within minutes that this was the person I wanted to start recording with. I only had three or four songs composed at that time, but felt so strongly about wanting to “complete” this new creative pursuit that I was already thinking “production” bringing these songs to a level of completion that would honor what felt like a miraculous, unexpected gift.
“Modim” was the first song I recorded, the liturgical text is from the Amida, and is about gratitude. “Ki Eleicha” started as a melody in search of lyrics.
DOTA: Tell us about your activities as Cantor?
S: After releasing a three song demo and handing out several hundreds of them to anyone who would listen I started to hear repeatedly “you should be a cantor…you should be a cantor.” I started to pay attention and think about it. In all honesty, growing up as a secular Israeli, being a cantor, especially a female cantor, was not in my consciousness.
DOTA: Tell us about your work with children?
S: After teaching Hebrew for one year, I became the music teacher at Temple Israel Center, in White Plains, NY, (Rabbi Gordon Tucker, and Cantor Jack Mendelssohn). Danny Maseng suggested I attend Hava Nashira, a convention for Jewish song leaders, led by himself, Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Craig Taubman and others. It was a great way to get started in a field where I had natural abilities and no experience. It was a life-changing experience. Teaching children Jewish/Hebrew songs turned out to be a lot of fun; it also helped me gain confidence in front of an “audience.” Don’t under-estimate these little kids; if you don’t know what you’re doing they can eat you alive!
DOTA: Do you find differences/similarities in Jewish/Israeli music?
S: Israeli music has its own flavor and it’s changing and evolving. The “Mizrahi” influence for example increased with time. As a kid growing up in Israel I wasn’t especially fond of Arabic music. But now I find myself actually liking it. Here in the States we have other influences (this is a big topic.)
DOTA: Tell me about your current activities?
S: After serving a congregation as a full time (conservative) cantor I decided to go back to free-lancing. On Erev Hanukkah last year, it also happened to be Christmas. I got married again. My husband, Alan Lurie, who is an architect, received rabbinic S’micha last June and we started working together as a rabbi-cantor team.
DOTA: What are your future plans?
S: Getting back into the recording studio is my ultimate dream. Personal challenges kept me away, working full time as a cantor consumed my time and creative energies – along with all the personal challenges and changes. Being more settled again hopefully will give me the opportunities to record, perform, work with great musicians, teach and travel. Working with Alan feels exciting (hey, we’re still newlyweds!) We’re “getting out there” through word of mouth. We’ve already done a few weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and workshops. I always leave an opening to the unexpected. I try to “tune in” into the “still, small voice” that we all have and seldom listen to. There may be things in my future I haven’t even dreamed about: just like becoming a singer/songwriter and cantor was not something I could even imagine, even as early as ten years ago. I still dream of doing art. Maybe when I’m too old to sing!
LEARN MORE ABOUT SHIRONA AND HER MUSIC: www.shirona.com
To hear Shirona’s song, Ki Eleicha, performed in a new Israeli Folk Dance,
choreographed by Connie Katz, click on the Youtube Videos below:
|KI ELEICHA Performed at Ramah Rikkudiah 2007
|View KI ELEICHA”Instruction” Video
|View KI ELEICHA “Circle Dance ” Video
|View KI ELEICHA“Partner Dance” Video
|View KI ELEICHA”Partner and Circle Dance ” Video