Singer Basya Schechter, who for many years has led the band Pharaoh’s Daughter and who just released “Songs of Wonder” (Tzadik), a collection of Yiddish songs based on the poetry of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, is having a moment. And for good reason.
Schechter makes music that is both appealing and intriguing. As an ex-Hasid wielding an oud (a pear-shaped, Middle Eastern precursor of the modern guitar), she is often cast in the role of an exotic Sephardi-Ashkenazi hybrid who blends two flavors of Eastern music — Middle and European — spiced with folk, pop and even African elements. Such worldly eclecticism is tailor-made for a contemporary Jewish musical landscape where Ladino poetry, Hasidic niggunim, or wordless melodies, and elements of every genre imaginable (rhythm and blues, Brazilian samba, North Indian classical music) all play nicely together.
But the marketing blurbs hardly do Schechter justice. “Songs of Wonder,” for example, is not some naive Jewish/world-music mash-up, but a coherent statement from an artist who has figured out how to use all the tools at her disposal to sculpt a distinctive sound. Just listen to the way in which the choppy rhythms of the opening track, “At Dusk: D,” give way to Albert Leusink’s buttery, blustery flugelhorn; the manner in which the grab bag of instruments (violin, glockenspiel, slide guitar) on “From Your Hands” melt together, then pull apart in delicate counterpoint; the ease with which Turkish zither virtuoso Tamer Pinarbasi’s filigreed lines on “To a Lady in a Dream” flow into the hiccupping rhythms that music director Uri Sharlin pumps out on the bellows of his accordion, and then into a bass groove that begs for dancing. The reason these things move you is not that they draw from this genre or that one; they move you because they are beautiful. And they are beautiful because Schechter made them that way.
Yet some of the buzz surrounding Schechter also derives from the fact that she is an appealing and intriguing figure, one whose personal story resonates with several powerful themes rolling around in the contemporary Jewish consciousness. Raised in the heart of Brooklyn’s Hasidic enclave, Schechter — who has told her story in numerous interviews, and who was featured in the Canadian documentary film “Leaving the Fold,” the soundtrack for which she also wrote and performed — decided to leave the ultra-Orthodox community when she was still a teenager in order to follow her bliss as a singer-songwriter. It took some time to integrate the various elements of her personal and artistic personae, and her public statements suggest that she is still working on this.
Thanks to growing public awareness of the difficult path that awaits ultra-Orthodox Jews who go walkabout, Schechter’s candid portrayal of her own struggle — the battle she faced as a free spirit in a milieu where women aren’t even permitted to sing in public, her still-conflicted feelings toward the comforts and constraints of ultra-Orthodox life — has struck a chord, maybe even a gong: For some, she is an inspirational figure, a feminist Jewish superhero. Throw in her globetrotting trips to the Middle East and Africa and her self-professed interest in mystical Judaism, and she could be the avatar of an entire segment of young, liberal Jewry: rooted in Jewish tradition, yet open to the world.
Plus, she’s incredibly hip. When a interviewer for the website Unpious: Voices on the Hasidic Fringe asked Schechter what recordings she would recommend to someone who grew up without secular music (Schechter herself wasn’t exposed to the stuff until she was in high school), the former yeshiva student responded with the following: “Ko Sira” (“Marriage Today”), by Malian singer Oumou Sangare; “The Living Road,” by polyglot Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela; “Moorish Music From Mauritania,” by the grand dame of Mauritanian pop, Dimi Mint Abba, and “Court and Spark,” by Joni Mitchell. “Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ is good,” she added. I would kill to know what this woman has on her iPod.
In a way, she and Heschel were meant for each other, and it was probably inevitable that Schechter would one day undertake a Heschel-themed project. Like Schechter, Heschel grew up Hasidic but left the community for more open spaces — in his case, the groves of German academe. Unlike Schechter, Heschel came to the United States as a refugee; born in Warsaw, he was one of many Polish Jews deported from Germany in the late 1930s. As professor of ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Heschel developed a unique brand of Jewish theology centered on the personal experience of a divine presence that was numinous, ineffable and sublime. “The root of religion,” Heschel wrote, “is the question of what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.”
Listen to the song “I and You”