Back when the times they were a changin’, Reform Judaism stood at society’s political and social vanguard. Yet the movement’s religious framework remained 19th-century classical Reform — an attempt to achieve a more rational, modern Judaism by emphasizing decorum over fervor and eschewing many traditional rituals and customs.
The approach bored young congregants immersed in rock ’n’ roll, dissidence and, to some extent, Eastern religious practices. Fortunately, there were two venues where Reform teens could let their hair down as Jews: the North American Federation of Temple Youth and a national network of summer camps.
Like 1970s youth culture at large, NFTY members and camp staffers composed and adapted music that ushered in institutional change. Their folk arrangements of original and Israeli liturgical songs spearheaded Reform’s turn toward tradition and are sung today by Reform congregations. The groundbreaking, movement-shifting music is celebrated in “The Complete NFTY Recordings: 1972-1989,” issued by the Reform movement’s Transcontinental Music Publications.
For the new set, seven albums were transformed into five CDs. And although the singing is uneven, the sound and musicianship improve with each record. This aural scrapbook probably will trigger fond memories for the baby boomers who sang these songs back in the day. For the rest of us, it’s an important historical record — pun intended.
“We were just having fun, really,” Cantor Jeff Klepper, a leading NFTY songwriter and half of the duo Kol B’Seder, told the Forward. “At the same time, we were just trying to make worship meaningful to our generation.”
The CD set documents how the music changes styles with the times. The earliest songs are basic guitar-and-voices arrangements, including Chaim Tzur’s propulsive “Al Shlosha D’varim” (“Of Three Things”) and Nurit Hirsch’s tender “Oseh Shalom” (“Make Peace”). Next came livelier, often countrified arrangements, sometimes marred by the ubiquitous “la la la.” The best examples are the magestic “Shalom Rav” (“Abundant Peace”) by Klepper and Danny Freelander, Tzvika Pik’s flowing rendition of “Shehechiyanu,” Dov Frimer’s folk-rock “Al HaNasim” and Ehud and Sarah Zweig’s waltz-like “Yedid Nefesh” (“Soul Mate”).
By the 1980s, the music was livelier. The Reform movement’s folk-liturgical diva, Debbie Friedman, contributes a brilliant “Im Ayn Ani Li” (“If I’m Not for Myself”); a soulful “Birchot (Blessings for) Havdalah,” accompanied by strings and a delicate rock band, and her anthem, “Not by Might.” Other composers branched into English: Klepper offers “Hold Fast to Dreams,” and pop singer Peter Yarrow contributes “Light One Candle.”
The extensive liner notes include a warm essay by Elyssa Mosbacher that provides a historical context for the music but tell us nothing of the movement-changing composers and performers.
Listeners accustomed to modern recording techniques may be dismayed by the sometimes inferior sound quality of the CDs. Rudimentary equipment was used for the earliest recordings, and the sound is pretty raw. Recorded off the vinyl albums, the CD set reproduces some hisses and pops associated with vinyl.
But Klepper told the Forward that subsequently he found all of the albums’ master tapes in a storage closet at the movement’s Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y. Transcontinental will remaster the NFTY compilation on CDs engineered from the original tapes and rerelease the set in the next few weeks. Maybe the liner notes will be enhanced, too.
Andrew Muchin, a freelance journalist in Milwaukee, Wis., writes often about Jewish culture and communities.