As Dr. Jeff London reflects on the soundtrack of his life, he realizes that music with a Jewish influence has been a big part of the melodies that sustain him.
I love music. From listening to music, to singing and writing songs, music has always been there to help me enjoy the good times and cope with the bad times. As I reflect on the soundtrack of my life, I realize that music with a Jewish influence has been a big part of the melodies that sustain me.
My first musical memory was when I was very young, sitting on a piano bench with my mom, listening, as she played and sang a song with some very strange funny words. “Oh, Jeffrey sits on the chairella and plays on the fortisch piano, and Sheila dance the dancella, Ay yai yai yai yai yai! Oy the Shayna maidele, kinderle klain, kinderle klain…”
I had no idea what she was singing. But it was sweet and funny and usually ended with us laughing together. We would go on to more familiar songs and show tunes, often, I later found out, written by Jewish composers like Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers or Sammy Cahn. By then, a sense of Jewishness had been embed-
ded as a central element to the songs I began to sing and love. My mother had started to teach me how music could make you laugh and soothe your soul.
My wife recalls her mom singing Yiddish lullabies to her at bedtime. And many years later, when she sang “Oyfn Pripetchik” to our children and then our grandchildren before a much-needed nap, she recalled her mom’s sweet voice helping her to fall asleep.
Jewish holidays often are filled with music (as well as with food!). For my mom’s family, the Eisenbergs, the family seder was the most significant Jewish event of the year. From very early on, each child would be asked if he or she was ready to ask the Fir Kasches (Four Questions). I remember how proud my parents were when each of their three children sang to the whole mishpachah, showing off that we had been practicing our Hebrew. And when my own children reached the age when they felt ready to sing for their supper, I also would smile and kvell at their youthful attempts at the Ma Neshtanah.
Meeting the Guitar (and my Beshert)
Fast forward to my teen years … to folk music and to AZA and BBG. While these groups had many purposes, AZA provided a way to meet Jewish girls, other than the girls from my school. Parties and Oneg Shabbats provided an opportunity, but I quickly learned the truth: In order to meet girls, you had to talk to girls. Not so easy. About that same time, my friend Eddie suggested we take a group beginner’s guitar class at the JCC. Eddie lasted about two weeks; I’ve been learning guitar for about 60 years.
I quickly learned that a guitar was a wonderful ally at parties. I could meet girls without having to talk to girls. Singing folk songs with them was so much less painful. And this plan led to the January day in 1966, when I found myself strumming along with a younger girl named Leslie who also had brought her guitar to an Oneg Shabbat involving my chapter and hers.
And, although she was less than happy with my “way too loud” guitar playing, she forgave me enough to agree to a date, which eventually led to our singing together (mostly in harmony) through our 50-plus year marriage. And songs like “Dona Dona,” “Sunrise Sunset,” “Homeward Bound,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Happy Together” (all composed by Jews) have been a constant source of strength and support for our relationship, through all of life’s ups and downs.
Raising a Family
As our kids grew, we taught them our favorite songs and kvelled when they knew all the words. We joined Temple Emanu-El and then Temple Israel. We got involved at both temples, in the best way we knew how … through singing.
I have always been adept at writing song parodies for birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. And my parodies found a (usually) welcome audience at both temples with such “hits” as “The People Are Always Friendly at Temple Emanu-El” (to the tune of “Under the Sea”), “Super Challah Matzoh, Tzimmes, Liver and Charosis” and “The Totally Uplifting Yom Kippur Mind Shifting Parking at the Temple Blues” and brilliant silly lyrics like “You must remember this, a bris is just a bris, a chai is just a chai; pastrami still goes best on rye, as time goes by.”
We also began creating some new traditions in our home. At a talk for parents of bnai mitzvot, a rabbi gave some simple but great advice about creating a more Jewish home on Shabbat: “Just do something.” So, we started singing a few prayers and lighting Shabbat candles. Bim bom, Shabbat shalom, and prayers over wine and challah made a difference.
My wife and I joined a Temple Israel chorus, lovingly led by Cantor Neil Michaels, giving us something we could do together, she as an alto and I as a baritone. Singing cemented our involvement at temple and helped make Kabbalat Shabbat services feel more meaningful and spiritual. And even when COVID prevented us from attending services, we could still listen and sing on Zoom from our kitchen table.
Skipping ahead many years, I recall how singing helped us feel connected with our aging parents. Leslie’s father and my mother had passed away, which left my mother-in law, Eileen, and my dad, Leon, as the matriarch and patriarch of our family. And when we got together, after dinner, we often got out song sheets from their era, and I improvised the chords and we found out what “oldies but goodies” really meant! And when Leon and then Eileen each gradually reached the waning days of their lives, we sang with them and to them at their bedsides.
So, what goes around does come around. Leslie singing to our grandchildren and at her mom’s bedside. My mom, instilling the joy of singing within me, which I then passed forward to my kids and grandkids (and anyone else who will listen to my songs). Singing at the seder with those old tunes to maintain the family traditions. My grandson learning to play the guitar and singing Beatles songs with me. My granddaughter singing sweetly in musicals and in the temple youth choir.
Hopefully, next Pesach, Papa and Grandma will kvell as one of our younger family members dares to ask the Four Questions for the first time. And, many years from now, I can only hope that my grandchildren will remember their papa singing songs I wrote especially for them on each of their birthdays. And when they recall our family singing together at the seder table, maybe at least one of my grandchildren will show one of their children the only proper (Eisenberg) way to sing “Adir Hu” (after the men finish washing the dishes)!
Dr. Jeff London is a retired child psychiatrist from Farmington Hills.