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Lyrical Liturgy

December 15, 2011 By:
Mordechai Shinefield, JE Feature
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Chana Rothman's new self-released album is of a "Beautiful Land."

Toronto native and Philadelphia transplant Chana Rothman, 37, has staked out a niche mashing together breezy hip-hop beats, sunny acoustic reggae, and a warm mouthy flow that draws lyrically from Hebrew liturgy and relaxed, left-wing politics.

Chana Rothman's new self-released album is of a "Beautiful Land."
 
On "Lay Down Your Swords," she code-switches between English and Hebrew, singing over a sleepy guitar beat: "Broken dream -- chalom nishbar / Kol cache rachok -- seems so far." In a crowded group of Jewish artists borrowing from hip-hop and reggae (Rothman has opened for Matisyahu), her music shifts quickly between slide guitar bluesy rock and soft-spoken hip-hop.
 
Rothman's 2007 debut album, "We Can Rise," was chosen by Jewschool.com as Album of the Year. Her recent follow-up EP, "Beautiful Land," was self-released this month. Last weekend, she performed songs from it at the Point of Destination Cafe in Mount Airy. After spending a number of years in the music scene in New York, she now lives in the Mount Airy area with her husband, Rabbi Kevin Kleinman, and their 15-month-old son, Izzy.
 
When did you start playing music?
 
I had these two separate musical paths: Jewish music and classical music. I started off playing recorder and then flute and I was really serious about the flute. I was 7 or 8.
 
I grew up in Toronto and played in city orchestras. I loved that and decided to go to the Interlochen National Music Camp in Michigan. That was a big coming of age for me. I was 14 and suddenly instead of being a big fish in a small pond in Toronto, there were prodigies and kids practicing two to three hours a day.
 
I decided classical music wasn't for me. I wasn't disciplined to practice for hours a day. For me, music was a communal thing, so forcing myself to sit and practice solo was hard. I took my first guitar class and realized, "Oh, this is what I want to do."
 
What was your family like in Toronto?
 
My family was Reconstructionist, which was the other part of my musical upbringing. My dad was a founding member of our congregation. He was a very loud singer. Not always on key, but always loud. Culturally, it was very haimisch. For my Bat Mitzvah, I read from the Haftorah, led the Torah service. People at the time kept saying things like, "You're going to be a rabbi or a cantor."
 
Is this around when you started listening to hip hop?
 
At the time, hip hop was just starting. I listened to Run DMC with my brother, and we would rap together -- Humpty Dumpty fell down, that's his hard time/Jack B. Nimble what nimble and he was quick [from their 1986 album "Raising Hell"].
 
My family listened to Peter, Paul & Mary, or Simon & Garfunkel. Around high school, I started listening to hip hop through the feminist community, so I'd hear Salt- N- Pepa and Queen Latifah.
 
I like to describe your music as hippie hop.
 
Definitely. After high school, I was living in northwestern Connecticut at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and working at the Teva Learning Center, a totally hippie Jewish environmental education organization. We were all living communally and then teaching Jewish day school kids about taking care of the Earth through a Jewish lens.
 
I was totally immersed in the rhymes of daily Jewish life and started writing Jewish music. We were jamming all the time and I opened up a Conservative siddur one day and saw the Ana prayer from Hallel, and it felt really powerful. "Please save us" is such an intense thing to say, so I wrote my own perspective on what that meant and it became the song "Ana" on my first CD.
 
You've mentioned Debbie Friedman as an influence on you in the past. Her whole synthesis was taking this American folk tradition and translating it into this more Jewish, almost cantorial, movement. You add a guitar and hip hop influences, but that's a blueprint.
 
That's such a huge honor that you see that connection. She's a huge influence and I have so much love and respect for her as a person and for who she was. What Debbie Friedman did was she literally paved the path for modern Jewish musicians -- every single one of us. If you really listen to the songs that she wrote, she was a scholar -- a Hebrew scholar -- and a feminist. Take her "Miriam" song. She took someone who was unsung and said that instead of being angry, I'm going to sing about her. And now all these kids everywhere sing this song. They don't think about it being a feminist song, they just sing and dance about a woman who led with her drums.
 
I've noticed the new album has fewer references to Judaism, and no Hebrew singing. Do you think that has something to do with the move to Philadelphia?
 
I do wonder if that's part of it. There's a really great music scene in Philly, but not much of a Jewish music scene at all. I think the other Jewish musicians in the area would agree with that.
 
I plan to go back to Jewish music. I think sometimes about starting a Jewish women's label.
 

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