Michelle Citrin knew she wasn’t going to make it to medical school by her junior year in college — but not for the usual reasons. “I was writing songs in anatomy class, but it wasn’t something like, ‘the hip bone’s connected to the leg bone’ — it was real songs,” the singer/songwriter says with a laugh.
Citrin graduated as a proud member of the Rutgers University class of 2003, but her professional path had been more or less determined almost two decades earlier when, as a toddler, she began following along to her grandmother’s piano renditions of Chag Purim.
“That’s when music became alive and something accessible to me — especially Jewish music,” she recalls. “I grew up in an Israeli household, with Holocaust survivor grandparents. The melodies they had, they carried with them from their former lives. It was a life filled with lots of culture and emotion.”
Citrin, who will be at Congregation Rodeph Shalom to lead a Shabbat service on Dec. 14 and give a concert on Dec. 16, has been channeling her love of Judaism through music since she was a 14-year-old performing in Borders bookstores and small coffeehouses in and around her Fair Lawn, N.J., hometown. While her live performances are always an experience — few people expect Citrin’s trademark big, throaty vocals to emanate from her 5-foot, 1-inch frame (the tagline on her email is “lil grrl, big sound”) — Citrin is best known for being in the vanguard of Jewish music videos.
Her videos, including hits like “20 Things to Do With Matzah,” “I Gotta Love You Rosh Hashanah” and “Call Your Zeyde — Vote Obama” have been viewed on YouTube millions of times, with Citrin even being ranked on the site’s “Top 20 Most Viewed” in 2008.
Judging by the initial response to her latest offering, “Hanukkah Lovin’,” she has another hit on her hands. The video has been viewed over 30,000 times in under a week — confirmation that Citrin’s reason for making the song was a sound one.
“I love Christmas music,” she says. “I remember having to listen to it in order to get into the holiday mood, and I remember thinking, that’s really wrong — it just doesn’t speak to me. So here’s this song for Chanukah. It happens at the same time as Christmas, with the same wintry feeling outside — but we just didn’t have the warm and jazzy, ‘let’s sit by the flickering lights of the menorah’ tune.” The song, which has a style very much like holiday standards such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Santa Baby,” is a welcome alternative to the only other Chanukah-themed song to receive major radio play, Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.”
Citrin continues, “I was always making music, making up songs with my family on the holidays. I think I’ve always dreamed of there being this soundtrack to our Jewish lives.”
With so many holiday-themed songs, she has become a younger version of Craig Taubman, the Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter and music producer responsible for over two dozen of the most popular Jewish music recordings available, including The Passover Lounge, Celebrate Hanukkah, Sweet Sounds and the Days of Awe and Friday Night Live (a compilation of Taubman’s national Shabbat program of the same name).
As it turns out, Taubman himself has been instrumental in Citrin’s success. In 2004, she was hired by the Jewish camp at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles to be the camp’s song leader. As she tells it, “They sent me to Hava Nashira” — the annual music workshop of the Union of Reform Judaism held in Oconomowoc, Wis. — “which teaches people how to be song leaders. That’s where I met the likes of Craig Taubman and Debbie Friedman,” the late singer/ songwriter credited with creating a whole new genre of contemporary, accessible Jewish music, and the subject of the 2005 documentary, A Journey of Spirit.
“Craig Taubman really took me under his wing,” Citrin remembers. “And before I met Debbie Friedman, I had never seen a Jewish woman playing folk music. She was like the Jewish Joan Baez.” The workshop showed her that it was possible to make her musical journey a Jewish one, and vice versa. “That’s where it all came together: you can take your Jewish experiences, appreciating ancient wisdom and doing good unto the world, and bring it into music,” she says, still smiling at the memory of the realization that she could successfully integrate her Jewish self — the songs learned with her grandmother, the Torah teachings of her grandfather, the lessons learned from growing up with four grandparents who were Holocaust survivors — into her profession.
In addition to all of her subsequent success — being featured in The New York Times and on "Good Morning America," being named one of Billboard’s “Top Songwriters,” a chart-topping international dance hit (“Turn It On”) and scoring the music and lyrics for the upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of Sleepless in Seattle — Citrin has been paying it forward through her increased involvement in outreach to the younger members of the community.
In addition to staying involved with Jewish summer camps — “not just performing, but connecting with young people,” she emphasizes — she participates in leading services at synagogues around the United States, like the one at Rodeph Shalom on the 14th. Getting up on the bimah “gives me a chance to connect deeply with traditions and experience oneness with the community,” she explains. “I do a lot of work with 20- and 30-somethings to engage them in the synagogue through music and through this concept of inclusivity.”
With her performance on the 16th, she will be reaching out to an even younger demographic in a family concert and in a post-performance workshop designed to show participants both young and not-so-young how to tap into their creativity. And for those aspiring musicians in the crowd, Citrin is only too happy to perform the same mitzvah for them that Taubman performed for her. “Yes, yes, yes! I definitely keep in touch with them, give advice to them, answer questions and listen to songs they submit to me. There’s always a desire for something more, so the hope is to offer this generation and future generations a deeper connection to their Jewish identity.”
IF YOU GO
Michelle Citrin, at Congregation Rodeph Shalom
Dec. 14 Shabbat services
starting at 5:45 p.m.;
Dec. 16 concert starting at 11:30 a.m.
615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia