One way Batya Levine describes her music is as an Ashkenazi sound mixed with queer folk medicine songs. Another is as a means of bringing people together for communal healing.
Regardless of definition, Levine is working on bringing her craft to new listeners with her first studio album.
“It feels really important to be sharing and creating music in these times,” Levine said. “I made this album as an offering to the Jewish musical landscape that has been so nourishing to me.”
Levine recorded the as-yet untitled 10-track album with Hadar’s Rising Song Institute in Philadelphia. The Rising Song resident, Jewish educator and musician raised $18,000 on the crowdfunding website IndieGoGo to fund the project and hopes to release the album sometime this fall or winter.
In the meantime, she will be showcasing her talent around the area.
Levine, 29, grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, in a Modern Orthodox household and described her upbringing as musical. Her father, Buzzy Levine, sells rare and antique guitars out of his shop, Lark Street Music. There he’s gained a reputation for one-of-a-kind-pieces, such as a guitar owned by the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
“Music has always been a central force in my life,” Levine said.
But she only started pursuing it more seriously after college. In 2014, Levine graduated from New York University, having studied psychology and visual arts. A year later, she came to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. It was there, working for a year-and-a-half as an educator in its Teva program, that her passion for music was incubated.
About five years ago, Levine teamed up with four friends (Mónica Gomery, Margot Seigle, Noam Lerman and Ilana Lerman) to found Let My People Sing! The project organizes weekend-long retreats to bring Jews together to sing in Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish, Arabic, Aramaic, English and Spanish. It’s emblematic of Levine’s mission to use music for bringing people together.
“Singing is one of the most powerful conduits for connection; with ourselves, with each other or with the source of life,” she said. “It offers a resonance in our bodies and in our hearts. And for me, I experience it as a deep source of resilience, especially in these times.”
From 2018-2019, she was a fellow at Rising Song, a program intended to help musicians develop musically and spiritually through Jewish culture. While in the program, Levine made casual attempts to produce an album, but it fell through.
It wasn’t until she was approached by Joey Weisenberg, the Hadar’s Rising Song Institute’s founder and co-director, who offered to help produce the album through Hadar that the project got off the ground.
Levine raised $18,000 so she could compensate the musicians, artists and sound engineers working to make her album a reality. While she has released various tracks on websites like SoundCloud, Levine said she wanted to record the album to give people access to quality recordings of her music.
The recording session took place over three days, with a live session in front of a 70-person audience on March 2. This session was filmed, and the video will be released at a later date.
Album songs are performed in a mixture of English, Hebrew and Nigun, a Chasidic melody that is often wordless and sung in groups. When it comes to which track is her favorite, Levine said it’s hard to pick.
“All feel like different babies of mine. I do feel very proud of all of them, which is kind of incredible,” she said.
One of the vocalists on the album was Molly Bajgot of Northampton, Massachusetts. A friend of Levine’s, Bajgot said it was a magical experience to record with Levine and felt lucky about the timing of the recording sessions due to the coronavirus outbreak. Bajgot described Levine’s music as “Jewish spiritual renewal folk.”
“It falls within the Jewish tradition of taking old texts and writing new tunes. And it seems like it’s inspired by the music of today, contemporary sounds,” Bajgot said, “but it’s always anchored in a heart-centered place or ancient text.”
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