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Festival will present works of two NJ Jewish composers

Cantor Marsha Dubrow writes liturgical music “with an eye toward being sensitive to women.”
Cantor Marsha Dubrow writes liturgical music “with an eye toward being sensitive to women.”

Two Montclair residents who compose religious music — one a cantor, the other a college professor — will have their works performed at the Fourth International Jewish Music Festival on Dec. 4-5, at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Marsha Dubrow, the cantor and religious leader at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Jersey City, will present “Va’tikakh Miryam Ha’Niveah,” which will be performed by women students from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, and the Academy for Jewish Religion.

The composition is based on the “Song of the Sea,” the passage from Exodus that celebrates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea led by Moses in their flight from Egypt and women’s music-making led by his sister Miriam. Dubrow described the text as “a very lengthy piece of biblical poetry.”

“Whoever put together the text of the Torah didn’t exactly have a lot of references in what I call a ‘woman’s voice,’” said Dubrow. “This work is a way to highlight the participation of women in the process of the Exodus from Egypt, and Miriam is referred to as ‘a prophet.’”

It is the third time Dubrow has been honored by Shalshelet: The Foundation for New Jewish Liturgical Music, the sponsor of the festival and a group with which she has been involved since its inception in 2004. That year, she won honorable mention in its worldwide competition with a piece called “Mah Tovu.” Four years later, her composition “Hashkiveinu” was a winner.

Although she does not consider her work to be to be a statement of feminism, Dubrow told NJ Jewish News, she writes sacred music “with an eye toward being sensitive to women. Women have not been cantors and rabbis for very long. It is a late-20th-century phenomenon.”

She creates her works with an appropriate religious context in mind. “There are special melodies for different times of day, times of week, and times of year,” she said. “Given that fact, I am respectful in my compositional choices; I am respectful of melody. Most of the time I select a text, then compose something musical that fits the text.”

‘Connecting emotionally’

David Sanders, a professor of broadcasting at Montclair State University, will perform his “You Shall Love” at the festival.

“It is a musical setting for the V’ahavta prayer that begins, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul…,” said Sanders. The composition was written for choir singing in Hebrew and a solo voice in English.

Sanders describes his work as “musical settings for traditional texts and more modern interpretations.”

“I have a number of different styles,” he said. “Some of it is more classical. Some of it is in a popular song form, some with gospel-like settings.” His latest creation has two variations. “One is more serious, the other is more of a gospel setting,” he said. If he can gather a group of “diverse interfaith high school students — black, white, Jewish, not Jewish — to do the choir part in Hebrew,” festival-goers will hear the gospel setting. If not, he said, he and Melissa Schaffer — an actress and fellow member of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair — will perform the more serious version.

Sanders, who considers himself “religious, but not in a traditional sense,” began writing sacred music 10 years ago by composing melodies to the words of Rumi, a Muslim poet of the 13th century. Sanders next created a composition based on “Canticle of the Sun,” a Catholic prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi.

“Then I got to Jewish texts,” Sanders said, “and I have been doing them for seven or eight years. My purpose in writing a musical setting for a sacred text is to help me, and hopefully the listener, go deeper into the words, finding new or more meaning in the prayer, and connecting more emotionally with it.”

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