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Reckoning and returning
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Reckoning and returning

NJ singer/songwriter Sharon Goldman explores the Orthodoxy she left

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Sharon Goldman said that writing the songs on Kol Isha “facilitated a reconnection” for her.     
Sharon Goldman said that writing the songs on Kol Isha “facilitated a reconnection” for her.     

In Kol Isha, Sharon Goldman’s fifth solo CD release, the Metuchen-based singer-songwriter contrasts the ideals of her Modern Orthodox upbringing with the realities that led to her break with tradition. Although she left Orthodoxy over 20 years ago, the emotions revealed in her music are intense, the pain and loss still raw. 

It feels like a kind of break-up CD (as in breaking up with Judaism), but, Goldman told NJJN the process of writing the songs that comprise Kol Isha was less a breach and “more of a reckoning — dealing with feelings and thoughts I’ve had over the years.” In fact, she said, writing the songs “facilitated a reconnection.”

In March, after years of absence, she traveled to Israel, revisiting old haunts and seeing how much the country has changed. Last November, she celebrated becoming a bat mitzva as an adult at Congregation Neve Shalom, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue near her home, where she read from the Torah for the first time. “It was a way to revisit a childhood hurt or struggle,” she said. While the bat mitzva ceremony led to her joining the synagogue, she was quick to add, “It’s not going to lead me back to becoming observant.” 

A self-described secular, nonobservant artist in an interfaith marriage, Goldman’s previous albums had no Jewish content.

An Emerging Artists’ Showcase finalist at the 2011 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York and host of the blog “Songwriting Scene,” Goldman also runs a quarterly Schoolhouse Songwriter Series at the Old Franklin Schoolhouse in Metuchen, where she will perform with a full band on Thursday, Sept. 15. She will also appear at a CD release concert at the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan on Wednesday, Sept. 7. Goldman spoke with NJJN in advance of these performances about her background, her accidental stumble into the world of singing and songwriting, and what it feels like to bring her past into her current work. 

In each of the 13 pieces on Kol Isha, Goldman offers both defiance and longing as she examines her past. She caresses the memory of a ritual and recasts it in a modern light, revealing why she cast it aside, but the ancient language tumbles out from somewhere deep in her soul. So, for example, in “The Sabbath Queen,” the queen is recast as a woman hiding the “dark circles around her eyes” and “blisters on her feet” as she stands “quiet and sweet” to meet the gaze of her family before the music shifts into a familiar refrain of “L’cha Dodi,” the joy in the Friday night liturgical song now tempered. 

In “Yerushalayim,” one of two songs about Israel, where she lived for more than a year, she offers, “You drew me in with winding streets/ Fragrant gardens terraced in the hills/ Persimmon, fig and olive trees/ The seven gates where I stood still./ You tempted me with copper sunrise/ Ancient ruins of those who yearned/ Your beauty was the perfect disguise/ So I wouldn’t see the bloodstains at every turn.” 

In “In My Bones,” she can’t erase memories of a childhood infused with rituals she no longer observes and a language she no longer speaks — “Echoes of blessings over spices and wine/ The ghosts of my ancestors haunt me/ They speak a language that used to be mine/ I remember every line.” She cries, “It’s in my bones, In my bones, In my bones/ Like names etched in brass cobblestones/ I can’t erase what is my own.” 

If the lyrics are deeply Jewish, the music also offers a departure from her previous work in its incorporation of Middle Eastern riffs, World Music percussive rhythms, and the oud, as well as a touch of American blues and slide guitar — and of course, traditional Ashkenazi strains.

If a listener finds a certain musical kinship in this CD with the work of musician Basya Schechter and her band Pharaoh’s Daughter — which offers a mix of American folk, klezmer, and Middle Eastern sounds — that’s no coincidence. Schechter, said Goldman, “has been a great inspiration to me” and gave her constructive feedback for Kol Isha.

‘A universal feeling’

Goldman grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s in Hicksville, Long Island, where she attended the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County through high school as well as the Young Israel of Plainview, where her parents were members. She described the community as “very gender-stratified.” 

“Music was something I always wanted to do,” she said, “but there just was no place for it. In high school, girls weren’t even supposed to be singing solos.” 

She didn’t sing or perform publicly until she was close to 30 — although she described her college self as “a closeted singer/songwriter,” meaning she would play beginner guitar and write songs in her room. (She attended George Washington University and started a master’s degree in Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1990s.) 

It was only later, in the early 2000s, while she was looking for creative outlets while living on the Upper West Side, that Goldman discovered “open-mike nights. There was a lot of it back then.” She went often — three or four nights a week. “That became my religion,” she said. She joined songwriting groups and started getting feedback — which in turn led to gigs in small clubs.

By then, she said, she believed she had left her past behind. “I always felt my background was very separate. I didn’t talk much about my childhood. I wrote about love and relationships.” This CD is different for her, she said: “It goes far deeper.”

When she plays for Jewish audiences, “people come up and want to talk about their experiences and play Jewish geography a little,” she said. But the music also seems to resonate with non-Jewish audiences, something she had worried about, particularly when she weaves Hebrew into the music. “There’s a universal feeling of struggling with identity,” Goldman said.

While her parents have been supportive, she hasn’t shared this CD with religious audiences, or even old friends who are still religious. “I’m not looking to offend. Perhaps it won’t resonate.” In any case, she said, “I haven’t gotten any reaction from that community.” 

Still, she said, “I never imagined my life would come full circle like this. To perform at a JCC or synagogue — that’s pretty cool. It’s kind of exciting.”

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