We asked clergy across North America which music, books, art, movies and more help them get into a reflective state of mind as they gear up for the High Holidays. Here’s what Rabbi Shoshanah Conover from Temple Sholom in Chicago, IL, had to say.
ReformJudaism.org: Any favorite musicians you tend to listen to during Elul?
Rabbi Conover: For the past decade, Bach’s Goldberg Variations have been a constant companion during the month of Elul. They remind me that life can be varied and beautiful in its variations—that, similar to this one composition, within our one lifetime, we can renew ourselves again and again. My favorite version is a recording by Rosalyn Tureck released by VAI in 1988. It’s so intimate, there are times it seems as if I can hear her breathing. There’s an apocryphal story that it was recorded in the living room of a home. When I listen to this version, I connect not only to the deep spirit of the music, but to Tureck’s creative life force. In that way, when listening to this recording, I feel closer to God.
Yet, this has been a very different Elul for me because it coincides with the waning days of summer instead of the early days of fall. Therefore, I have felt myself basking in the beauties of the outdoors much more, and I have been listening to music that primes my heart for the openness with which I want to embrace the new year. Since returning from Israel in the middle of Av, I’ve been listening to Etti Ankri’s album B’shirei Yehuda Halevy. The album came out in 2009 and it’s been popular in Israel- among secular and religious Jews alike. This album is a collection of poems by the medieval poet and philosopher Yehudah Halevy set to music. I’ve owned the album for a few years, but hadn’t listened to it that often. However, after hearing the songs on Israeli radio all summer, I uploaded the album to my playlist. One song that I listen to over and over again is B’chol Libi. Here are my favorite lines:
With all my heart, in truth, I have loved You…
God is my lamp, how could my light be quenched?…
Source of my life, I will bless you while I live,
And sing You my song while being is mine.
The melody of the song opens my heart and Ankri’s voice carries the words deep inside. Here’s a live version.
What about writers. Any novelists, poets, or columnists you are drawn to this time of year? Any favorite (non-canonical) Elul book?
I have also found myself rereading many of my favorite poems in Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early and returning to my favorite essays and lines from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. These writers’ observations of life and nature remind me to wake up. The world sings to us constantly. This is as good a time as any to tune in.
How about visual arts? Any paintings or sculptures that spark soul-searching?
This past Friday night, after an outdoor Shabbat service on the grassy beach of Lake Michigan, I watched the moon – three-quarters full and bright red – rise over the lake. Thanking God for the richness of this Elul and all the opportunities of renewal it brings, I could not help but sing the words of the Shehecheyanu to myself – thank you, God for keeping me alive, sustaining me, and allowing me to reach this season.
Rabbi Shoshanah Conover is Associate Rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago and recent recipient of the Hartman Fellowship.