Jewish Music

Ouiet Valley Ranch, TX. Alisa on her way to play her mainstage show after winning Kerrville NewFolk, 1991

Alisa Fineman was ordained from Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion-The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in May of 2018, after  having served Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel, CA as Cantorial Soloist for over 25 years. She has lived in the Monterey Bay region for longer, nourished by its rolling hills of coast live oak, rich farmland and redwood groves where land meets the sea. Growing up, Alisa spent extensive time in the Rocky Mountains and Big Sur wilderness, as well as the Sierra Nevada.

The vibrant beauty and poignancy of place, along with her family’s rich musical heritage, inspired the beginnings of her career as a singer and songwriter at age ten. While completing her degree in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, Alisa grew her career as a touring folk musician and was hailed by the Monterey Arts Council for her “…extraordinary contribution to the quality of life in Monterey County through the excellence of her work and her vision, passion and dedication to our community.”

Alisa’s formative years were also shaped by a loving Jewish upbringing that included Hebrew-speaking summers at Camp Swig’s Solel Hebrew program, directed by passionate educators, all leaders in their fields today. Nevertheless, she was surprised to find herself called to cantorial work, first at Congregation Emeth in Gilroy and later at Temple Beth El of Salinas.

In the midst of her flourishing touring and recording career as a folk artist, Alisa also took time to hone her skills, deepening her knowledge of liturgy and Jewish spirituality through studies with a variety of teachers active in the Jewish Renewal movement of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Her explorations of Jewish chant, Torah and wilderness, feminine spirituality, Hassidut, and embodied Judaism empowered her as a sacred song leader and spiritual teacher with a celebrative spirit of Jewish identity. This only deepened her ever-expanding sense of humanity and commitment to building bridges of understanding among diverse traditions. Her role at CBI includes leading music for Shabbat services, holidays and observances, and teaching the B’nai Mitzvah and teen programs. In addition to serving as Cantor at CBI, Alisa continues to perform concerts, facilitates life-cycle events and is invited to appear as artist-in residence for congregations and programs across the country.  She has recorded a number of CD’s, including several with her gifted musical and life partner, Kimball Hurd, with whom she performs. One of her CDs, Closing the Distance— Poems, Prayers & Love Songs, was produced by Alex de Grassi and received enthusiastic international response, including the selection of four of its songs for inclusion in the Shalshelet Festival in NYC in 2010.

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Singer-songwriter Alisa Fineman had a successful first set at a small-town Texas gig, but when it came time to get back on stage again, she was tired. Feeling a bit experimental in that “little cow-town, where people were wearing 10-gallon hats and sweaters with American flags on them,” Fineman decided to take a risk. She broke out into “Erev shel Shoshanim,” a Hebrew love song.

“They went nuts, and it was mind-boggling to me,” she said. “And one man came up to me and said ‘I’ve never met anyone Jewish, and I’ve never heard Jewish music before. You invited me into your world and I liked what I heard, and now I feel worldly.'”

That was back in the mid- ’90s, and it was sort of an epiphany for Fineman. “When I heard that, I realized that if I had hid my Jewishness, and hid the richness of who I am from him, I would have denied him an opportunity to be more worldly.”

Fineman, who has several CDs of secular music, has just released her first CD of Jewish music. Called “Closing the Distance,” it features her own interpretations of some Jewish classics, plus some original songs.

Fineman is the cantorial soloist at Congregation Beth Israel in Carmel. She also performs with the Bay Area ensemble Ya’Elah!

Raised in a Reform Jewish family in the San Fernando Valley, Fineman grew up attending UAHC Camp Swig in Saratoga. Always musical, she has won numerous song-writing competitions and has performed at a variety of festivals.

And she always sang Jewish music as well, but only to Jewish audiences. That changed, too, in the mid- ’90s.

Fineman was playing in a Celtic-influenced group at the time. The British guitarist asked her to sing a Hebrew song as part of the set.

Fineman thought twice about it, but agreed. “It made people go crazy,” she said. “Suddenly non-Jewish people who were interested in me became even more interested in me when I was singing in Hebrew. I had thought I had to reserve that for my own people and my own group and suddenly people were coming to me.”

One song on “Closing the Distance” that she is particularly proud of is “Salaam Shalom,” which is inspired by the Israeli band Sheva. Fineman and her producer realized that for the song to be truly about peace, they needed an Arabic vocalist to sing with Fineman.

In the days following 9/11, Fineman had been asked to sing at many interfaith events, and had made some contacts in the local Arab community. She found an Israeli Arab woman to translate half of the song into Arabic. “Anything for peace,” she told her.

But the hard part was finding a singer. Fineman made a lot of calls, but didn’t get any back.

Finally, she found Elias Lammam, a classically trained Arab musician who plays with the local George Lammam Ensemble.

The two met, and he agreed to do it.

“A lot of people were telling me that in this time, it would be very hard to find someone, but I did, and he sang so beautifully on it.” The song became a true collaboration, as it was Lammam’s idea to begin with spoken word.

In Fineman’s experience, music can often transcend the cultural divide.

“People are longing for understanding, and want to know about different paths and cultures and religions. When they have an understanding then they have a connection and relationship with it, and then they have a connection to the larger world and all its possibilities.”

While Fineman hopes her CD will reach a non-Jewish audience, she wants to continue helping marginally identified Jews realize the beauty in their own heritage, too.

“There are Jews who know me as a singer-songwriter, and they’re amazed that I’m doing cantorial music. I get to show them the beauty of who we are, the ancient wisdom and spiritual path that Judaism offers.”

This article was written for The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California by Alexandra J. Wall © The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California

CLOSING THE DISTANCE: Poems, Prayers and Love Songs, featuring contemporary arrangements of traditional and original songs from the Jewish Diaspora, marks a radical but natural departure from Alisa’s previous recordings, and a new direction for her musical and humanitarian sensibilities.

“Thank you so much for sending your new CD. It is very beautiful. We’ve been listening to it constantly.
– Bob Feldman / Redhouse Records

“Alisa Fineman’s CD is a marvelous addition to the contemporary voices who continue to give life and vitality to the Jewish tradition. Alisa’s heart is as warm as her superb voice.” – Peter Yarrow

“Alisa’s voice is at once delicate and powerful, warm, yet mysterious, but above all it is an open invitation to musicians from diverse traditions to share in the discovery of something new.” – Alex de Grassi

“Ravishingly beautiful.” – Dr. Beryl Levinger, Monterey Institute of International Studies

“Familiar tunes but rendered in unique and meaningful ways; original pieces that are keenly crafted with a great sense of musicality. I am very excited about this CD.” – Randee Friedman Sounds Write Productions

Produced and co-arranged by Alex de Grassi, Alisa sings in Hebrew, Ladino, and English with two guest vocalists, Elias Lammam and Shabda Kahn, singing in Arabic. Set against a mixture of Middle Eastern and Western instrumentation, the arrangements draw from a broad base of traditions that explore the roots of Alisa’s cultural heritage.

Read what people are saying about the CD.

Read these reviews of the CD.

You can purchase Closing The Distance Here.

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