Warning: This might not make much sense to those not in the mainstream Jewish community, I will not be insulted if, when presented with a wall of indecipherable text, you choose to go straight to the photos.
It comes in waves. Sometimes there will be weeks of a sort of blissful non-awareness. And then there are times where I just can't get it out of my head. Like a sound that you're almost sure is there, but it's just beyond, beyond grasp, but definitely, yes positively, it's there. Lurking at the edges of your conscious. It's something I feel very strongly about, but have always had a hard time articulating it (I still do).
"Music is the pen of the soul".
Music being a major part of Judaism for a very, very long time. When the Jews beheld the miraculous defeat of the Egyptians after the splitting of the sea, they burst into spontaneous song.
The Book of Deuteronomy is gloriously filled with poetry, climaxing in the spectacularly worded song of Ha'azinu (Chapter 32).
Reading through the Scriptures, the word of G-d was presented through poetry and song.
We all know about King David and his Psalms. Has there ever before or since been such a book? Overflowing with love of G-d, humility, kindness, and truth? Most only know in its English translation, which contains but a sliver of its original genius. The original Hebrew version is like holding a song in your hand, grasping spirituality.
Throughout the generations great Jews have compiled poetry and music; deep, inspiring, and moving. We have the wonderful Shabbos hymns that are found in many Jewish homes. The Yedid Nefesh, a love song, which speaks of the yearning of the soul for G-d, which we sing every Friday afternoon; the L'cha Dodi, written by Shlomo Elkabatz; the three deeply kabbalistic poems written by the Holy Ari which we sing by each of the three Shabbos meals.
In the chassidic tradition there are "Niggunim". Soulful songs, very often without words, written by masters of spirituality, where every note, every rise and fall, represent a corresponding feeling of the soul. One could sing a niggun for hours, completely losing himself in his yearning.
We have always expressed our emotions towards G-d, the Torah, and our fellow Jews with poetry and music. For how else are we to express what we feel and know? Words are but a limited vessel, capable of transmitting ideas fairly well, but falling very short when it comes to emotions. And the deeper, the truer, the more real the emotion is the harder it gets to squeeze those feelings of the heart into cold and harshly limiting letters. So we sing; we sing high, we sing low. We use words against themselves, and convey meaning through breaking the rules, mixing truth and metaphor, parable with rhyme.
What has happened? Where are the poets, the music, the musicians, the songwriters? Looking at the current mainstream Jewish music landscape we are faced with a desert of soulless music. The songwriting (when it's not just words of Scripture) is embarrassingly shallow, lacking any deeper meaning than what's right in front of you. The Jewish "superstars" in the music world have for the most part nothing to do with their song, or the music involved. They have a pretty voice, and they sing mass produced songs which all sound the same (think bad pop from the 80's). The only depth they may have is stolen from Scripture, marrying the beauty of G-d's word with commercially driven drivel.
On the fringes, trying to get in, are the real artists. And they are there. Many wonderful bands, producing real music, with real lyrics, with a message that actually comes from somewhere inside. But for the most part it's a bleak scene.
"But the numbers work against us", you say. I don't buy it (and that's not because I download it for free). Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkle, Leonard Cohen, just a few Jews that come to mind. Lyrical geniuses, producing music which came from deep inside them. What they are saying is not the point, it's the fact that they are willing and able to. Are you saying that there is no one in the religious community that can express themselves with song? Who is able to, and wants to express his love of G-d? What does that say about us? For a group that is supposed to be deep, that is supposed to be a beacon of truth, we have a remarkably hard time expressing ourselves. We listen to shallow garbage expressing not a desire to become close to G-d but a desire to make sellable music. Is this what our hearts feel? Is our heart's pen being sold out to the highest bidder?
I don't know the reason, but I do know that in the religious schools, and the religious world at large, poetry is laughed at. We smile condescendingly at artists as if they were small children, dabbling in stupidity, wasting their time with narcissistic self expression.
Yes, at a level, obsessing with self expression is dangerous, but if we never learn to express what we feel, how will we ever know what we feel? If we never learn to express ourselves, how will we ever know who we are?
When I was in Yeshiva (religious school) both in Israel and New York I had a wonderfully eccentric learning partner. He had one of those five star notebooks in which he was always writing. He never let anyone see what was going on in his magical notebook.
He was the first person I met that wrote poetry, who actually took the time to express his thoughts and feelings in words an phrase which were distinctly his. People like him give me hope, that no matter what the present peer pressure presents, no matter how much we do things just because that's the way it's done, we can always rise up and be ourselves.
Recently I was in New York and got to roam around Manhattan for a day, meet up with said friend (who should be coming out with a book soon, I'll keep you posted), and find some food perhaps. Growing up I spent many years in New York, but seeing it through the eyes of a photographer was a totally different experience. So much life. So much happening. It's a crazy place, a photographers heaven, a partiers paradise, but thank you very much, I'll do my living somewhere sane.