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Reaching My Own Promised Land

Reaching My Own Promised Land

When I think about my life
All that I’ve seen and done
I ask myself: Have I achieved
All that I might become…

O… yes!…and no…
It is hard to reach all I can be
When oppression’s living within me
O help me now to end this slavery

How many years of wandering
Will it take ‘till I can
See my way through wilderness
Into my Promised Land
?

– "Promised Land” by Joy Weinberg

At this time last year, I was one year, five months, and six days from my 50th birthday. Awed by the impending 5-0, I thought: If I live to 104, as my Aunt Ethel did, my life is at midpoint. If I’m an “average” U.S. woman, I’ll make it to 81 just 31 more years, nearly two-thirds of my life already lived.

Questions arose: Am I making good use of my time on Earth? As I’ve tried to make the world better, have I strived to make my own world better? Have I been I living the life I truly want for myself? And, thinking of the upcoming Passover holiday: Have I reached my own Promised Land?  

The answer was no. Like the Israelites, I was still wandering in the wilderness of my life.

This was unquestionably a bountiful wilderness. I had a wonderful wife, a home I treasured, great family and friends, and a variety of hobbies from gourmet cooking to woodworking. As managing editor of Reform Judaism magazine, I also found fulfillment in helping authors articulate their vital ideas in compelling ways to hundreds of thousands of readers.

But what of my own writing?

It is said that the clue to our mission can be found in childhood passion, that innate enthusiasm bubbling up before we have internalized societal expectations. I wrote my first song at age 6, not long after my parents purchased a Baldwin piano. One day, upset that my parents were angry at me, I created and performed my composition – the plea, in musical-theatre style, “Please Don’t Be Mad at Me.” It did the trick: In minutes, my mom and dad went from admonishing me to applauding their only child who, they were convinced, had true songwriting talent.

I kept writing. Composing music, I realized, was a powerful and often more precise means to articulate my complex emotional truths.

But, except for close family and friends, no one heard my work. I had no opportunities to share heart-to-heart through art. At work, I felt I was engaging in tikkun olam, helping to make the world a better place, by assisting writers in educating, enlightening, and motivating Reform Jews, but I wasn’t engaging in the tikkun olam of my soul – enabling my songs to touch other people’s souls as other artists’ works had touched mine.     

Practically, I didn’t know where to begin. All the songwriters I knew of were singer-songwriters; I could not sing. They were also superb musicians; my piano and guitar skills were not professional. And what did I know from the music business? Musical isolation seemed my destiny.

One day, at a Union for Reform Judaism staff retreat, I played and sang my song “The Mission,” which was inspired by URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ first address to the staff. Jewish musician Josh Nelson was listening, and afterwards, he suggested I post the song to the Hanashir music listserv. “Someone,” he said, “will want to record your song.”

That someone turned out to be his brother, Jon Nelson. With my feedback, Jon sang, played guitar, and produced my first professional recording.  

When Amy Goldstein, the cantorial soloist at my synagogue, Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, N.Y., heard the finished song, she looked me in the eye and said, “You need to write more Jewish music. And I need new sermon anthems.” Inspired, I wrote Jewish songs, and she premiered them beautifully. She added: “We should record them professionally," and arranged a recording date in a music studio.

After the first recording session, I was hooked. I realized, I can do this. I have been in the wilderness, and I can reach my Promised Land. I wrote the song “Promised Land” as my mantra. I found additional singers and musicians, and I committed myself to writing one well-crafted song a month and recording all the works.

Now, five of my Jewish songs are available on oysongs; “Promised Land” and “7 Days” are on YouTube with my iMovies; and my first album is on track to release this year. I’ve also recorded enough songs for a second, secular album, and some for album number three.

I now see: Wherever we may be in the cosmos of life, we can reach for that Promised Land. And if I am as lucky as Aunt Ethel, I will have another half-century to get there.

Joy Weinberg is the managing editor of Reform Judaism magazine and a songwriter whose Jewish music can be found at oysongs.com.

Joy Weinberg
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