Berkeley songwriter offers mix of soulful, meditative

Singer and songwriter Sara Shendelman says Jewish music "speaks to my soul."

In her recent recordings, "I Did Lift You Up" and "Chasing the Gazelle," she gives voice to her inner passion. Harmonizing the traditional with the new, she makes the blend seem effortless.

"There's something eternal" about Jewish music, says the Berkeley resident, an ordained cantor in the Jewish Renewal movement. "It's at a level much deeper than thinking about it."

"I Did Lift You Up" is a mix of traditional Jewish music and text put to Shendelman's original compositions along with interpretations of other contemporary Jewish musicians, like Shlomo Carlebach.

A familiar performer at Bay Area Jewish events, Shendelman is the founder and director of the Jewish Arts and Culture School in Berkeley. She's also an artist, specializing in Jewish craft items.

As a child growing up in Memphis, Tenn., Shendelman sang around the Shabbat table or at her family's Conservative synagogue. But she dates her connection to music even further back.

"I'm a bat Levi ," a female descendent of the Levites, she says. "We were the poets and musicians at the Temple."

In addition to music, she pursued other Jewish activities. As a teenager, she joined B'nai B'rith International where she had the opportunity to learn from people like Elie Wiesel.

"That was a watershed point," she says. "I went from a provincial Jewish education to studying with some of the luminaries in the Jewish world."

In 1985, at a Renewal gathering at Bryn Mawr College, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi invited her to become ordained. Shendelman is the first, and to her knowledge, only ordained, Renewal cantor.

The emphasis on meditation in the Renewal movement inspired her other recording, "Chasing the Gazelle."

"Gazelle" is a powerful mix of Tibetan bells, traditional instruments and Hebrew chants that Shendelman calls "Jewish meditation music." For "Gazelle," Shendelman set her metronome below the normal heart rate to help people slow down.

"Jewish meditation is absolutely essential for most Jews to have any kind of spiritual life, to have that quiet introspection," she says.

"The Jewish path is trying to find divinity in each person and if we're too wound up, we can't connect."

Shendelman has a broad view of meditation. For her, both singing and bicycling are conducive to meditative states.

"People meditate in all different kinds of ways. You don't have to be sitting quietly. You can be bicycling, walking down the street, listening to music. Some need absolute silence and some can be walking through downtown."

The frantic pace of modern life heightens the need for meditation, she says.

"The busyness of life really necessitates that we take time to quiet ourselves," she says. "That's why Shabbat is so essential. That's why there's been such a resurgence in meditation."

Shendelman knows from busy. Besides recording music and running the Jewish arts and culture school, the mother of two has recently released a book on blessings for Jewish homes.

She serves with her husband, Avram Davis, as spiritual leader for B'nai Harim, a congregation in Placerville. Davis is also the founder and co-director of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley.

"Chasing the Gazelle" has been used by preschool teachers, women's Rosh Chodesh groups and families, as well as meditators.

It's the power of music to move and transform people that fuels Shendelman's passion.

"When people come up to me and say, `I love your singing,' what they're saying is the music was healing."