Songstress on a mission to expose world to Jewish melodies

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.”

“Closing the Distance” by Alisa Fineman is available on her Web site,

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."