It’s taken me longer today to write this review than I planned, because as I was sitting down at the ‘puter with a mug of tea and my daughter involved in a conversation with Elmo on PBS, I decided to listen to Beth Schafer‘s fifth album, The Quest and the Question, one last time, just to be thorough.
This lady came to our attention last summer (the honorable Pepe Pringos posted this) when she beat out Christian crooners galore to won the faith-based category of American Idol Underground. She’d submitted two songs, “Still Small Voice” and “Love Multiplies,” to the online extension of the ubiquitous FOX series and watched as voters pushed them into the Top 10. By the end of the six-month long contest, those tunes came in at #1 and #2, respectively.
Now, it could be that Schafer’s fans, which surely include every single congregant of Temple Shier Shalom near Orlando, FL. where she does cantor duty, double-clicked like mad to get her to the top. But how much voting power can one lil’ Reform congregation have against the might of America’s contemporary Christian enthusiasts? Only a solid interfaith fan base would have been enough to sweep the top two song slots. Could it be that this Jewish woman and her electric guitar have crashed on through the ceiling of modern spiritual music?
Schafer sings in both English and Hebrew backed by folksy, uplifting chords, inviting comparison to that Mistress of reformed Reform liturgy, Debbie Friedman. This accomplished musician is not only her own lead guitarist, but is credited in the liner notes with playing the mandolin, piano and something called a variax. According to her site, she “is creating modern-day musical midrash, the contemporary interpretations of ancient texts that help us make sense of humanity,” yet her lyrics remain accessible to those who don’t know Rashi from Raffi.
In addition to being a cantor, songwriter and performer, Schafer is also a wife and mother, so she may appreciate the following: I mentioned I had set up for a perfect morning of blogging and was grooving to “Slow Me Down,” the first song on the album and an homage to the sweet anticipation of Shabbat, when everything fell apart. The phone kept ringing, my daughter decided smearing PB&J on my keyboard was more entertaining than Elmo, and I saw the time I had carved out for myself dissolving like sugar in tea. Frusturation and anger boiled up and I started feeling pretty sorry for myself, ’cause no one really tells you how hard it is to be a mother AND anything else except tired, dirty and put upon. And then I got to thinking about how hard it’s been for me to adjust here in the South and how challenging it is sometimes to deal with my mother-in-law, who has something like Alzheimer’s only worse, and how much I wish I could just go back to California, and wow, if I didn’t have just a giant pity party for myself tears, cursing, the whole bit.
But then I was listening to “Ruth,” a track about our adopted biblical foremother who also had to deal with her mother-in-law after her husband died, and I thought, “Well, God, at least I’ve still got my husband, pain-in-the-tuchus that he is. Thank you for that.” And then “Still Small Voice” came on and I got why the people voted it #1: It’s a song that makes you stop and remember that the One who created us is still here loving us, even when we’re pounding our fists on the ground (or swearing up a storm while cleaning out peanut butter between the “b” and “n” keys with a Q-tip.)
As the rest of the album cruised on, a sense of magnanimous relief came through me. These are songs about struggling with faith and finding strength when you’d thought you’d used up the last reserves. “Love Multiplies,” “Adonai Natan” (God gives, God takes away…) and “It’s In You” all prove that Schafer isn’t some bima ice queen throwing out rabbinical wisdom; this is a woman who has a deep compassion for what it means to be human and its accompanying challenges. In “We Pretend” she sings of life’s inherent imperfections, her own issues with conforming in “If You Want Me To Be” and she finishes off the album with “Tricky Thing,” a bone-bare glimpse into the paradox of faith. By then, my kid and I were dancing on the sofa, swinging our arms and cackling with the simple joy of being alive.
So what was intended to be just a regular music review ended up as a rejuvenating experience, as fine a testimony as I could possibly give. I’m not saying my day got any easier (I still had to help my mother-in-law clean out her closet and then write this amidst the howls of homework time and dinner preparations) but “The Quest and The Question” reminded me to keep on breathing, keep on dancing, keep on praying. Listen for yourself.