I spoke to Nomi Teplow the other night and it gave me a little twinge in my heart when I realized it was Sunday night and the women’s choir was assembling in her living room. And I wasn’t there… The past two years I stopped going to choir practice when life got a little too busy, but I’m starting to think it may be time to return!
The choir has been more on my mind lately because just two months ago, Nomi arranged a Convention of Women’s Choirs from all over the country. What a night! What a high! It took place at our local Cultural Center of Karnei Shomron. Nomi’s women’s choir and girls’ choirs performed as did all the choir directors. This evening of Jewish song was remarkable but what was most remarkable was Nomi herself. Karnei Shomron’s very own Nomi Teplow, who besides being my friend and my neighbor, happens to be an extremely talented singer.
I looked around the crowded room and felt a little possessive. It’s not that I don’t know she’s out there… on the radio, in concert, conducting choirs. But I knew Nomi way back then, way back when she started being our small-town choir director. Back when I just knew Nomi as Sondra Baras’ little sister. This same Nomi, on stage, inspiring the audience, was my same Nomi from years back. I was one of her first fans. I was part of Nomi’s women’s choir group for fifteen years. She started working for our local Cultural Center, running rehearsals once a week in an empty renovated house. We women would sit around in an empty room, warming our hands by an electric heater in the winter, not willing to miss a session. A few years later, Nomi started working for the Music School of Kedumim, a community 15 minutes away, and I followed her there. A group of us women would set out once a week at night, drive the dark winding roads to get there, willing to make the trip if that was what it meant to continue singing with Nomi.
And then a few years after that, Nomi decided to open the choir under her own auspices. The dozen or so of us gathered in her living room, in the space between her couch, dining room table and piano, setting up a semi-circle of folding chairs and kitchen chairs… a space which, as soon as we began, became our private, intimate world of song.
And we would sing. In Hebrew, in English, in Yiddish, and even Zulu. We’d sing Israeli folk songs, Irish ballads, Broadway show tunes and classical choral arrangements. Sometimes we sang acappella, sometimes we had wonderfully rich instrumental recorded playbacks, but most of the time, Nomi sat down at the piano, and accompanied us. We would sing everything from simple melodies to four part harmonies.
And it didn’t matter. We came to sing. But, mainly, we came for Nomi. She’s a personality. Or, more importantly, she’s a character. And just as she lit up the stage, she lit up her living room. The group of us, a dedicated core of women, with her from way back, weren’t even friendly with each other before, and most of us don’t socialize outside of choir. Through the years, the choir has included teenagers, young mothers (with babes in arms), and senior citizens. Nomi attracts with her magnetism. She demands a high standard and pushes relentlessly, yet charmingly. She will dance and jump up and down if it means getting us to search for the best within us. She insists that Jewish music can and should be on a high level and should reach out with its professionalism and its soul.
The past several years, besides working as choir director for her women and girls’ choirs, she works for the Ministry of Education, traveling to schools around the country, and working with their choral conductors. She never passes up the chance to share her holy conviction that G-d is within us all. That first year, she worked on technique and vocal training by using a song she wrote for the children called, “I Have My Own Inner Light”, teaching the children to search and strive for the spirituality we all have within. She lectures and leads workshops for choral conductors all around the country. She puts them in touch with their inner voices so they can appreciate the opportunity and privilege they have to revolutionize and turn music into a religious experience.
Even when she would simply be running us through our vocal warm-up exercises, or telling us how to project our voices better, it became a lesson in spirituality. She would encourage us to cleanse ourselves from distractions, reaching for wholeness in ourselves, searching for meaning and purity. She insisted that, only then, can we sing to our G-d with a true voice. Her music is so connected to her spirituality, that when news in Israel is bad and times are hard for the Jewish people, she finds it next to impossible to “make music.” Before the Disengagement from Gaza, she left her lovely home, and moved, with her husband and children, to live in Gush Katif, convinced the expulsion would not happen, and stood alongside her brothers when they were dragged from their homes.
She stopped singing then. For a long while she could not produce music, could not compose, could not think of continuing her work on her third disc of songs. At one point she wrote a song which expressed her struggle of pain coupled with an endlessly solid faith: “And in such difficult days… When faith is absent… Know that angels of G-d embrace you… And when it seems that the night will never end… And when it seems that the heart has been shattered…When it seems there is no end to the desert sands… Know that every winter ends in spring… Know that God will always stand by your side.”
I’ve been at performances where Nomi is part of the program, alongside very talented performers. I’ve seen other singers come out on stage and entertain, the audience attentive and enjoying. But when Nomi would be introduced… as soon as she would step up to the mike… the room came alive! The energy was explosive! Immediately, you sensed people sitting up in their chairs, even leaning forward a bit, to the sensation that was going on, onstage. Nomi’s voice is magnificent… her range impressive. But more important, she is a performer. One minute we’d be clapping, bouncing in our seats, tapping our feet, enchanted by the combination of Nomi’s original soul and soft rock. Next minute we’d be moved, our throats actually constricting at Nomi’s use of ancient holy texts to stir us to spiritual heights as she turned liturgical poems into holy prayer.
Her song, “Dance Mother Rachel” is a perfect example of Nomi melding her heartfelt messages of faith and hope for redemption, with original, polished musical arrangements. The basis for her song is Jeremiah 31 where our matriarch Rachel weeps for her children, and refuses to be comforted because her children are not in their land.
Nomi makes a twist and speaks to Mother Rachel, saying—‘Look! Your children are returning… from Pakistan, Ethiopia, Russia, America… and it is time to dry your tears’, because, as the prophet predicts a few verses later– “Your sons shall return to their own borders.” Her song uplifts us with the assurance that we are living the prophecy now. The Redemption is happening now, by Jews arriving from all corners of the earth, to return to their land.
Nomi, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, moved to Israel in 1990 from New York City. She had already completed both her Bachelors and Masters degrees at Columbia University and was working successfully as a corporate banker. A banker!? A woman with the soul and voice of an angel, working behind a desk, playing with finances, captivating clients with her skill for numbers! Fortunately, for us and the world at large, she decided, along with her move to Israel, to devote her life to her music. And her music is never separate from her religion, from her faith. Her music is her way of reaching out to audiences, both secular and religious, both in Israel and abroad.
Happily, Nomi is out there, busy with singing, creating and spreading her music and her joy. She offers her talents and her time to perform at fund-raisers for non-profit organizations and Judea and Samaria communities. Recently, at the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar, which commands us to rejoice, she performed in the community of Itamar, exactly one year after the Fogel family fell to a horrific massacre. What a challenge and a privilege to find the right program… the right mood… the right balance in songs to inspire and uplift these brave people who suffered so much!
I saw something Nomi wrote on her Facebook page recently: “Oh, how I yearn for our complete redemption, for an honest world, for serenity, for unity of our nation.” Nomi has a gift. And her gift to us is sharing with us her connection with God, her love for His land… and her music. Her glorious music. May it ring out to greet the Redemption we all so believe in.