February 20, 2023

Introduction

By Chana Raskin with Josh Fleet

Kapelya album cover, design by Jessica Tamar Deutsch
Photograph of a women’s farbrengen at 770 Eastern Parkway (Chabad headquarters),
taken by Velvel Schildkraut, 16 Iyar 5735 (April 27, 1975)

I grew up in the Hasidic section of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, as part of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. From a young age, I was deeply moved by and connected to the songs—nigunim, as we called them—and musical traditions of my community. I imbibed these melodies, I absorbed them, I integrated them into the bones of my being. I breathed them, I dreamed them, I lived them out in my own way. And they, in turn, offered me solace, connection, and a sense of Home as I charted my own path.


There are gates, both heavenly and innerworldly, that cannot be opened except by melody and song, the Alter Rebbe taught.1 In fact, a nigun, the often-wordless spiritual melody associated with Hasidic Judaism, is considered a skeleton key to the soul. Whether individual or collective, cosmic or earthly, the right melody sung at the right time has the power to unlock otherwise blocked channels and locked doors, enabling personal transformation and electrifying communal gatherings. That music has such transcendent capabilities is an accepted fact; how music does this is more of a mystery.

Traditionally, Hasidim sing in a sea of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of voices. The individual ceases to exist in such a wave of sound. You are just a drop in that ocean. In this way of singing, one’s personal experience is amplified exponentially. Inspiration becomes ecstasy. Joy becomes JOY. Interestingly, in Chabad, Hasidim don’t sing harmony. Everyone sings the melody, and the refrain becomes a mantra. A seamless melding of multiple voices into a simple unity is the goal, with the intention of effecting a complete bitul ha-yesh, nullification of the individual self. If you watch farbrengens2 from when I was growing up, every nigun—whether happy or sad—marches insistently forward, taking on a vibrational momentum and life of its own. The song is a vehicle for collective transformation—moving everyone simultaneously deeper, higher, and closer.

A farbrengen with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the main shul at 770 Eastern Parkway

As a child, I remember joining my father at the regular farbrengens on Shabbos or Yom Tov, experiencing them unter di fis (under the feet) of the assembled men. This was not a common experience for most young girls or women in my community, this feeling of singing in a sea of Hasidim—the energy, the unity, the feeling of being “swallowed up” in group ecstasy. These memories were formative and have remained with me throughout my life, instilling within me an awe and appreciation for the powers of song, voice, and collective spirit.


The flipside of this collective musical experience is a Hasid singing alone. I grew up hearing such soliloquies on cassettes and in the sounds of my father singing at home. In solitary song, a totally different voice emerges. This intimately personal sound became a huge part of my life when I left Crown Heights and moved away from my family and the community of my youth. On my own, I had a lot of time to explore the spiritual power and creative potential of nigunim; the practice of singing alone became a safe haven, a pathway to catharsis, a relief from pain, and so much more. And yet, I never stopped yearning to merge with that ocean of song I experienced as a child.

For many years, whenever I sang alone, I heard a kind of ethereal accompaniment—other voices singing with me. Although absent in “real life,” these voices were nevertheless palpably present. This hidden chorus was amplified after I sustained a minor traumatic brain injury. My healing process was and is full of painful detours and setbacks, and it has also been deeply transformative, even profound. A few years into this journey, during a particularly dark week in December 2017, three different women reached out to me about bringing women together to sing. I remember thinking: Yes. (Pause, breath.) Yes, let’s do it. I didn’t know how I would physically pull it off—I hadn’t left my bed for weeks—but I knew it was exactly what I needed. And, in a dark moment suddenly filled with light and hope, the RAZA circle was born.3

For years, people had asked me to teach nigunim, but I never felt qualified or able to do so; growing up, I had no reference or model for a woman doing such a thing. I had spent a lot of time singing these songs with an internal choir, but had never really found a space where I could share the fullness of what I heard with other people. It was a leap to put aside my thoughts of doubt and inadequacy and begin teaching Chabad nigunim to groups of women. But when a group gathered for the first RAZA circle in Jerusalem in 2018, something happened that shook me to my core. There I was, in a room filled with women who had never heard these songs from my childhood, singing them as I had never heard them before, inviting me to relearn and reconsider this body of music I considered so familiar. By the second circle, it was clear that something magical was opening—a new path, a new space, a new sound.

RAZA circle, photograph by Shmulie Lowenstein

In the decades before I was born, there were a few times a year that the women were invited to crowd into the main shul at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights—typically a space reserved exclusively for men—and receive a special discourse from the Rebbe, just for them. I was too young to have ever attended one of these special women’s farbrengens. However, I was lucky enough to be present for many of the children’s farbrengens, or “rallies,” as we called them. We would all shout out the twelve p’sukim, the specific Torah passages that the Rebbe instituted for young children to memorize and recite—a series of mottos or affirmations, so to speak. The feeling was euphoric. But then I remember so distinctly, how the music would start to play, and the emcee’s radio-ready voice would ring out: “Now the boys will sing along, and the girls will clap their hands!”

If I close my eyes, I can still feel the deflation and confusion I experienced in those moments—a little girl who loved to sing, sitting among her classmates, holding back the sound in her throat, unsure why she was clapping her hands instead of belting out, “We want Moshiach, we want Moshiach NOW!”


The album Kapelya is a collection of traditional Chabad nigunim sung by a group of twenty-two women. In this folio, which presents reflections on several nigunim from the album, I attempt to trace the nature and resonance and meaning of the project as a whole–on the page, as well as in song. All of this work grew from my deep feelings of love and wonder, respect and gratitude for these nigunim, and for their angel-like presence in my personal life and journey. And yet, to say there is no pain here isn’t true. The pain is here—in the reaching, in the reimagining. It is right here with me, in my eyes, in my throat, in my heart that is forever listening and crying out these melodies in joy and wonder. It is in the sound of our voices, along with the exaltation, as they join together to make a new kind of chorus.

The word raza means “secret” or “hidden” in Aramaic, and in many ways, it feels like that’s what we are doing when we come together to sing—revealing secrets, within these melodies and within ourselves. In RAZA circles, and on this album, we don’t sing new songs. Rather, we try to listen to old songs in a different way, and thus allow each nigun to express another side of herself to us and to the world.


The album cover for Kapelya is a photo of a farbrengen in the men’s section of the main shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s headquarters. It is not a typical farbrengen. In the photo, the Rebbe is absent, but his presence is reflected in the devoted faces of the assembled crowd. The Hasidim are quiet. They don’t appear to speak or make any noise at all. They are fully present and ready to receive. The Hasidim are women.

“May the sayings of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You.”

–Psalms 19:1

This album is herself a prayer, and also an offering of prayers, for you to dwell within. May her music travel in softness and grace, in delight and wonder, and may these melodies be a healing balm, a reminder of Home for every seeking heart. 

I want to express my deep gratitude to Josh Fleet, whose guidance, patience, and expertise made this folio possible. He helped research, write, and support the process from beginning to end. With all my heart, thank you.

Footnotes

  1. See Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Sefer Hasichos (5706 / 1946), 10, note 9. The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) was the founder of Chabad, a tradition within Hasidism. Hasidism, which began as a populist revival movement in what is now Ukraine, is known for shifting the focus of Jewish religiosity toward the heart—emphasizing prayer, song, and story as significant tools of devotional practice. Two generations after the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism), with the establishment of Chabad-Lubavitch as a major branch in the growing tree of Hasidism, the Alter Rebbe introduced rigorous study as a way to intellectually integrate the embodied and lofty teachings of his predecessors, for his Hasidim to really “know” and “understand” the Divine. Even still, song remained a cornerstone of the Hasidic experience.
  2. In Yiddish, farbrengen refers to a spiritual gathering of Hasidim.
  3. RAZA circles provide a musical prayer space where participants dive deeply into the world of nigun. Exploring a softer collective voice in devotional Hasidic melody, those gathered partake in real-time musical workshopping through deep, intentional listening. The result is a powerful uncovering of a new melody within the old, as well as a profound (re)discovery of our own voices. RAZA circles have gathered in song in Jerusalem, Safed, and New York since January 2018.

Chana Raskin, the founder and main facilitator of RAZA, is an untrained vocalist who grew up entrenched in the world of Chabad Hasidut and its profoundly simple and complex melodies. These nigunim have carried her at every point of her journey through life. In her music and singing circles, as well as in her day-to-day experience, Chana strives to hold a space with others recovering from illness or traumatic injury through the healing powers of quiet, laughter, humming, singing, and movement.

Josh Fleet is communications and operations manager at Hadar’s Rising Song Institute.