Interview with Rabbi Danielle Upbin
This was a complete privilege.
In an interview that discusses everything from music, to politics, to religion – I was completely inspired to talk to Rabbi Danielle Upbin about her new album Reveal The Light and anything else that came to my mind. No topic was off-limits and I was every bit as free as I am regularily to ask her about all kinds of things…LIFE things, outside of the music.
Though many of you already know that I don’t identify with any one particular faith or religion myself, what you might NOT know about me, is that it’s still by far and away one of the most fascinating topics to discuss and has made for some of the best conversations I’ve ever had – including this one here.
She’s talented, committed to her faith, religion & music, incredibly smart, giving & humble. She’s gorgeous as well, if I can get away with calling a Rabbi that…
….She’s exceptionally well spoken and completely knowledgeable about her music and the world we live in. It has been our complete pleasure getting to know Rabbi Danielle Upbin, and now we invite you to do the same through this insightful interview, including active links for you to learn even more about her and her music. Reveal The Light!
Jer @ SBS
Interview with Rabbi Danielle Upbin
SBS: Danielle! Hello and welcome! I have met and talked with an extraordinary amount of fascinating people in my life, but your story…your life and how it has all led to music now…it’s truly an incredible journey! I read information like yours and fireworks go off in my head…there are so many things I want to ask you, and there are so many things you could say! I’ll be completely honest with you this whole way through Danielle, you have my word, but especially here at the start; I don’t know WHERE to begin! So help me out a bit here…how would you introduce yourself? What out of all this information would you include in getting to know us in the first five minutes of meeting you?
Danielle: Wow! Thanks for the interest in my music! I definitely consider my life to have been a spiritual journey, and all the way through, music has been the punctuation and celebration. Particularly, I have always had a passion for Hebrew prayer and liturgical chanting. As a young girl I sang in Yiddish songs with my mother, I learned and loved a corpus of Israeli music in my primary and high school years in the Orthodox Jewish day school that I attended. I always loved to attend synagogue, and some of my fondest memories are of breaking out in spontaneous harmonies with friends. As a career path, I chose the rabbinate as a vehicle to communicate Jewish ideas, spirituality and culture, which are also very important to me, but I have also been blessed to find a way to express my soul-singing through my profession.
SBS: Your personal education and list of lifetime achievements are astounding. It almost seems like you’ve spent half your life studying and then immediately used that knowledge to help people throughout the world. You’ve not only lived and studied in Israel, but eventually in 2002 became an officially ordained Rabbi! How exactly did this path lead you to music?
Danielle: Music was always part of my life and continues to be even as a rabbi. I feel blessed to have been able to find a way to integrate my love for music with my career. Interestingly, while I have a wide range of musical expression, having studied arias, show tunes, and folk songs, I have always found that my “true voice” comes out best in Jewish music.
SBS: You’ll have to forgive me Danielle…I know a FEW things, but there’s a TON I don’t know in life! Sometimes I just have to ask things the way my brain naturally comes out with it…so here it goes again… I suppose what I’m wondering is…well…is it possible to be both a Rabbi AND a committed musician at the same time? I’m guessing that once you’re ordained as a Rabbi, that never really leaves you – but how do you continue to make time for both in your life today?
Danielle: I think that it is possible for some people to be committed to both. In my case, I try to keep the music going, but I find that there is an ebb and flow with it depending on what kind of musical projects I have going on.
SBS: You have a BA in Political Science! Awesome, I loved taking Political Science myself, though I never officially graduated with any kind of degree. In fact, the very first thing I was taught by my professor was to never go into politics, but to be aware of how they exist. Do you find your music to have both a religious and political aspect to it? How so?
Danielle: I don’t think that my music has a political aspect to it. I studied political science because when I was younger I was interested in pursuing a career in Mid East politics. My thesis, however, was in the field of political theory, which was more interesting to me than policy.
SBS: Does your music serve as a platform for your religion/personal beliefs, or would you say vice/versa?
Danielle: I would say, yes, my music serves as a platform for my religious expression, in the sense that it comes from deep within but extends beyond boundaries of any particular faith.
SBS: Tell us about this new album of yours, Reveal The Light. That title alone suggests an overall theme…what light are we revealing and why is it important to be revealed?
Danielle: I named the album, “Reveal the Light” as a statement of the purpose of the project. It is our spiritual mission – each one of us – to strive to reveal the sparks of holiness that are within everything – in everything we do and everywhere we go – even the darker places. The light is what binds us together and brings out the love in our hearts. The name of the album is also the name of my daughter who is on the cover. The photo of this little girl dancing in the setting sun on the beach pulled the mission of the project together.
SBS: How about some of the key people involved along the recording process? Who lent a hand and what’s the most memorable moment you had recording Reveal The Light?
Danielle: I would not have made this album if it weren’t for my good friend and teacher, Fred Johnson. He is a musical genius and a deep spiritual well. We had been collaborating for a number of years on many interfaith projects in our area. This album was part of that synthesis. My producer and engineer, Jay Klein, gave me a lot of guidance and lent his superb talent to the overall project.
It was also a treat for me to involve my musical partners, Blake Lenett on Guitar and Lily Lucy on vocals, both of whom I jam with on a regular basis around hometown.
SBS: For people outside of the Jewish faith – how do you perceive that they will still be able to connect with your music? Is there a way in for the average listener that might not be of any faith at all?
Danielle: I have had people of all faiths and of no faith tell me that the music inspired them in some way. While the songs I chose are mostly Hebrew or Biblical, the themes – peace, soul, breath, nature, light, study – are universal.
SBS: I’ve asked this question of a few people, but Danielle I’d love to hear your opinion on what the defining characteristics of being spiritual versus being religious are.
Danielle: I think that it is possible to be religious without being spiritual – in the sense that you one can observe the precepts and rituals of one’s faith to a fault, but not feel even remotely connected to the Source of the religion. In this way, one can observe without any real sense of intention or connectedness. To be spiritual, on the other hand, one doesn’t feel obligated to observe the precepts or rituals necessarily, but might still feel very connected or aware of a metaphysical dimension. There are spiritual people who find a home or expression in a certain religion, while there are spiritual people who don’t necessarily land in one faith.
SBS: You’ve included some interpretive translations within the lyrics as well…from old Hebrew I believe? Tell us about the process for that…I’ll admit, that’s another new one for me. But I’m wondering how far that “interpretive” quality goes within the adaptation to a song. Like, if you had a word in the translation that maybe…I don’t know…didn’t fit with the rhyme scheme let’s say…would changing that word to a better-suited word for the song be a privilege afforded to the “interpretive” moniker? Cause of course, doing that might change the original meaning of the passage itself, which I imagine is tough enough to discern through an ancient language as is!
Ahhhh! You see Danielle? My head is spinning – so many thoughts and questions! Tell us about the interpretive translating within your music and how that works, please & thank you!
Danielle: I took the liberty to do some free translating/interpretation. The songs themselves are a form of “commentary” on the Biblical verses. So, there is room for interpretation and imagination. Hebrew is a very rich language that has many openings for interpretation. Hebrew words are often very nuanced and can suggest different meanings.
SBS: Would you say that religiously-based music gets out there to the people with the same reach as mainstream music does? Keep in mind – I’m a firm believer that we should all make music because we love it, and because we want to…I’m not saying the mainstream is the ideal place to end up in a musical career…definitely not! But I can think of pop/rock stars that have religious backgrounds, but not so much in their actual recorded content. Is it theoretically possible that the world could one day see spiritually & religiously-based music become the mainstream from the current course of pop culture?
Danielle: It is common for countries that have the dominant belief, to open up their airways to religious music. In the States, it is easy to find an array of Christian rock, especially on XM radio. We don’t hear as much religious music from other traditions in our pop culture. In Muslim countries, there is clearly a desire on behalf of the public to listen to cultural and religious music. In Israel, a noted recent trend in popular culture is for mainstream singers to incorporate religious themes into their music. As some Israeli artists undergo a personal transformation of becoming more observant, religious themes have started to come out more in their music, thereby influencing a new generation of Israelis. I think that is interesting. I don’t think we have the same kind of situation in this country, nevertheless, “religious” themed music finds its way through the mainstream here as well.
SBS: If I may…I’d like to ask you about one of those passages…one that is quoted on your official website… It references a person or character known as “Adonai.” While I could definitely google the word – I’m much more interested in your perspective (or interpretation!) of who this is.
Danielle: God has dozens of names in Hebrew Scripture, and many more if one counts post-Biblical works. Adonai means “Master” and is one of God’s names. It isn’t necessarily my favorite name for God, but it is commonly used.
SBS: Tell us about Clearwater, FL. From what I gather online, you have a particularly supportive following there! What is it about the local scene that makes it the perfect place for your music Danielle?
Danielle: Clearwater is a great place to live. Tampa Bay tends to get some great musical performances and renowned artists on tour. There is a local music scene that is diverse culturally and artistically. I have particularly enjoyed the interfaith music scene that was coming out of the Universalist Unitarian congregation in Clearwater, where I have met and collaborated with a number of local artists.
SBS: I…I’m not sure just how many times I’ll be able to ask an official Rabbi this in life…but it has to be asked…um…where would you like people to go online to learn more about you, Rabbi Danielle Upbin?
Danielle: I have a website, Danielleupbin.com and I tend to post on Facebook, through “reveal the light” and my name as well.
SBS: Danielle, I definitely want to thank you for your time and I’m really looking forward to extending our tradition of the SBS “Open Floor” here at the end of the interview. There’s so much that you’ve done with your life and it’s truly outstanding. There’s also no theoretical way I could have covered it all – so please take this next space on our page to say anything else at all that you’d like to include. It’s been completely our pleasure Danielle – thank you again for being here with us!
Danielle: Well, thank you, SBS for your interest in me and my music. I feel privileged to have been in a certain place at a certain time, to have made the connections that I made, in order to bring this album to fruition. I have a lot of music in me, and I hope that this will just be the beginning of a recording career. It takes time to make a recording and I have a lot of other things going on right now, but I have some ideas for more music projects that I hope to accomplish in the future – I enjoy sacred music but I also enjoy belting out the blues and singing other kinds of inspirational music, so we will just have to see where it goes.
I guess I would want to say in closing, that my mission in putting this album out there was to show that Spiritual music can transcend boundaries and bring people together. You don’t have to speak or understand Hebrew to feel the power of the ancient text move through you when you hear it. The vibrations, the intention, the feelings that are evoked when we listen to spiritual music should point us in the direction of shared community. I hope that “Reveal the Light” will offer that kind of experience to the listener – to give the listener an opening into the transcendent that finds its origins in Jewish prayer and Biblical text.
There is a lot of beauty in the world. Even though it seems sometimes that we are surrounded by darkness, it is important never to despair. It should be our mission and resolve to strive to bring more beauty and light into the world. It is always there, so our job is really just to uncover it and let it shine.
Find out more about Rabbi Danielle Upbin at her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Reveal-The-Light-By-Rabbi-Danielle-Upbin/303891433053063