An Indie-Pop Songwriter Takes On the High Holidays

Feist collaborator Daniela Gesundheit blends her talents as a cantor and a singer-songwriter on "Alphabet of Wrongdoing."

If musician Daniela Gesundheit’s album “Alphabet of Wrongdoing” teaches us anything, it’s that Barbra’s “Avinu Malkeinu” isn’t the only one worth streaming outside of synagogue. Gesundheit (is there any better last name?) blends her talents as both a cantor and a singer-songwriter in this sublime album of traditional high holiday prayers.

Gesundheit created the indie-pop band Snowblink and has collaborated with Feist. Her latest album, which was released digitally in 2020, is now getting rereleased through a label and includes a 100-page hardcover libretto written by Gesundheit about the material, including poems, essays, commentary, interpretations and translation. In the libretto, Gesundheit says, “This music is for challenging junctures, when we have more questions than answers. To make an album of reimagined Jewish liturgy is my way of saying we can re-work, but we cannot obliterate; matter just does not behave that way.”

The album is a salve to anyone who’s ever muscled through services led by a cringe-worthy cantor. Gesundheit’s voice is luminous, her Hebrew is natural and she interprets the music with ethereal sensitivity. Familiar prayers like “In The New Year” (B’Rosh Hashanah), “Alphabet of Wrongdoing” (Ashamnu) and, yes, “Our Father, Our King” (Avinu Malkeinu) are adorned by light musical accompaniment and harmonies. Though the songs will hit home for lovers of Kol Nidre, Gesundheit hopes the music is meaningful to non-Jews as well as Jews with its haunting melodies and themes of contemplation and reckoning.

Daniella Gesundheit
Photo by Mary Rozzi

I spoke to Gesundheit, who was at home in Los Angeles with her infant twins, about her Jewish upbringing, the origins of the album and her new project with “Transparent”’s Joey Soloway.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Can you tell me about your Jewish background?

I grew up in LA in the valley, but my family are Jews from Eastern Europe via Mexico. My dad grew up in Mexico till he was about 15. I think way back on my mother’s side, my family was in Spain. So there were Sephardic Jews in our lineage, but I grew up very Ashkenazi — the Mexican influence was more in language and food and culture. But musically or Jewish melody-wise, I very much grew up Ashkenazi.

I have to say I love your last name.

Thank you! I think it was spelled quite differently in Poland. But when my family went through Mexico, that was the spelling they landed on.

What’s your musical background?

I sort of pursued two parallel paths throughout my 20s and 30s. I’m the cantor at Congregation Shir Libeynu in Toronto, going on fifteen years. And then I was also a touring songwriter, and I kept the two worlds quite separate. I never published any Jewish music; I didn’t record any Jewish music. I just did the High Holidays and occasional services and lifecycle rituals with this congregation in Toronto, and I toured as a musician.

About five years ago, a friend of mine from Toronto, a songwriter in LA, invited me to, as she put it, “clear the space” for a show that she had. She wanted me to sing the Jewish blessings in this totally secular context, and I ended up singing a lot of the repertoire from the holidays — all the atonement and forgiveness and reckoning material. And the conversations that ensued were so fulfilling and lively and exciting. I felt it was something I had to explore further. That was when I started to merge my two worlds.

Can you tell me about Snowblink?

Snowblink was my solo songwriting project that I started right out of college. I went to Wesleyan for undergrad and I studied music. As soon as I graduated, I moved around quite a bit: I went to Montreal, I went to San Francisco and I started playing music. Snowblink began as my solo songwriting project and then became a duo with my ex-husband. We toured together for almost a decade — I was living in Canada at the time. I collaborated with Feist and this Montreal songwriter Ariel Engle. We had all these overlapping projects during that time. Snowblink was very much a songwriter project and very dear to my heart — songs about my experience in the world.

Tell me about “Alphabet of Wrongdoing.” Of course there are Jewish influences — did you include pop influences or try to secularize the music in some way?

I wasn’t trying to take sacredness out of the songs by any means. I think I couldn’t do that if I tried: With this material, the tracks of deep spirituality are well worn. I was interested in taking them out of the strictly Jewish ritual context and creating an updated ritual that involves non-Jews as well, that involves spaces that aren’t synagogues, that aren’t cloistered, that aren’t exclusive. I was interested in having these conversations about atonement and reckoning more than once a year. In Jewish tradition, those conversations happen on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and also in the month leading up to those holidays, Elul, which is the month of reflection.

We’re in it right now.

Exactly. We are watching the world burn around us. What happens if we have these conversations year-round until we sort through some of it? For me, hitting pause and consulting my tradition felt like an important thing to do as things were crumbling. I wanted to see what my tradition had to say about moments like these and see what beauty and depth and wisdom and guidance I could excavate from that, before jumping into rebuilding whatever comes next.

Do you still work as a cantor?

I do. I still go back to Toronto for the High Holidays. But I’m taking a sabbatical this year because of the twins. I also have a private practice officiating life cycle rituals.

How do you hope people encounter this album? Is it prayer? Meditation? Is it to be listened to for the musical beauty of it? All of the above?  

I want people to encounter it any which way. Honestly, I don’t think I have control over how they encounter it. And I wouldn’t want to pretend that I did. I always get this image in my head of a volcano: how volcanoes erupt and, depending on the circumstances where the lava lands, the lava hardens and cools into different types of rock. I kind of see it that way.

This is something that I needed to share, for me. It’s a prayer for me. It’s all of what you described. It’s for the beauty of it. It’s a meditation. It’s performative ritual. It’s something that I want to change our world. I want it to remind people who they are. But in terms of how other people receive it, it’s always a mystery and a surprise. A woman reached out to me who grew up in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn and left the community thirty years ago. She shared that this was the first album of Jewish music that didn’t repel her. It allowed her to find some way into that music again for herself.

Now that you’ve done this Jewish liturgy-inspired project, do you think it’s something you’re going to expand upon?

The creator of the show “Transparent,” Joey Soloway, reached out. Somehow the album found Joey and Joey found the album. They got in touch and we formed a fast friendship. They are working on a project about the Biblical Abraham’s mother. There was an amulet circulating during the Medieval plague that had Hebrew or Aramaic text on it, saying “I’m Amtlai, daughter of Carnebo. I am Abraham’s mother. Say my name to ward off the plague.” So a rabbi friend of Joey’s had sent that amulet to Joey during this plague, the pandemic, and Joey became obsessed with figuring out who is this mother of Abraham, and why have we forgotten her? Why did we assume that Abraham hatched out of an egg, a fully-formed rebel? Who is his mother? So Joey is on that quest, and I believe it’s going to be a podcast, it’s going to be a film. There’s a lot evolving from that. I’m the musical counterpart and partner to that project.

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