A true story:

Four Israeli frogmen were carrying out a secret mission in a hostile country. They came up out of the water at the edge of an international waterway. Suddenly a man appeared in front of them. Fearing that he would run and inform authorities, they ordered him not to move, and told him why they were about to tie him up, and probably throw him in the water.

“But wait,” the man cried, “I am Jewish. Don’t do that to me!”

“How do we know that,” the Israelis asked? A very tense moment of silence. How indeed does one ‘prove’ he is Jewish?

Suddenly, out of the darkness, out of the man’s choking throat, faintly at first, and then stronger and stronger, came a melody and words familiar to the Jewish frogmen, “Adon Olam, asher malach...” The man’s life was saved because he knew a Jewish song from Sabbath Services.

Heaven Forbid that Jews should learn Jewish songs solely in anticipation of such a dramatic, life-saving moment! It’s far more likely that the Jewish songs you learn will be sung at a Jewish camp, a Hillel gathering, or a gathering in Israel of BirthrightIsrael participants, the magnificent effort initiated by Michael Steinhardt that sends 18-26 year-olds to Israel for free if it’s their first trip there.

I sing Jewish songs at weddings (“Od Yeshama, b’O-ray Y’hudah...”) baby namings, (“Come and sing a song with me...”) and funerals (“Oseh Shalom...”), as well as Sabbath Services in every country in the world that I’ve visited. They always proved to be the sweet ties that bound us together as Jews and caring members of our almost 4,000 year-old Jewish family.

Yes indeed, there are lots of people who have Jewish roots who didn’t learn these songs in religious school or elsewhere. When these people are in a crowd or group that’s celebrating or observing a Jewish occasion, I can feel their tension at their being left out of the emotional impact of the moment. Conversely, when people sing familiar music and words at such occasions, their sense of inclusion is palpable.

I have always emphasized music and singing as the core carrier of the Jewish spirit that I have wanted to convey to everyone, from teeny-weenies in kindergarten singing “Did a Mitzvah, why don’t you?” to 80+ year olds at a Holocaust Remembrance Observance singing the Jewish Partisan Song, “Zog, Nit Kine Mol”—“Never tell us that this is our last journey...”

I have taught in many venues, including 14 years at universities, and I have no question that most of the facts I’ve taught to students have been forgotten by them. What remains in their hearts is the spirit, the deep, positive emotional connection to the Jewish People, that they remember from the times I taught Israeli-Hebrew songs and Jewish songs from the prayer book. I also taught the Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids who were able to learn their Torah and Prophets’ readings so well, precisely because they sang the words.

Lastly, I mention why I wrote my own songs.

As strong as the songs of our Jewish past may be, their imprint does not always get conveyed to our children and our grandchildren. My grandchildren don’t sing all the Jewish songs that I learned that drew me to want to be a rabbi. The youngsters and adults sitting today at Sabbath Services or sitting at Passover Seder tables today will probably not learn many of the songs that I learned and loved in the 20th Century. I learned early on as a rabbi that if I wanted people to be drawn in love to their Jewish heritage and culture as I was, I’d have to write my own songs that I hoped would be as memorable as the ones I learned.

Debbi Friedman, one of the best-known and most loved creator of songs for Jews of today, has done just that. I sing her “Prayer for Healing” many, many times to patients in the hospitals where I serve as Chaplain. When I do a Saturday night wedding, I always start it by singing her “Havdalah” melodies. I am often asked to sing Shlomo Carlebach nigunim for Hebrew prayers. What the superb Jewish musicians of today have done, and I am doing my best to do, is, in our ancient Rabbis’ words, “Putting old wine in new bottles.”

So, to follow that metaphor, I am, indeed, intoxicated with the old wine of Jewish life, Jewish customs, literature, language, and teachings. My highest intoxication comes when I am creating new songs and singing them to people who fill themselves up as I have on old Jewish wine, using the bottle created by this old Jewish rabbi. They and I experience great pleasure from the simple yet profound experience of singing these Alt-Neu (Old-New) Jewish songs.