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Singer Peri Smilow’s music joins Passover with civil rights

for The Brooklyn Paper
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"This is beshert," Peri Smilow says when I visit her in her Park Slope apartment.

The word is Yiddish for "meant to be," and Smilow, 43, an educator and singer-songwriter of contemporary Jewish music, feels destiny has brought her to Brooklyn.

Today, fate has found the perpetually smiling, petite musician home instead of on the road, an anomaly since Smilow’s third CD, "The Freedom Music Project: The Music of Passover and the Civil Rights Movement," often has her traveling.

Passover honors the story of the Jews’ exodus from the enslavement of the Egyptians, and a key component of the Seder, the traditional Passover ceremony and dinner, is to acknowledge the plights of other struggling groups. Smilow’s own journey has led her to do just that, through music. The CD is a culmination of many years’ work in entertainment, education and Jewish spirituality, but it’s the first time she’s been able to bridge these various worlds.

Smilow grew up singing. Her father, a doctor, performed regularly in the community theater in her hometown of East Brunswick, N.J., and her mother played piano and danced. For her eighth birthday, her parents bought her a guitar, but no lessons.

"I told them to hire babysitters who could play guitar, and after my little sisters went to sleep I would stay up and learn a little from them," said Smilow, who now has a 10-month-old baby of her own who’s perfecting her crawl.

Smilow came to New York in the early 1980s, and worked in theater by night and afterschool programs for underprivileged children by day. When she realized she cared more about the kids than her audition schedule, she moved to Boston to head an interracial and intergenerational non-profit group. She earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard, and was happy to leave entertaining behind sort of.

For fun, she joined a songwriting group that met monthly, and sang for her congregation. As technology changed and home-recording studios grew, Smilow found she could satisfy the requests of her newfound fan base, and lay some tracks down. Her first album, "Songs of Peace," came out in 1993, and included four of her own songs.

"It was amazing," says Smilow. "People began to call and say, ’Hey, do you do concerts?’"

And suddenly, as if fated to be, a folksinging career was born. The only problem was, the educational career was still in full swing.

"I was working 60 or 70 hours a week, and then on nights and weekends I would go sing," says Smilow. "At a certain point I realized I could no longer do both."

That point came when she was driving from work to a concert, changing into pantyhose while trying to steer. She realized that entertainment - albeit Jewish spiritual entertainment - had called her back.

Smilow is not the first artist to take on contemporary Jewish music - music that marries the sounds of modern folk, like Joan Baez or James Taylor, to the spiritual presence and liturgy of Judaism. There’s Debbie Freedman, who also has a line of Hallmark cards, and Jeff Klepper, who both created the sound.

"But I’m different in that I focus on issues of social justice," says Smilow. "I talk about politics. I encourage the Jewish community to reach out."

In 1996, Smilow teamed up with Minister LeRoix Hampton from the New Covenant Christian Church in Mattapan, Mass., to provide music for the Anti-Defamation League’s annual Black-Jewish Seder in Boston. When she had Hampton and his family over to dinner, he told her he had lived in Boston for 20 years and had not once been in the house of a white person.

"We’re still a segregated society in some very fundamental ways," Smilow says sadly, but adds that she found music was a way to move integration forward. "It became apparent through the music that the two communities had more in common than they thought."

Hampton and Smilow put together the "Freedom Music Project," mixing Passover tunes with black spirituals. The 10 songs range from "Wade in the Water" to "Avadim Hayinu (Once we were slaves, now we are free)." She was finally able to join her disparate worlds of spirituality, education and entertainment.

Fate brought Smilow back to New York when she married NY 1 newscaster and fellow folksinger Budd Mishkin, and now the buffet table in their railroad apartment is crammed with pictures of the Smilow-Mishkin clan.

Of late, she is designing "Concert-in-a-Box," a 10-week program to bring black and Jewish communities together through spiritual music. The groups not only sing together, they have a list of suggested activities, including having one another over for dinner.

Can that program apply to our very own Brooklyn, where blacks and Jews have had a long and hard history of confrontation in neighborhoods like Crown Heights? Maybe, says Smilow.

"What you need to make change is to have areas of common interest," she says. "Music is one way that can happen."

Although Smilow performs around the country, destiny has not handed her a concert in Brooklyn - but she wants one.

Says Smilow, "All I need is an invitation."


Peri Smilow’s CDs, "The Freedom Music Project: The Music of Passover and the Civil Rights Movement," "Ashrey" and "Songs of Peace" (Sign of the Dove Music) are available at www.cdbaby.com or www.soundswrite.com or by calling (800) 9SOUND9. For more information, visit www.perismilow.com.

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