NEW YORK — Just as Rebecca Teplow sang the words “send your light and truth to its leaders and advisors,” the sun sliced through the gray sky. In that moment the composer and singer felt a sense of grace.
Teplow wrote “Avinu Shebashamayim,” a piece of sacred music which she released just ahead of Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, to honor Ezra Schwartz who was killed by a Palestinian terrorist on November 19, 2015 while spending a year studying in Israel at a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh.
Schwartz was gunned down after visiting a memorial for three Israeli boys murdered last summer and delivering food to lone soldiers near the West Bank settlement of Efrat, south of Jerusalem. Two additional men were killed and five other yeshiva students wounded.
Although Teplow didn’t know Schwartz, the news of his death struck a chord; she sank into a chair and sat there for several hours. Reflecting on her reaction some months later Teplow knew much of it was because her own daughter was in Israel studying at a yeshiva at that time. But there was something more.
In his short life Ezra had established a reputation for generosity of spirit and a strong love for Israel. “Ezra’s soul yearned to help others,” said one friend in eulogy.
‘Ezra’s soul yearned to help others’
“Ezra sounds like he was such a special neshama. Let us learn from him to really care about our fellow Jews even when we don’t know them personally. We are all really linked. Ezra, Gilad, Naftali, Eyal, Koby and the countless other children and people who were murdered because they were Jewish,” Teplow told The Times of Israel.
She decided music would be her vehicle to honor Schwartz’s life.
As she sat there absorbing the news in November, Teplow received a text message from the parent of one of her voice students. It said the student had to cancel the lesson because she was leaving to attend the student’s “first cousin’s funeral, who was just murdered in Israel.”
“Something about the text just hit me so hard,” Teplow said. “In America, I get lots of cancellations for our over-scheduled lives — soccer and baseball practice conflicts, karate, choir, and the way too common stress from too much homework. But nothing like this message.”
Teplow doesn’t know if the Schwartz family is aware of her song, “Avinu Shebashamayim” (“Our Father in Heaven”), which she dedicated to Schwartz on a YouTube seaside performance of the piece. She said she decided against contacting them, not wanting to intrude on their private pain.
A classically trained violinist who studied under Itzhak Perlman and the composer Robert Starer, the New Jersey resident sings about her belief that people are instruments of God and must surrender their ego.
Teplow, now 51, grew up in an Orthodox home and attended Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. Always drawn to music, she first started taking piano lessons when she was in grade school. To this day Teplow regards her teacher, a Holocaust survivor, as one of the most influential people in her life.
“She’d teach me from 9 am to 4 pm every Sunday. We even ate lunch together. She was very hard on me, but we were very connected,” Teplow said.
When Teplow was in eighth grade she asked her parents if she could audition for the High School of the Performing Arts in Queens — the very one featured in the movie “Fame.” Her parents were ambivalent. On the one hand they nurtured her talent, and her father even took her to the interview. On the other, attending the school meant leaving the cloistered environment of the yeshiva. Teplow was accepted.
“I remember it was overwhelming for me coming from the yeshiva world. In the tenth grade my parents tried to put me back in yeshiva, but the rabbi at the time told them ‘Let her go,’” she said. “I stayed in the high school. I stayed Orthodox and I retained my Judaism. It was the music that kept me connected.”
Teplow’s first CD was released in 2004, her second in 2008. The latter combined her classical training with spiritual view of Jewishness. This recent moving song features her light lyric soprano singing in Hebrew, enfolded in an accompanying string quartet.
As an Orthodox woman Teplow has wrestled with kol isha, the prohibition against women singing in public. Years ago she was anxious that singing in public meant she wasn’t a “good girl.” But the more she thought about it, the more strongly she felt that she needed to sing — out loud and strong.
“I feel it’s completely okay to sing in public. If men have an issue with it, well, that’s about them, not me,” she said. “When I’m singing I’m so focused on the words and it just can’t be wrong.”
She said it would be wrong to quell what she calls a God-given talent to help people and also believes that women are the core of Jewish families and responsible for spirituality in the home.
And so she performs publicly for both men and women — foremost to show her daughter and two sons what women can do.
“I just don’t fit into a box. I am modeling for them to be true to themselves, to not be judgmental,” she said.
— Matt Lebovic contributed to this report