The 1979 Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song delighted Jewish audiences with Neil Simon’s wit and Jewish culture revealed through the play about the personal relationship between musical collaborators Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager.
Five years later, Rabbi Shamai Kanter attended a presentation by the Jews for Jesus music and drama team entitled The Liberated Wailing Wall. Afterward, he reluctantly gave a positive review of the performance for the American Jewish readers of Moment magazine. His article title was also “They’re Playing Our Song.” The story of the Liberated Wailing Wall (LWW), a Messianic Jewish music and drama team, is a small piece of Messianic Jewish history. It illustrates what Messianic musician Sally Klein O’Connor once called “improbable people doing impossible things.”
The years 1967 and 1971 set a background to the story. Most of those implausible Jewish pioneers were Baby Boomers in their early twenties or younger. Some were in high school when the six-day Israeli victory in 1967 served up a proud new image of the powerful post-Holocaust Jew. As Jewish folk icon Bob Dylan had sung a few years before, you could say, “the times, they were a-changin’.”
Jewish consciences were roused by the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Jewish youth empathized with the causes of equal rights for African Americans and for women. The Vietnam War opened cultural and generational fissures between them and their parents. Thousands engaged in social and political activism. Their artifacts were denim, long hair, folk anthems, and rock and roll. They had voices and passion. Right in the middle of all that turmoil, God moved. Between 1970 and 1972, a remnant of young Jewish people came to faith in Jesus: improbable people who would do impossible things. They would become a movement of Jews for Jesus.
In the Beginning
Stuart Dauermann was one of those unlikely Jewish believers in Jesus. Raised in Brooklyn, he received a master’s degree in music education from the Manhattan School of Music. He also came to faith in the Messiah and immediately displayed a keen spiritual sensitivity. Moishe Rosen, an early leader among Messianic Jews, spotted Stuart’s musical gift. He challenged Stuart to write songs based on Scripture that reflected Jewish culture. Stu responded with two songs that began a new genre of Jewish gospel music. His renditions of Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer lit a path that later became known as Messianic music.
Jewish music had already cemented a place in American culture in 1971 with the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. It popularized klezmer (Jewish instrumentalist) music, nineteenth-century shtetl (Eastern European Jewish village life), and the joy of Jewish folk dance. A young Jewish generation was already moved by new expressions of traditional and cultural Judaism. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach created Jewish liturgy in a folksy style for Shabbat gatherings. Debbie Friedman wrote religious Jewish melodies that inspired synagogue congregations, children’s camps, and Orthodox feminism. The era was ready for new music that expressed Jewish spirituality with Yeshua at its heart.
Who Were They?
Who were those first Jewish people who had the chutzpah to sing about Jesus in public? We started to find one another in the fall of 1972. Moishe Rosen had moved to northern California with a sense that the LORD wanted to reach Jewish members of the counterculture. One by one, new Jewish believers in Yeshua got connected. Moishe’s recruitment pitch for his new ministry went like this:
I don’t have money or a job to give you. You can sleep on the floor at my house for a few days until you can find work and your own apartment. But I can offer you an opportunity to serve the Lord.
It was that simple. That opportunity was enough for us. It didn’t matter if our backgrounds were religiously or culturally Jewish. We knew that we had to tell our people about Yeshua, and now was the time. That opportunity was our destiny.
In the fall of 1972, Stuart Dauermann drove to California with his piano in the back of an old van. He would help build a team that could write and perform music and drama for the streets, college campuses, and church congregations.
Steffi (Geiser) Rubin met Moishe on the Cal Berkley campus. Steffi was to write some of the new music’s most brilliant lyrics and moving dramatic pieces. Coming from the Bronx, she had studied Yiddish in school. She also played guitar and sang. Benyomin Ellegant was from Chicago. His education was in chemistry. His musical talent included a beautiful tenor voice, training in the synagogue liturgy, and the ability to play the clarinet, which added a klezmer sound to the team. Naomi (Green) Dauermann was an energetic, athletic Californian who sang soprano when the team began to travel. Shelly Korotkin traveled to California from Philadelphia. She was willing to sing soprano when the team began, but her best talents were in art.
Sam Nadler from Queens, New York, was a Vietnam War veteran. His hair was black and bushy in those days. Sam wasn’t a particularly good singer, but what he lacked in musical talent he made up for in leadership and communication. His wife, Miriam (Slichter) Nadler, was the most gifted people-gatherer on the first team. She played the guitar and sang alto. Miriam had grown up in a Bible-church setting in South Central Pennsylvania and was the lone Gentile on that team. Moishe had sent her to Israel for a year-long internship to broaden her cultural awareness and deepen her love for God’s people. When the LWW team came together in 1972, Miriam was the only member with a lifetime of Christian experience.
“So, Are You Christians or Jews?”
So much about that early movement of Jesus-believing Jews was confrontational. Traditional Jewish opinion said, “You can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus.” Yet there they were, Jews who loved Jesus. They were a countercultural force that said, “Maybe you’d better take a closer look.” People, and not just Jews, wanted to know, “So, are you Jewish or are you Christians?” The team members just smiled and said “yes”!
The team name, the Liberated Wailing Wall, was intended to evoke an image of the holy place for Jewish prayer in Jerusalem and Messiah Jesus’ offer of salvation. They sang and said that Yeshua is the way to God, the truth, and the life. Their message intended to amplify Yeshua’s words: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
At street venues and on college campuses, team members wore jeans, logo-stenciled T-shirts, and denim jackets embroidered with “Jews for Jesus” on the back. At church programs, they wore outfits from Israeli folk culture or klezmer bands. They conveyed Yeshua in a manner that Jewish people could understand.
A Message in the Music
The team’s repertoire included songs based on Bible verses and scriptural images. Lyrics were sung in English and Hebrew. The Jewish public and Christian congregations heard music from a unique culture and identity. The group’s music expressed some of the optimism felt in Israeli pop songs after the Six-Day War, along with the passionate maternal love of a Yiddish lullaby.
The LWW accepted with love and understanding the opposition that came from the Jewish community and sometimes from their own families. “Behold!” from Isaiah 12:2 was an anthem that was personally meaningful for the team:
Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD my GOD is my strength and my song. He also has become my salvation.
Perhaps the most iconic and best-loved creation by the LWW was the dramatic parody of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. It brought other Christians into the family experience of a Messianic Jew. “Tradition” featured a disappointed father, an exasperated mother, a self-absorbed older sister, and an inquisitive little brother. Seeing composite reactions to Messianic Jewish faith from four imagined family members invited Christians to love and pray for Jewish people. It helped others see that Jewish resistance to proclaiming faith in Yeshua was natural and that it should be engaged with sensitivity and courage.
The team also exposed historical and sociological barriers in Christian history that had obscured the gospel from Jewish people. Terrible things done to Jews in the name of Christ had left Jewish people with the impression that the gospel was anti-Semitic. To correct that, Steffi wrote the words to the powerful song “Jesus’ Holy Name.” The message was so moving that the piece required a disclaimer on the cover:
There are many Gentiles who have shown real love for God’s Chosen People. This song speaks of those who defiled Jesus’ Holy Name by persecuting and even murdering Jews until the true love of Christ, through Christians, was obscured.
Opinions from Esteemed Opposition
Moishe Rosen said that Jewish opposition wasn’t the enemy. The opinions of Jewish people mattered. Jews could tell them how effectively they were communicating Yeshua’s message. An Israeli professor of religious studies at UNC, Yaakov Ariel, observed the “creativity and imagination” of Jews for Jesus in launching “its own musical band, ‘The Liberated Wailing Wall,’ which attracted a great deal of attention.” He described the music as reflecting the “new pop-rock style of the counterculture.” Ariel understood that the band’s brand “drew on Jewish national sentiments … to demonstrate the mission’s loyalty to the Jewish people.”
Then there was Rabbi Shamai Kanter’s reluctant review of the Liberated Wailing Wall concert at a church in Rochester, New York. He admitted that his delight in hearing their music was disturbing to him:
They began to play, and for a second, I felt right at home … The music lessons some dutiful Jewish parents had provided years ago had certainly borne fruit … The professionalism of staging and choreography was apparent.
Rabbi Kantor confessed his dilemma with some irony:
Indeed, one of my problems here is in providing an accurate description of the performance while avoiding sentences that might be quoted by the Jews for Jesus as a “rave” review by Moment or by me.
In 1975, I led the first LWW on a tour of Israel before joining the group as the team leader that year. The team members encouraged some of the indigenous Messianic congregations in the country. They also sang impromptu concerts in campgrounds, on beaches, and even by invitation at a kibbutz in the upper Galilee. Akiva, the director of Kibbutz Education and Culture, greeted us on arrival at the kibbutz. As I introduced the team members, he started to laugh. “Forgive me,” he said. “I thought this was a Christian group.” He had known that I was Jewish, and I had described the team’s music and message as “Christian,” but he had never asked me about the ethnicity of any of the group members. He realized quickly from the names and some of the faces that all the singing-group members were Jewish. To be clear, he had announced that a “Christian singing group” would provide entertainment for the community. At that moment he realized that there might be some education, too.
The group and music were warmly received when the concert began. The team sang songs in English and Hebrew with some traditional Israeli songs and a few of their new Bible-based tunes. They launched into a medley of Tov Lachasot BaShem (“It is better to take refuge in the LORD”) from Psalm 118:8, 6 and John 1:17, 11:25. The phrase, from a verse in Psalm 118, was popular after the 1967 Six-Day War. The kibbutzniks enthusiastically clapped and sang along. That is, until the team transitioned to verses from John’s Gospel, singing words from John 1:17 in Hebrew:
The Law was given by the hand of Moses; grace and truth came through Messiah Yeshua.
Some of the kibbutzniks continued bouncing and clapping along, while a few just murmured.
After the concert, curious leaders from the community invited us to join them for coffee and conversation. That wonderful experience lasted until two in the morning. The conversation was filled with warmth, laughter, cultural exchange, and probably more spiritual education than they had anticipated. The Liberated Wailing Wall’s message connected with the Jewish community because it was obvious that we were playing their song.