September 15, 2019

Letters and Music Highlighted in Craig Taubman’s Jewels of Elul

Craig Taubman is a self-described “human doer” — keeping himself busy with spiritual projects that can better his community. Taubman, who runs the Pico Union Project (PUP), said when someone told his wife years ago he should focus more on becoming a “human being,” he realized it was easier said than done.

“During the holidays, we do a lot of focusing. I’m actively involved. I’m so busy doing, that oftentimes I’m not really there,” Taubman said.

But this month, during Elul, when we are called on to do some introspection ahead of the High Holy Days, Taubman is even more focused on the business of “becoming human.” 

Now in its 15th year, Taubman has been working to make his Jewels of Elul project a meaningful and reflective experience for his thousands of email subscribers and himself. 

Each year, Jewels of Elul provides one insight per day during the month of Elul. Year after year, Taubman has tried to shake up each introspection with various views, musical elements, tributes and perspectives.

“I didn’t think I had that much to say,” Taubman said recalling Jewels’ origins. “Maybe I can go to a group of friends and ask them to do it. And that’s what I did. I went to 29 of my friends who were rabbis and cantors, leaders in the Jewish community. This is an amazing thing and people really liked hearing from different voices.”

From there, he published an annual booklet titled “Jewels of Elul” — which is now available for the year 5780 — and went on to create musical playlists, sheet music and spiritual thoughts-to-go for more than 20,000 people. 

This year, Taubman’s Elul theme is “A Letter to Myself,” in which each Elul email is formatted as a letter. To date, letters have been written by President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Elan Carr, Temple Beth Hillel Beth-El Rabbi Neil Cooper, Holocaust survivor Hedy Orden, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President Jay Sanderson and editor and author Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Each has written a letter to either their future, past and present selves, their children and even to inanimate objects.

Taubman wanted diverse voices featured each day to unify the community.

“When our country and, frankly, our world is so divided and we look at the other as an enemy, we need to listen to voices that we don’t typically hear. I think it is critical.” 

— Craig Taubman

“When our country and, frankly, our world is so divided and we look at the other as an enemy, we need to listen to voices that we don’t typically hear,” he said. “I think it is critical. I specifically chose to feature an Orthodox rabbi as well as a transgender rabbi. I firmly believe that there is no right voice, there is no one voice.”

Along with the letters, Taubman has created a 13-song playlist. He reached out to jazz singer Chava Mirel, spiritual singer Beth Schafer, Greece-born tenor Alberto Mizrahi (aka the “Jewish Pavarotti”), Gypsy-rock klezmer band Mostly Kosher, New Haven jazz group the Afro-Semitic Experience and Makom LA spiritual leader Danny Maseng, to name a few.

“I could easily collect 13 of my own songs, but one of the things I appreciate most about the month of Elul [is] there are 29 opportunities,” Taubman said. “What if I give it to 13 other people? It was another quickly [made] thing. I put a letter out to my friends, I asked if there was something for the holidays and we tracked this beautiful CD.”

Jewish High Holy Day prayers “Hayom,” “B’Rosh Hashana,” “Pitchu Li” and “Adonai Ro’i” are featured on the downloadable CD as well as Mostly Kosher’s “You Slay Me,” which has been modified to fit the themes of Elul. 

Maseng, who sings “Adonai Ro’i” on the playlist, wrote in the liner notes that this prayer is his favorite psalm “plain and simple. The most concise and profound God poem I know.”

Schafer also said in the liner notes that her song “Here I am” helps prepare her for erev Rosh Hashanah. “The opening strains of erev Rosh Hashanah begin with ‘Hineni,’ or ‘Here I am.’ It is the very first moment of our arrival at the New Year. Worn, tattered, broken, we come before God with soulful cries as if to say, ‘I have showed up, the work is hard, will you take me as I am?’ We call upon God with the moniker El Elyon (God on high) as if to reaffirm our lowness. ‘Hineni’ is about being present even when it is uncomfortable to be so and to be willing to do the spiritual work that our holy days ask of us.”

Though Taubman says he loves them all as he prepares for the High Holy Days, a personal favorite is “Kol Nidre.”

“We do it with a string quartet [at PUP]. That’s one of the oldest Jewish tunes and to hear it at a multifaith center played on an organ that initially could only be used by pumping air through bellows with your hands because it was before electricity is a pretty powerful thing. It sort of brings everything together.”

Taubman said having music played during services is “like the cherry on top of ice cream. It is, for me, the essence that speaks the loudest. Music is everything.”

With the digital music downloads and Elul letters all coming in through email, most of Jewels of Elul has become electronic. Taubman hopes it reaches as many people from all walks of life as possible. As far as what people take away, he said he’d rather not tell anyone how and when to take in these bits of spiritual information. He just wants the Jewels to be there for anyone — whether they find it on the third day of Elul or the 27th.  

“I think the pathway to renewal, teshuvah, begins with the first step and you might take it on the 29th day of the month. You may take it three days after Rosh Hashanah when you pick up a book and find meaning. Elul is simply 29 opportunities to begin the journey.”