North Bethesda native Rabbi Hannah Spiro, 27, leads services at the Hill Havurah on Friday nights. She was ordained as a rabbi this month at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.
Spiro is also a singer-songwriter of Jewish music and has made three CDs. Washington Jewish Week caught up with her last week in her office inside the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington.
Tell us about an early Jewish memory.
My father loves Spinoza’s writing and actually started the Washington Spinoza Society. My father really wanted to make sure that I grew up with a complicated idea of God that [I was learning] in a Reform temple. We were very serious Reform Jews, so much of Halacha was not on our radar at all. But that which was on our radar was very important.
Did you want to be a rabbi as a kid?
I started wanting to be in the cantorate in high school, and that was mostly a function of being really impressed by the cantor I grew up with. I wanted to be just like him.
What was his name?
Ramon Tasat [now the cantor at Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase]. And he was a very beautiful singer. [He had] a lot of kavanah [intention] that you could feel when he was singing and I wanted to sing just like him. I had been playing guitar and singing at tot Shabbat services since I was a bat mitzvah. When I was in college, I was trying to think about what I could do well. I was doing well in my Jewish studies courses. I was doing well at community organizing at my Hillel with both the Reform Jewish community and also the LGBT Jewish community. I led services all the time and I really loved that. Pastoral care wasn’t on my radar in college.
When did you start playing music?
Initially I was co-leading with this woman I wanted to be just also when I was 13. And I started doing it by myself when she graduated college and left the area when I was 15 or so. And I started writing music when I was 13 too, but not Jewish music until college.
I read that your musical influences are Fleetwood Mac and bubblegum pop.
Fleetwood Mac is what I grew up listening to because of my parents.
What bubblegum pop artists did you like?
I think I was being a little bit facetious when I said bubblegum pop. My favorite band is still Third Eye Blind. Another one of my favorite bands is and always will be Blink-182. But that’s really poppy, if you really think about it.
How do you get the inspiration for a song?
When I first started writing Jewish music. I was either preparing to lead a service or I was learning about a text, and a line from liturgy would really jump out to me as important, but I didn’t know a melody for it that I liked. And so I would turn it in to a song. Now I have less time to sit around and muse and try to make new melodies for liturgy. It usually happens when I have something that’s been on my mind, and I’ll go looking for the text that reflects it, and build a melody around it.
What’s an example?
I wrote three songs recently, inspired by some books I’ve been reading, like “Mazel” by Rebecca Goldstein, that sort of follows a family through a few different generations. So I wrote these three songs based on three different Jewish generations in America and they were based on these characters I’ve read about, but they were also based on my perceptions of my family and myself. But they’re not online. I’m shy about them at the moment.
Is there something else we don’t know about you?
I wanted to be a tattoo artist when I was in high school. I decided against the tattoo business. I don’t even have one.
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