Aviva Chernick is hoping her devotional music will change people’s perception of Jewish culture.
It’s so important to make positive Jewish voices heard outside of the community, she says. “Then, we’re not known as the ‘other.’ We’re not known as a picture in a newspaper story about violence or some sort of stereotype.”
Right now, Torontonians have become comfortable with Jewish culture in the forms of Woody Allen and klezmer music, she says, but there is much less understanding of the religious aspects of Judaism.
“To come out with something different from that has felt like it takes a certain kind of courage,” she says.
The cantorial soloist, who performs at various synagogues in Toronto both as part of religious services and for entertainment, says there is a movement in Canada to encourage the Jewish creative voice.
“We have a very distinctive voice from the American Jewish community, and right now it doesn’t seem that way,” she says, explaining that her musician friends in New York are surrounded by Jews, especially in comparison to the Toronto scene.
“My experience as a Jewish artist in Canada, it takes a lot of courage to speak from a place of Jewish identity.”
Chernick released one album in the past with Juno-nominated band Jaffa Road, and she later recorded an album of cover songs. Now she’s releasing her first original solo album, When I Arrived You Were Already There.
She says she hopes listeners will interpret the album title and find their own meanings, but to her, the title has to do with a long search for connection and at the end of that journey, realizing that connection was always there.
“I always owned it. It was dwelling within. I just didn’t know how to access it,” she says.
Specifically, the title has to do with meeting the “beloved,” which is one of the words she uses for God.
“I’m not really moved by the word God. It’s not a very luscious word,” she says. “I think it’s because ‘the divine’ and ‘beloved’ speak of creating and loving, and God is a three-letter word that doesn’t ring to me. It’s not very juicy.”
Chernick says she hopes the fact that her music is being played on the radio means people outside of the Jewish community will see it represented creatively, lovingly and in a positive light.
“We don’t have a lot of contemporary Jewish voices coming out of the city, writing original music for prayer that is heard outside of the Jewish community,” she says.
She is hesitant to call her music religious, preferring the term “devotional.” Part of the aim of her work is to simply be good quality music – “beautiful, simple melodies with elegant harmonic structures and virtuosic musicianship.”
However, religion is certainly at the heart of her songs.
“The other focus, or the other intention, is for it to be music that helps one connect more deeply to the divine,” she says, speaking slowly and choosing her words carefully.
“People might meditate to it. They might sing along, they might teach it to each other in community, and hopefully in the end, both intentions come together to make it moving and meaningful music,” she says.
Most of the lyrics come from the Book of Psalms, and eight of the nine tracks on the new album are originals.
Along with the traditional instruments found in western music – guitar, bass, drums – her album features uncommon sounds from instruments like a tabla, udu, xaphoon, oud, djembe and bansuri.
This is fairly common in world music, which she says is the only genre where her music fits. It’s meant to create a multicultural sound.
“We create a kind of music that sounds you’re not quite sure where it’s from,” she says. “I imagine it to be music of right now, and it really reflects a Canadian Jewish identity.”
Chernick says the community has been very supportive of her work, but there’s still more to be do in order to be heard outside the community, especially to those who have never met a Jew.
She acknowledges that her music doesn’t necessarily have mainstream appeal, calling it not “the hippest” music, but that’s fine.
“I’m prepared for that. I think I’m learning that we have to be very brave in the time we have here, and to really raise our voices,” she says. “We don’t do anybody a service by keeping quiet.”