For years, Lisa Loeb didn’t act very Jewish. Throughout the 1990s – the years she spent riding the fame of “Stay (I Missed You),” the first song by an unsigned artist to top the Billboard Top 100 – she knew she was Jewish, going through holiday routines and assuming that, one day, she’d marry a Jewish guy. But she never thought much about it. Maybe she didn’t have the time.
By the early 2000s, that changed. Then in her early 30s, Loeb began questioning why her Judaism mattered at all.
“I realized that if it were anything else in my life – whether exercise or food – I would start studying and exploring,” she tells The CJN over the phone from her home in California. “So I decided to take a class with a rabbi in L.A.”
That rabbi – Rabbi Mordechai Finley from Or HaTorah Synagogue – would change her perception of Judaism, setting her on a path to living a more spiritually fulfilling life. “For the first time,” she says, “I really started connecting with it.”
She began attending synagogue on a weekly basis and started gleaning meaning from the texts. She recalls Rabbi Finley saying, “Find something you can connect with, instead of thinking you can’t relate to this.”
“We go to psychologists and read all these self-help books, but there are so many of these things already written in our tradition,” she says. “And I just didn’t know.”
Loeb’s religious revelation came after a frenzied decade of mainstream success. In 1994, she burst into the pop-culture spotlight as an indie artist (back when “indie” literally meant “independent”) with “Stay,” the immediate success of which positioned her as a delightfully pared-down, acoustic-guitar alternative to the heavy grunge of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Spin Magazine touted her as the next Sheryl Crow, writing in its review of her debut album that, “Crow fans will have a new reasonably intelligent nice girl to fixate on as she wanders through loft spaces.”
After “Stay” topped the charts, record labels fought each other to sign her. She eventually landed with Geffen Records, following “Stay” with two consecutive gold albums, Tails and Firecracker, which carried her through the decade.
After all that, she could breathe a little more. She felt a need to better understand her life and core values – and that’s when she rediscovered her Judaism.
Despite being raised in a Jewish household in Dallas and celebrating her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El – the largest synagogue in the southern United States – she never connected with her religion growing up. Instead, she connected with music. As a kid, she listened to albums like Free to Be… You and Me and Really Rosie, a children’s musical written by Maurice Sendak and Carole King.
“I have a nostalgia for my own childhood,” she says. That’s partly what inspired her, in 2003, to pivot to children’s music. She’s since released numerous kids’ albums, including Feel What U Feel, which won a Grammy in 2018 for best children’s album. This month, she will be playing the Uptown International Children’s Festival in Toronto.
“Children’s music has become a way for me to express myself in a more colourful and varied way than I would in my grown-up music,” she says. For example, she wrote a Hanukkah song called “Light,” which features the folksy twang of a Simon and Garfunkel song.
In the Internet age, her children’s songs probably won’t achieve the same level of fame as “Stay” or the seminal children’s music that she listened to as a kid. But she finds that freeing, in a way.
“For musicians,” she says, “we’ve all started to appreciate having our niche.”
Lisa Loeb will play at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on May 17 and 18. For tickets, visit sonycentre.ca.