Boston-area parents know and love musician Vanessa Trien in a number of different contexts. She was a beloved Music Together teacher for a decade; she teaches music and movement at preschools across the city; and her band, Vanessa Trien and the Jumping Monkeys, is a fixture on the kiddie rock circuit, releasing their fourth album, “Wonderful You,” in October.
Now Trien, who lives in Brookline with her husband and two children, is connecting with her Jewish heritage in her next project, a Jewish-themed album. The daughter of a Norwegian-born mother and a Jewish father from New Jersey, Trien is doing what so many members of interfaith families do—looking for meaningful ways to learn more about and connect more deeply with her Judaism. As she shared with JewishBoston.com, music is the lens she’s using to take a fresh look at her faith.
On Dec. 11, she and her band will be performing at Chanukah in the City, a popular annual event co-sponsored by CJP, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, PJ Library in Greater Boston and The Vilna Shul. The event begins at 10 a.m. at the Back Bay Events Center (180 Berkeley St.) in Boston. Click here to purchase tickets ($18 per family).
Growing up in an interfaith family, how did you form your Jewish identity?
I’ve always considered myself culturally Jewish because my father’s family was Jewish, and I spent a lot of time with them in New Jersey. The majority of my friends growing up on the Upper West Side were Jewish. I was familiar with Jewish food. We would celebrate Passover with relatives. We were a High Holy Days family. But we also had a Christmas tree. I wasn’t raised, spiritually, in a particularly Jewish way, and I did not go to Hebrew school.
My father was a lawyer but also has always been a musician and played a lot of music around the house—piano, guitar. I grew up knowing some of the Hebrew and Jewish songs. He grew up in Newark, in a very Jewish neighborhood—his high school is where Philip Roth went. I grew up hearing stories about his neighborhood and his life growing up there. He started playing in a band at the age of 13, and they would play at these old-fashioned summer resort hotels. He remembered auditioning with his band, and they asked, does the piano player play the accordion? He said yes, and he became the one who played “Hava Nagila” and other songs that had accordion parts.
Do you feel you learned enough about Judaism as a child to make Jewish music now?
I feel like I identify with my Jewish heritage, but I haven’t felt as knowledgeable as other people might be. It’s sort of the chicken or the egg, and I’m not sure I’m hatched yet. I feel like I always feel in life, like I’m three steps behind. I’m playing catch-up, but it’s a good catch-up. I always want to do the best job for things.
I’ve been calling on my friends whose kids are going through Hebrew school working toward bar mitzvahs. Since I’m in the early process of writing songs for my Jewish album, I’m trying to teach myself like I’m going to be bat mitzvah’d. I’ve been borrowing their books to see how a young child would be presented with this information. That’s been helping me feel more confident in my baby steps toward it.
It sounds like you’re learning along with your audience—do you feel that’s enriching your music?
I’m really learning now; I’m going back to school now. PJ Library seems to want songs for families who might be just like me, where they identify culturally with Judaism but they are learning as they go. So for example, I wrote a song about the morning prayer, “Modeh Ani.” Most of it is in English, but it teaches the prayer in Hebrew in the middle of the song. I now have five or six songs that are specific to Jewish concepts, and I am building on that.
What role does Judaism play in your own family, and in your parenting life?
My husband and I talk a lot about things we feel maybe are lacking and haven’t quite solved that question yet. We’ve thought about if we would join a temple or maybe even a Unitarian Universalist society so our kids can get some sort of religious education. We’re still wrestling with that question. My son is always like, what percentage Jewish am I? Am I three-quarters Jewish? We never know how to answer him. Then I started thinking about Jewish music more. I started trying to make sure that they were hearing these songs as much as possible. I taught Music Together classes for a number of years. They incorporate some Hebrew song content that would bring me back to my childhood. I would say, I remember this song, my dad taught me this song. I started teaching them to my own kids, and that always stuck in my mind as a way for them at least to connect.
What can your fans expect from the Jewish-themed album you’re working on now?
I’ll be working on it through the winter so I can hopefully have it done by the spring. My goal is to be able to smartly make interactive, interesting and fun songs of my own that can help new generations of young families have fun with music. I’m a songwriter. I don’t want to just be compiling existing songs, even though those come from a long and rich tradition.
A couple of songs on my new CD, “Wonderful You,” may be adapted as well. One song called “Shine” talks about how a child walking into a situation shines like candles when they’re around people they love. Another song called “Thankful” is about the Thanksgiving season, but also the idea of being thankful during all the holidays for who we have around us and who we are as people.
These songs are meant to briefly introduce some Hebrew and basic Jewish concepts, and make it kid-friendly. We’re all clapping with the band and making a happy sound.