Welcome back to the JamJews Artist of the Month series! This month, we feature Theo Canter! Theo is a sophomore at Oberlin College, originally from the Upper West Side. His music comes from biblical poetry, American folk, and the melodies of his Balkan heritage.
JJ: What is your Jewish background like?
I am at a beautiful crossroads Jewishly, both worlds of which enhance my Jewish identity. My father grew up traditionally orthodox in New York, plastic-covered couches kind, which has given me an appreciation for tradition, Jewish humor, an identifying with the American dream.
My mother’s side is a whole different story; her father is a Holocaust survivor from Greece, her mother from a family of successful New York businesspeople and artists. She grew up one of the few Jews in her town in Vermont. From there I get an appreciation of the uniqueness of my identity and history, a funky spontaneity and DIY approach to both life and Judaism.
I’ve spent the majority of my life in Jewish environments: my school, Heschel, my synagogue Bnai Jeshurun, Camp Ramah in the Rockies, the Hillel and Chabad of Oberlin.
Perhaps the pinnacle of my Jewish journey so far has been my gap year in Israel on the Kivunim program. There, I studied Hebrew, Arabic, Jewish and global history, as well as visiting 12 countries around the world — everywhere from Morocco, to Albania, to India — with significance for both Jewish and civilizational history. Through my travels, I came to appreciate the global roots of Judaism.
In college, I am now for the first time in a not entirely Jewish environment. Although in high school I was more secular, my being one of the few observant Jews in college has made me more aware and observant of what a gift my religion and community is. That said, I am blessed to have a community of supportive musical and Jewish colleagues in college too. I’ve found that by embracing the uniqueness of my Jewish identity more, I draw myself closer both with the Jewish people and with anyone who knows what it’s like to be some kind of other.
JJ: How has your music been inspired (or not) by Judaism and Jewish music?
Music is a big part of my Judaism. At my school, I helped found the music minyan, where we infused spiritual melodies and singing into our daily prayers. At my synagogue, I’ve led high holiday services for the whole congregation. At my camp, I’ve led campers and staff together around campfires and prayers with my guitar. Judaism influences my music too — I take great inspiration in the textual themes of the liturgy, especially the prophets of the Tanach, as well as the ornate melodies and lyrics of Sephardic piyutim. And whether coincidentally or not, most of my favorite artists and musical inspirations are Jewish: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel. Their lyrics all ‘sound’ Jewish to me, as I hope they would for other people too. I see myself as a musician following in their footsteps of gentle poetic words and soft soulful melodies.
And there’s also my connection with music that is culturally adjacent to Judaism - especially from the Mediterranean world. So many Jewish songs give and take melodies from folk songs there, to the point that we don’t know who wrote what originally, and I like to hearken to that cultural world as a foundation for my musical identity too. I like to think most music can be classified as Jewish — certainly given the importance of Judaism for me, I imagine that reflects in the music I write and perform.
JJ: What is your current Jewish practice and identity like?
I'd like to say Judaism is central to my identity, and I'm always trying to expand my connection to it. In terms of Halacha, I keep Shabbat and kashrut, and during this time inside have sometimes put on tefillin in the morning which has been a special experience. My practice is probably closest to Conservative, although I draw inspiration from many diverse strains of Judaism, especially Hassidic spirituality and nigunim, Sephardi piyutim (and food!). Now that I’m no longer in an all Jewish environment, much of my Judaism is entirely my own choice, which makes it much more meaningful. I feel grateful and blessed to have grown up in a community and family which gave me free choice and taught me how beautiful the Jewish tradition is.
JJ: What bands have you been in?
I was in my high school acapella group, the Heschel Harmonizers, which really taught me to appreciate singing, and exposed me to a whole different kind of Jewish music. I’ve played at some open mics and the like but have never really been in a band, although some friends and I in college hope to start one soon.
JJ: What is your favorite style of music to play?
I enjoy anything that can be played on guitar and sung along too. (My musical taste is usually around 50 songs that I listen to non stop for a month and then phase some out.) I am especially drawn to folk music, be it American or Mediterranean, as a vehicle for large groups of people to come together over it in celebration or mourning. Certainly some Jewish songs have elements of that too.
JJ: If you were to create a themed tefillah (prayer) service in any genre, what would you choose and why?
I think that rap and hip hop are beautiful in how they communicate raw emotion, even if that sometimes sounds angry. I would love to lead a themed rap tefillah service, with people expressing the same feelings from tefillot in their own original lyrics.
JJ: Anything else you'd like JamJews to know?
I am so appreciative of the opportunity you’ve given me to be here on this stage sharing my love for music and Judaism. I hope that you connect with and enjoy the music I share, and I welcome any feedback.