Singer-songwriter to take Nishmah on a spiritual journey

Peri Smilow will lead Nishmah’s pre-Passover program on March 12 at the JCC.

By Ellie S. Grossman, Special to the Jewish Light

An accomplished singer/songwriter, educator and community organizer, Peri Smilow promises to take women of all ages and denominations on a spiritual journey they will never forget. Her music and message of tikkun olam has been heard worldwide; on March 12, she will perform at Nishmah’s annual pre-Passover extravaganza. It features music, food, learning and even shopping for Judaica items crafted by local designers.  

Along with recently completing a national tour of her  new cabaret act “Peri Smilow Sings the Great (Jewish) American Songbook,” this New Jersey-bred mom is a cantor, Harvard University graduate, social activist and an educational consultant. At the Nishmah event—which is a fun girl’s night out for moms and their daughters—Smilow will use her passion for Judaism, particularly the Passover holiday, to inspire women to immerse themselves in their Jewish identity and learn how to create a memorable seder that casts them in a central role.  She recently took time out to answer a few questions before her stop here.

How would you describe your music?

It is contemporary Jewish. There are only a handful, maybe 50 or a 100, people in the world writing this kind of music. We use important intellectual and spiritual themes of Jewish people, often singing in Hebrew and English, and set it to music of our contemporary times. I call it “Nusach America,” which is the sounds of the traditional chanting of our people and America because the new melodies are reflective of the sounds of popular music in this country.


How do you incorporate social justice into your music?

I use Jewish teachings to deepen our understanding of our obligation to social justice. I want people to feel good about their Jewish roots, think more deeply and learn how they can be more impactful in the world.

This year’s social action project at the Nishmah event is about microlending, or giving small loans to poor people to alleviate poverty. Why is this important for Jewish women to be involved in?

This microlending project engages the St. Louis community about their role in helping Jewish women around the world. There is something about the dynamic of being expected to pay the money back that lifts people out of poverty. Each woman who receives a loan chooses where the money goes, which puts the control in her hands, and this is a very important tool for taking people out of poverty. Also, microlending is doable, manageable, and lots of people can afford to give $25. (That’s) a lot of money for a woman in Cambodia and can mean the difference between eating and not eating.

How do you inspire girls and women to take an active role in the Passover seder?

At the Nishmah event, I lead a program that is built around the framework of an actual seder. We will sit at round tables and talk with one another like at a family seder. We will share important dialogue about the role of women in Jewish life. We will get a chance to exchange ideas and recipes, but we will also go much deeper than that. The goal is for women to not have to be in the kitchen preparing, but to be seated at the table enjoying the seder.

Why is it important for Jewish women of all backgrounds to learn from each other?

This Nishmah event is different from any other seder because it is the most inclusive women’s seder in America. We have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chabad women celebrating together, and that does not happen in this country. Over the last several months, a great deal of work has gone into planning this program, allowing women from various denominations to highlight their experiences from their own Passover seders. I’m so excited to have Hasidic women join us; it’s like a cross-cultural experience even though we’re all Jewish. It’s called “Klal Yisrael,” which means we’ll have women in the room that night who represent every corner of the fabric of our people, all of Israel.

Describe how Nishmah’s pre-Passover experience relates to the story of Exodus.

We are basically Jews celebrating Passover in the framework of a seder, and we are reenacting the ancient journey through the dessert from slavery to freedom.  If I do my job as the ringleader, the emcee, the train conductor, the journey leader, the women will feel like they have been on an extraordinary journey. We sing, we eat, we dance, we create, we talk, we explore, we question. We will do all those things at the JCC.

Why is it important to have programs like this for girls and women?

First of all, I’m a girl. Second of all, I’m a mom. And third of all, I’m a daughter. I connect with women and girls, naturally.  The thing about Passover is that in most generations, even post-ERA, women spend most of Passover preparing, getting food ready and taking care of kids. This event allows us to have our (behinds) in the seats and relaxing. In the Haggadah, we are supposed to be leaning on a pillow. This Passover seder allows women to sit and relax and think and reflect, which is critically important because all that reflection comes back into their homes and families. This event shows women how to be full contributors to their seders in a way that often we are not.

Does your family share your love for music?

Yes! I married into a musical dynasty. My husband is a NY1-TV Senior Correspondent and a former Kutz Camp song leader for NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth). His brother Doug Mishkin is a lawyer and a well-known singer/songwriter of music in the Reform movement. My daughter also sings, and plays piano and violin. But she is a typical 9-year-old and doesn’t like when mom sings. She prefers to listen to Taylor Swift.


Your most recent release, “Blessings,” which was co-produced by Grammy-Award winner Ben Wisch, draws on your experience as a two-time cancer survivor, wife and mother.  How has cancer changed your life?

I think that having experienced cancer has deepened my desire and drive to make a difference in this life. Cancer is a reminder that we have no promise about how long we have to be here. I really want to make every single day count and one way I’m doing it is by participating in Nishma’s pre-Passover event. I’m so looking forward to celebrating with the women in St. Louis.