Shir Ami performs Jewish music around St. Louis area

Jan Fishman, Judith Medoff, Elaine Unell, Amy Gage and Carol Kaplan-Lyss perform at the Green Show before Shakespeare in the Park last spring.(Photo: courtesy Jan Fishman)

By Hayley Abramson, John Burroughs School

Struck by the lack of Jewish music groups in St. Louis, a group of local residents joined forces to create Shir Ami. Shir Ami, Hebrew for “Song of my People,” aims to please all age groups by performing Jewish music from a variety of countries and styles.

The group consists of Carol Kaplan-Lyss on guitar, vocals, and accordion, Jan Fishman on guitar and vocals, Judy Medoff, Elaine Unell, and Amy Gage on vocals, and Michael Lyss on mandolin. Jewish composers such as Shlomo Carlbach and the late Debbie Friedman, as well as Ladino and Israeli folk music, Yiddish theater, and Israeli troupe travelers have influenced the six musicians.

Kaplan-Lyss, Medoff, Unell and a handful of other musicians originally formed Shir Ami in 1972 at the Washington University Hillel. Since then, the group has performed at venues such as the Botanical Garden’s Festival of Lights for Hanukkah, the International Festival at Tower Grove Park, and various weddings and b’nai mitzvahs. While the songs differ based on the time of year, holiday, and occasion, Shir Ami always performs its signature song, “Adon Olam.”

Shir Ami and HaShemesh, an instumental group who plays at Congregation Shaare Emeth once a month, enjoy collaborating on Jewish music arrangements. Both groups believe that involving Jewish music in services is very important.

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“One time, we performed with our brother group, HaShemesh-the Sun-and we sold out!” Fishman said.

Some teens find that when groups like Shir Ami and HaShemesh incorporate their music into weddings, b’nai mitzvahs and synagogue services, they have a better time.

“It makes it more enjoyable and entertaining. Also I find that you can learn the songs and prayers faster when there’s a tune to them,” said Rachel Berwald, an eighth grader at Parkway Central Middle School.

Music has always been important to teens, and for many, so has religion. Mixing the two together results in a fun, spiritual journey with every song.

Musical groups such as Shir Ami can be inspiring as well: when teens see other Jewish groups perform, they can become inspired to do something similar such as starting their own band or listening to a new style of music.

Shir Ami enjoys playing in both formal and informal settings; their main objective is to have fun performing Jewish music for any audience.

“We volunteer a lot and do free shows,” Jan Fishman explains, “We aren’t trying to be rich and famous!”

Overall, this Jewish music group loves having a great time and inspiring their audience with music from all over the world. Shir Ami is a great addition to the St. Louis Jewish community, inspiring both Jews and others to recognize the importance of religion.