Have you ever thought about what makes a good song? The Virginia-born Miri Hunter Haruach, who lives in Los Angeles, is a folk singer, playwright, student of Judaism and proud purveyor of a doctorate in women's studies, and she believes that to make a good song, you need a little some of this and a little Psalm of that.
Haruach has always used her art to discuss the strengths and plights of women, but this time, with the release of her second album, "The Ways of Love," she takes the strong and ethical messages of the Book of Psalms and sets them to music for a new audience to discover.
Haruach sings with a modesty and softness that enhances the simple and good-natured spiritual messages of her songs. That, in itself, is an unusual trait, because audiences have come to expect artists who make spiritual/new age, religious music to have overproduced studio performances.
Haruach doesn't make herself the main attraction of the album. The verses are intertwined with laid-back melodies and sparse, single-riff drumbeats that add an interesting feeling of emptiness and sorrow to the otherwise uplifting words of wisdom.
In the title track, "Teach Me the Ways of Love," Haruach chants, "Open your eyes, let your ears hear the cry, unchain your mind from the bondage of shame, deliver your spirit, and set your soul free."
The nuances of her delivery are accompanied by a rhythmic rap in Hebrew by an Israeli poet, known only as Ofer, who translated the meaning of the song into an interesting lyrical loop.
"The album is actually based on the Book of Psalms. I have been reading the Psalms since I was a child. The ideas and themes stick with you. They cover all of the aspects of life, including joy, sorrow, ecstasy, repentance, confusion, acceptance, marriage and separation," she says.
The song, "It Would Be Enough," is the only one based on the Song of Songs, and Haruach was given it to read as a punishment in the 11th grade, she says. In the process, she "fell in love with it."
Haruach did take the liberty of interpreting the Psalms, not singing them verbatim, but updating them in hopes of reaching more people. Many of the songs are not gender specific, so she could be as inclusive as possible with the audience. None of that sentiment of inclusion is really surprising when you learn that Haruach is not only a converted Jew but also a mix of African American, European and Native American cultures.
"I was born a Southern Baptist, and I was really into going to church, because I liked to participate in the music aspect of the religious experience," she says. "Then I had 12 years of Catholic school and moved around a lot, writing plays, getting degrees and teaching Israeli folk dancing at Berkeley Hillel."
In fact, it wasn't until 1994 that Haruach became interested in Judaism, a move provoked by reading a book on kabbalah.
"I was drawn to Judaism because I felt that it was a religion of life rather than death," she says. "Through the music, dance and teachings of the Mizrachi Jews, I found a roadmap for living in this world."
And although Haruach refers to herself as a convert, she has not yet taken the big plunge of being bat mitzvahed.
"But that's coming eventually," she notes. "I did a Conservative conversion, although now I consider myself a Reconstructionist. I am considering cantorial studies, too."
In addition to her interest in music -- psalms or otherwise -- Haruach has also devoted much of her life to writing plays. The strong and determined women in her performances range from her own slave ancestors to the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic figure of the Queen of Sheba. "As much as we're engaged in the media, we don't see a lot of strong women. It's important for us as women to portray ourselves as strong so that the strife of our ancestors won't have been in vain."
It would be an interesting twist, if someday Haruach's descendants were writing plays about her.
Miri Hunter Haruach will perform on July 19 at 8 p.m. at the Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Silverlake. Tickets are $10. For information call (323) 663-8979.