They’re Playing Our Song: The Liberated Wailing Wall
The 1979 Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song delighted Jewish audiences with Neil Simon’s wit and Jewish culture revealed through the play about the personal relationship between musical collaborators Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager.
Five years later, Rabbi Shamai Kanter attended a presentation by the Jews for Jesus music and drama team entitled The Liberated Wailing Wall. Afterward, he reluctantly gave a positive review of the performance for the American Jewish readers of Moment magazine. His article title was also “They’re Playing Our Song.” The story of the Liberated Wailing Wall (LWW), a Messianic Jewish music and drama team, is a small piece of Messianic Jewish history. It illustrates what Messianic musician Sally Klein O’Connor once called “improbable people doing impossible things.”
The years 1967 and 1971 set a background to the story. Most of those implausible Jewish pioneers were Baby Boomers in their early twenties or younger. Some were in high school when the six-day Israeli victory in 1967 served up a proud new image of the powerful post-Holocaust Jew. As Jewish folk icon Bob Dylan had sung a few years before, you could say, “the times, they were a-changin’.”
Jewish consciences were roused by the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Jewish youth empathized with the causes of equal rights for African Americans and for women. The Vietnam War opened cultural and generational fissures between them and their parents. Thousands engaged in social and political activism. Their artifacts were denim, long hair, folk anthems, and rock and roll. They had voices and passion. Right in the middle of all that turmoil, God moved. Between 1970 and 1972, a remnant of young Jewish people came to faith in Jesus: improbable people who would do impossible things. They would become a movement of Jews for Jesus.
In the Beginning
Stuart Dauermann was one of those unlikely Jewish believers in Jesus. Raised in Brooklyn, he received a master’s degree in music education from the Manhattan School of Music. He also came to faith in the Messiah and immediately displayed a keen spiritual sensitivity. Moishe Rosen, an early leader among Messianic Jews, spotted Stuart’s musical gift. He challenged Stuart to write songs based on Scripture that reflected Jewish culture. Stu responded with two songs that began a new genre of Jewish gospel music. His renditions of Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer lit a path that later became known as Messianic music.
Jewish music had already cemented a place in American culture in 1971 with the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. It popularized klezmer (Jewish instrumentalist) music, nineteenth-century shtetl (Eastern European Jewish village life), and the joy of Jewish folk dance. A young Jewish generation was already moved by new expressions of traditional and cultural Judaism. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach created Jewish liturgy in a folksy style for Shabbat gatherings. Debbie Friedman wrote religious Jewish melodies that inspired synagogue congregations, children’s camps, and Orthodox feminism. The era was ready for new music that expressed Jewish spirituality with Yeshua at its heart.
Who Were They?
Who were those first Jewish people who had the chutzpah to sing about Jesus in public? We started to find one another in the fall of 1972. Moishe Rosen had moved to northern California with a sense that the LORD wanted to reach Jewish members of the counterculture. One by one, new Jewish believers in Yeshua got connected. Moishe’s recruitment pitch for his new ministry went like this:
I don’t have money or a job to give you. You can sleep on the floor at my house for a few days until you can find work and your own apartment. But I can offer you an opportunity to serve the Lord.
It was that simple. That opportunity was enough for us. It didn’t matter if our backgrounds were religiously or culturally Jewish. We knew that we had to tell our people about Yeshua, and now was the time. That opportunity was our destiny.
In the fall of 1972, Stuart Dauermann drove to California with his piano in the back of an old van. He would help build a team that could write and perform music and drama for the streets, college campuses, and church congregations.
Steffi (Geiser) Rubin met Moishe on the Cal Berkley campus. Steffi was to write some of the new music’s most brilliant lyrics and moving dramatic pieces. Coming from the Bronx, she had studied Yiddish in school. She also played guitar and sang. Benyomin Ellegant was from Chicago. His education was in chemistry. His musical talent included a beautiful tenor voice, training in the synagogue liturgy, and the ability to play the clarinet, which added a klezmer sound to the team. Naomi (Green) Dauermann was an energetic, athletic Californian who sang soprano when the team began to travel. Shelly Korotkin traveled to California from Philadelphia. She was willing to sing soprano when the team began, but her best talents were in art.
Sam Nadler from Queens, New York, was a Vietnam War veteran. His hair was black and bushy in those days. Sam wasn’t a particularly good singer, but what he lacked in musical talent he made up for in leadership and communication. His wife, Miriam (Slichter) Nadler, was the most gifted people-gatherer on the first team. She played the guitar and sang alto. Miriam had grown up in a Bible-church setting in South Central Pennsylvania and was the lone Gentile on that team. Moishe had sent her to Israel for a year-long internship to broaden her cultural awareness and deepen her love for God’s people. When the LWW team came together in 1972, Miriam was the only member with a lifetime of Christian experience.
First Fruits of Zion