Arts and Culture | Local

Inspired by mountains, composer/folksinger scores liturgical triumphs

Lori Sumberg

When Lori Sumberg sings her original composition of “Esa Eynai” at the Fourth International Jewish Music Festival on Dec. 5 in New York City, she will take a bit of Tucson with her. Out of more than 350 pieces submitted by composers around the world, Sumberg’s piece was one of 57 liturgical compositions selected by judges of a competition sponsored by Shalshelet: The Foundation for New Jewish Liturgical Music.

Sumberg, a cantorial soloist who sings at Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Chaverim in Tucson and at Beth Shalom Temple Center in Green Valley, composed her “Esa Eynai” shortly after moving to Tucson in 2007 from New York City. She was struck by the new experience of having the Santa Catalina Mountains right outside her door.

“The movement and energy of my piece is a literal expression of my experience,” says Sumberg. “I am in awe of the beauty of nature in the Southwest.”

People have commented on the evocative quality of the piece, she says, the sense of longing in the melody that is congruent with looking up to the mountains seeking help from God. When she performed the piece at Congregation Chaverim on Nov. 5, Sumberg says, “They welcomed my new version with open hearts and were singing along with me by the end.”

Sumberg had responded to Shalshelet’s call for submissions, but another honor came as a complete surprise — an invitation to compose a full-length choral piece for the June 2011 conference of the Women Cantor’s Network. When Sumberg sang an original composition of “Yismach Lev” at the 2009 conference, a leadership committee had taken note; when she sang “Esa Eynai” at the 2010 conference, it confirmed their impression. Her new piece will be sung by 100 women cantors at a public performance.

Sumberg started writing songs shortly after receiving her first guitar at the age of 10. She’s made two full-length studio recordings of her pop/folk material, “Let’s Go” (1987) and “Love Is a Danger Zone” (2008), and performed at local folk venues, including the Tucson Folk Festival in 2008 and 2009.

She became interested in Jewish music as a member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, where she sang in the choir for 10 years, and also met and married her husband, Craig. From 2000 to 2002, Sumberg studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary H.L. Miller Cantorial School. She trained privately for several years with mentor cantors including Rachel Hersh Epstein and Ramon Tasat. She earned a master’s in English education from Boston University in 1988 and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from SUNY Binghamton in 1985. Since 2003, she has served Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal communities. She also teaches English composition at Brown Mackie College.

While her pop/folk music is lyrical and often personal, liturgical music, she says, is “grounded in my faith and the ancient, sacred texts. My kavannah (intention) with liturgical music is to elevate the holy words and enhance the worship experience. Working within liturgy provides structure and placement.” Singing liturgical music is not about performing; it is a form of davening (praying), she notes.

Composing is also a spiritual process: “Usually words or feelings or phrases swirl around my head. I sit with the guitar to discover notes, chords and melodies which get woven into the words. Sometimes it’s the other way around — a melody emerges and the words get integrated into the music,” says Sumberg.

This summer, she wrote a composition based on the “Mah Tovu” prayer for High Holy Day services at Beth Shalom Temple Center in Green Valley, incorporating the sweetness of the holidays with the line, “How sweet to be together in our holy tent.”

Members of Beth Shalom liked the composition, says Sumberg. New songs can “surprise congregants by offering a new way of hearing or feeling or davening familiar prayers. Traditional melodies — called ‘mi Sinai’ as if handed down from thousands of years ago — are essential for congregants. Beloved old melodies anchor and guide and keep people united with the service. I offer my original liturgical melodies as accent pieces which can help stir different feelings or make new meanings,” says Sumberg.

Sumberg is currently working on an album that will be a collection of her original Jewish/liturgical compositions.

Her message to aspiring composers: “enjoy the process, listen to a lot of music, practice your instrument, share your work, don’t get too discouraged, write a lot. Keep a mini recording device with you at all times as a ‘capture tool.’ When inspirational words or melodies stream through your mind, sing it into the mic.”

To receive announcements about Sumberg’s upcoming appearances, email her at

Deborah Mayaaan is an energy work and flower essence practitioner and writer based in Tucson.