Singing her way from the Deep South to hipster Williamsburg, Shira Kline is making a name for herself.
Like Dafna Israel-Kotok, Shira Kline — better known by her stage name, ShirLaLa — has been singing her entire life.
The youngest of three children, Kline, 34, was raised in an “incredible Jewish home” infused with art, music and a love of Judaism.
Her dancer mother frequently hosted artists from around the world in their Monroe, La., home. Her father, Rabbi David Kline, who Kline says has “been my main teacher my whole life,” would make up song sheets for every holiday.
On Shabbat, “we used the lights, but didn’t check the mail or work. It was the day I was allowed to watch cartoons on TV and didn’t have to eat all the food on my plate!”
In their Deep South town with a tiny Jewish population, Kline helped her father teach in “a little red schoolhouse” of a Hebrew school. And every summer, Kline went to Union for Reform Judaism camps, where she eventually became a counselor/song leader. She was active in Reform’s North American Federation of Temple Youth.
Despite her intensely Jewish upbringing, by the time she got to Sarah Lawrence College, Kline was determined not to become a Jewish professional but to have a stage career. After graduating, she came to New York to direct plays, but quickly realized “the only problem with theater was it canceled Shabbat completely. There was a show every Friday night.”
A series of part-time jobs ensued — teaching Hebrew school, helping out in the 92nd Street Y nursery school, even working as a gym teacher at The Heschel School — until one day in the late 1990s when Jewish musician Danny Masseng, a longtime mentor, persuaded her to focus on her long-term goals.
Kline “quit everything” and devoted herself almost full-time to her spirited brand of children’s music. (She also works part time as a private Hebrew/bar mitzvah teacher, writes adult liturgical music and is a founding member of Storahtelling, a group with a unique, performance-art approach to the public Torah reading.)
After a friend, punning on Kline’s first name and “shir,” which means song in Hebrew, called her ShirLaLa, “the name kind of stuck.”
“Sometimes children say, ‘Shira is her first name and LaLa is her last name!’” Kline notes.
With her spiky, brightly dyed hair, Kline, who lives in a one-bedroom house in the hipster section of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, might not appeal to very traditional Jews.
She is also openly lesbian, although that aspect of her identity doesn’t show up in her music since “as a children’s performer” it would lead to the kids asking “questions that are not for me to answer.”
Since “everyone usually assumes I’m straight,” she finds herself coming out when parents in her audiences, discovering that she is single, offer to fix her up.
Kline, who has a growing following at synagogues and other Jewish venues around the country, sees herself more as a song leader than a performer.
“ShirLaLa is very participatory,” she explains. “If people aren’t singing along, I look like an idiot.”
With the exception of her fourth and newest album, the environmental-themed “Earth Worm Disco,” Kline draws heavily on simple traditional tunes and Jewish-themed riffs on classic pop songs like “La Bamba.”
“It’s less what I write and more what works,” she explains. “I try to tap into [children’s] sense of play and exploration.”
Kline’s career has gotten a boost from the PJ Library, a sort-of book-of-the-month club that sends free Jewish books and music to children throughout North America; her Shabbat, Passover and Chanukah albums are distributed to PJ participants, and she frequently performs at concerts celebrating the launch of new PJ Library communities.
“Shira is full of energy, responsive to the audience, gets everyone up and moving, and creates an atmosphere of great fun,” says Marcie Greenfield Simons, PJ’s director.
Not only is Kline’s music “fabulous,” Greenfield Simons says, but “we appreciate that Shira is sensitive to the crowd, understanding that not everyone comes with a strong Jewish background or connection to the organized Jewish community.”
With “Earth Worm Disco,” which is focused on environmental issues, Kline is breaking out of the Jewish niche a little.
Originally conceived as a Tu b’Shvat album, Kline quickly realized that “business-wise, I couldn’t pull that off. People were like, ‘It’s not a big enough holiday.’”
“It’s still very Jewish, but there’s no Hebrew, no God and the name isn’t overtly Jewish,” she says.
Shira Kline (www.shirlala.com) performs music from “Earth Worm Disco” in an Earth Day celebration at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust on Sunday, April 25 at 1 p.m., 36 Battery Pl. For tickets ($10 adults, $7 children) go to mjhnyc.org/safrahall/visit_safra_27.htm#earth.
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