On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Sharon Hampson (Mar. 31, 1943 – ); Lois Lilienstein (July 10, 1936 – April 23, 2015); Bramwell Morrison (Dec. 18, 1940 – )

Sharon, Lois & Bram – Children’s Music Trio, Family Entertainers

Sept. 15, 2020 – By: DAVID EISENSTADT

Skinnamarinky dinky dink
Skinnamarinky do,
I love you!

Kids, parents and grandparents the world over love that memorable tune, thanks to the inspired creativity of three Toronto Jewish actors/singers/musicians, Sharon, Lois & Bram, who sang those easy-to-remember but differently-spelled lyrics.

“That word actually means nothing,” confides supersimple.com. “It’s just a silly, made-up word originally from an early 20th century Broadway musical, and over the years, it has been sung (spelled) as skinnamarink, skinnymarink, skinnymerink, and more.”

At a recent Shabbat dinner, friends Marilyn and Frank Kisluk said their three-year old granddaughter loves the song, prompting me to look at this trio’s musical contributions, which generates lots of memories and smiles.

The threesome met in the mid-‘70s at a Mariposa in the Schools program, according to Jason Ankey, writing in artistdirect.com, and they shared a common philosophy of creating quality music for people of all ages.

A&M distributed their first album One Elephant, Deux Éléphants. With that, the pachyderm became an important visual element throughout the group’s 42-year career.

Sharon’s daughter, Randi Hampson, said Lois often joked that the trio lost their last names when they became Sharon, Lois & Bram. Hampson told me that for their first live performance, they borrowed a costume from a touring production of Babar, “and that’s when the dancing elephant made its first appearance.”

They had several elephant friends over the years on tour, appearing on their The Elephant Show, which aired on the CBC in the 1980s, and later on U.S. cable network Nickelodeon through 1996, featuring 30-minute episodes with children’s entertainer Eric Nagler.

They also worked with other children’s stars, including Raffi and Fred Penner. The show attracted other well-known performers and morphed into a second series called Skinnamarink TV, broadcast on the CBC and the Learning Channel in the United States from 1997-99.

They performed in major concert venues around the globe and headlined many stage and screen gigs. The trio were named Goodwill Ambassadors for UNICEF in 1988, and in 1996, were appointed spokespersons for UNICEF Canada’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Sharon Trostin
Sharon Trostin

Born in 1943 and raised in Toronto, Sharon Trostin started singing in coffeehouses and at hootenannies across North America as a teenager. She married Joe Hampson of the Canadian Travelers and had two children. A three-time survivor of breast cancer, Sharon is one of the founders of Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada and has spoken publicly about her journey. She also speaks about the importance of music for children and their families. In 2007, she received the YWCA’s Woman of Distinction Award.

Lois Ada Goldberg
Lois Ada Goldberg

Chicago-born Lois Ada Goldberg was a classically-trained singer and pianist who studied music at the University of Michigan, where she met her future husband, Ernest Lilienstein. They moved to Toronto, where he taught sociology at York University. They raised one son. She retired from touring with the trio in 2000. 

Lois, said Randi Hampson, would occasionally appear for special charity events, the last of which was an outdoor concert in Toronto to celebrate an outdoor playground named in their honour. A music garden followed after Lois died in 2015 at age 78.

Bramwell Morrison
Bramwell Morrison

Bramwell Morrison, born Toronto in 1940, began playing coffee houses in the 1960s with iconic Canadian folksinger Alan Mills, who inspired him to become a music teacher. In 1975, Bram met Sharon and Lois at the Mariposa program and they began to play as a group. He and Sharon celebrated the trio’s 40th anniversary with a farewell tour in 2018, then retired from touring in December 2019 after releasing their first duo album, Sharon & Bram and Friends.

In 2002, they became members of the Order of Canada; Lois was named an honourary member as a non-Canadian. Their combined career track record includes numerous awards. The group produced 17 recordings, three songbooks, many compilations and a best-selling picture book, Sharon, Lois & Bram’s Skinnamarink. Their one-year TV series in 1997 was called Skinnamarink TV. In 2020, a Sharon, Lois & Bram YouTube channel was successfully launched.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Sharon has been performing virtually with daughter Randi, a family law lawyer who said she’s looking forward to returning to in-person, live performances.

David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.

Book Review: The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile

The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, by Casper ter Kuile (HarperOne, 2020)

Sept. 3, 2020 – By AURORA MENDELSOHN

How has a non-Jewish graduate of the Harvard Divinity School become this year’s coveted speaker for Jewish organizations like the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Moishe House, and numerous high-profile synagogues?

In The Power of Ritual, Casper ter Kuile, now a “Ministry Innovation Fellow” at Harvard, has tapped into a view of ritual that resonates deeply with a Jewish audience, particularly those who struggle with traditional Judaism yet still seek meaning through observance.

The author sets out to free people to draw on the redemptive power of ritual without necessarily being tied to belief in God, a religion or a religious community. While exploring both religious and secular sources, he examines four aspects of connection that ritual can provide.

The first connection is with ourselves. The ability to connect with our authentic selves is often drowned out in the pursuit of status or money. The ritual described for enabling those connections is familiar: Each Friday at sundown, ter Kuile lights candles, sings, and turns off his phone and laptop for 24 hours. He reads for pleasure or engages in playful and creative pursuits. He does not travel or work. Yes, the first ritual described is Shabbat. His reasons for observing Shabbat are informed by a Jewish perspective and are dotted with references to Abraham Heschel’s classic book, The Sabbath.

Another ritual for connecting with ourselves is engagement with sacred texts, which is also deeply familiar to Jews. Studying Torah and Talmud are integral parts of Judaism, and methods of textual study permeate Jewish thinking. Ter Kuile expands the concept of sacred texts to include any text studied in the correct mind frame.

As a co-host of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” ter Kuile uses Jewish study techniques like hevruta (paired study) and pardes (a multi-level engagement with text) to seek spirituality in the books of Harry Potter. The result is more meaningful than one might expect, and illuminates the powerful tools our tradition provides for sacred interactions with text.

Ter Kuile highlights two rituals that enable us to connect with others. The first is shared, communal meals that are repeated. This type of meal is the main aspect of Shabbat that many secular Jews observe, often without naming it as a ritual and without acknowledging its importance.

The second is connection through fitness communities like Soul Cycle. The description of people bonding through the vulnerabilities exposed during extreme physical effort seems genuine. But as someone connected to an organized community, I found the connection less reliable, both in the bonds formed and in the long-term viability of communities governed by corporate interests.

Ter Kuile suggests two practices for connecting with nature. The first is pilgrimage, which he redefines as walking with a purpose and focus in mind, and being present in nature. In modern Judaism, we see this practiced in the Jewish Renewal movement and less explicitly in the many Jewish camping movements.

The second is a liturgical calendar that connects people to the seasons, which is part of Judaism and many other religions. Ter Kuile selects from and adds to these to create seasonal rituals that help ground secular city dwellers in their place in nature.

The final chapter offers ways of connecting with transcendence without defining transcendence as divine or supernatural. Borrowing from the themes of traditional prayers, ter Kuile translates adoration, contrition, and thanksgiving into accessible practices the reader can choose to adopt.

What The Power of Ritual has done is unbundle many meaningful rituals from their traditional sources. While ter Kuile’s observance of Shabbat sounds very similar to how I celebrate (minus blessings and shul), hearing about the power of its many aspects from a non-Jewish author grants people permission and legitimacy to create their own versions of Shabbat without feeling obliged to take on the whole traditional package.

What remains to be seen is the cost of that unbundling. The advantage is increased access. But ad hoc rituals and spiritual communities make it harder to a find a single community that addresses one’s changing needs over many stages of life, and to ensure that practices endure in one’s life and across generations.

For both secular people and religious people who struggle with the content of belief, The Power of Ritual is an accessible and potentially transformative introduction to religious observance.

Aurora Mendelsohn
Aurora Mendelsohn

Aurora Mendelsohn is university administrator. She blogs about Judaism, ritual, feminism and parenting at Rainbow Tallit Baby.