With Baltimore’s flourishing Jewish community comes a plethora of synagogue options. For folk singer Sonia Rutstein, it was a matter of finding a place where she felt at home.
“I chose Beit Tikvah because everybody’s a little weird and that’s normal,” she said. “I fit right in.”
The globetrotting musician, who performs as SONiA disappear fear, plays a benefit concert for Congregation Beit Tikvah, which was Baltimore’s first Reconstructionist synagogue, on Saturday, March 4. The show will be her last in the U.S. before an extensive German tour.
“Of course I’m Jewish and my Jewishness is very important to me, and we have an amazing rabbi,” Rutstein said. “Those are the pillars of why I go there, and that’s why I’m doing this benefit. I get so much from going there, and they ask so little of me.”
She plans to play some 12-string guitar, which she said she’s been playing more of lately and will do some live looping. There may be some new songs in the mix too.
Like most Americans, the presidency of Donald Trump has inspired Rutstein. Some have protested, some have rallied, others, like Rutstein, have written music.
“The first song I wrote right after Hillary lost the election was called ‘Funeral for America,’ but I abandoned that song because we’re already there,” she said.
The next song she wrote, “Abraham,” for which she released a bare-bones music video, was dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and released on Jan. 16, the holiday named for him.
“Abraham is about great leaders … who affect us and who have affected me,” Rutstein said of the song, which mentions Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.
Rutstein spent the past week at the Folk Alliance International Conference, which had the theme of “forbidden folk” and celebrated activism in art. She said she’s recorded 33 political songs and finds the themes still ringing true today.
“The ‘Washington Work Song’ I wrote in 1991; it’s about democracy and each of us having a voice and showing up,” she said. “It’s still prevalent … what’s nice about that for me is people are much more attuned to the preciousness of this thing called democracy.”
During a presentation on songs that have been censored at the Folk Alliance Conference, Rutstein performed a reworking of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” combined with her song “Sink the Censorship.”
For Rutstein, folk music is all about speaking one’s truth.
“It’s saying the things you need to hear that nobody else is willing to say and you just do it,” she said. “For me, I always said that if Joni Mitchell had been gay and wrote about her lesbian love affairs, I probably wouldn’t have been a songwriter. Nobody was saying what I needed to hear.” JT
SONiA disappear fear performs at Congregation Beit Tikvah, 5802 Roland Ave., Baltimore, on Saturday, March 4. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets, which range from $10 to $100, can be purchased at soniadisappearfear.com/buy-it.