If you’ve lived in Riverdale with young children within the last few years, chances are you’ve heard of Shir Fun, the musical creation of mompreneur Dafna Israel-Kotok catered to children ages 5 years old and younger. Shir Fun has been offered in Riverdale and all over NYC, Westchester and New Jersey for seven years, and has been a tremendous success. Families fall in love with Shir Fun, and often after moving to a new neighborhood such as New Rochelle, request Shir Fun classes to open up in their new communities, which has resulted in the rapid growth of Dafna’s program.
Dafna grew up on a moshav on Israel’s coast. She learned how to play the guitar by watching her father. His endless repertoire of Israeli and Jewish music was always shared in the home with family as well as with neighbors and friends who would often stop by to sing along.
For a short while during her teenage years, Dafna came to America with her parents, but relocated to Israel to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces not long afterward. She later headed back to America and worked as a music therapist in NYC hospitals, accompanying hospitalized children to procedures and working on coping tools for both kids and their parents as they were dealing with challenges such as cancer, transplant issues or visits to the ICU. Through music therapy, Dafna would help patients with speech rehabilitation, procedural support, emotional outlets and recovering motor skills, and even worked with children who were dealing with end-of-life issues, helping them through these tough times using music. At the same time, she worked with adult patients who were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries or other medical issues. “It was amazing to see that no matter the background or the age of the person, music could relate to and move people emotionally, and help with physical and medical issues in such a powerful and profound way. I worked with patients who could not remember their children’s names, but could remember every word to a song from their childhood or youth, which would lead to sudden memory recollections that were thought to be completely gone. I was always moved to see how children who are suffering so much or isolated due to their illness, can still find so much joy and have a sense of presence in the moment when the music would start. The music would really bring it out of them, no matter what they were facing.”
After the birth of her daughter, Dafna decided to shift gears in her career. A few weeks after she returned to work, she encountered a terminal patient, a baby only a month older than her daughter. Nearing the end of his life, the parents asked Dafna to play some of the lullabies they had sung to him in his short life as he was taking his last breaths. While it was something she had done countless times before, now that she had her own child, it was becoming too emotionally difficult.
This became a turning point for her professionally. Combining her love of music, Israel and Hebrew songs, on her day off, she began a music class at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. “I wrote most of the songs, all of which are in Hebrew, which relate to a child’s world as well as give important messages of Jewish pride, Israel, acceptance of others and more.” And just like that, Shir Fun was born. What started as a once-a-week class grew into a full-fledged venture. As word spread, people started coming to participate in Dafna’s classes from all adjacent neighborhoods and areas.
Dafna decided to leave her music therapy position at the hospital and focused on Shir Fun full time. As the demand for the classes grew, she added professional Israeli musicians to her team who were all trained in the Shir Fun method. Parents attending Shir Fun were thrilled at how much their kids loved the music in class, which led to the release of some of the most loved new Hebrew albums, now sold internationally. Dafna has released four albums, which are available on the Shir Fun website (www.shirfun.com) and on cdbaby.com, Amazon and iTunes, including a highly acclaimed Chanukah album called “Eight. Chanukah with Dafna!” While keeping a focus on her music being not just for kids, she also released a fifth album based on familiar Jewish songs called Roots Revisited. She posts videos of her songs to YouTube as well (https://www.youtube.com/user/DafnaShirFun) and is constantly working on new material and expanding her audiences of both adults and kids.
As the momentum grew, so did the demand. Dafna has been booked for concerts in communities all over the United States, Europe and Israel. She currently performs in solo shows and also has a full band, which includes eclectic instruments such as the mandolin, bouzouki, slide guitar and percussion instruments, while she plays her guitar. “I get fan emails from people all over the world who relate to the music, including people from South America, Australia and Europe,” she said, and noted that letters arrive from Jews and non-Jews of all ages and backgrounds. “I think what they relate to is something authentic in the music. The sound is not geared for kids per se. In the beginning, I started recording with kids in mind. It is a very folky, rootsy, even country sound. But I never wanted to dumb down the music. I never want children to feel like being Jewish or listening to Hebrew music is something they did when they were little, and that one day they will outgrow. I want them to have pride and remain with that love of who they are all of their lives. And that’s what I think they feel in my music. That not only comes from my work as a music therapist and relating to the core of each person, but it comes from the music of my childhood in the Moshav,” she said.
Ilana Sheinberg of Riverdale began taking her oldest daughter, Tovah, to Shir Fun in 2010, followed by her younger son, Yoni. She enrolled season after season, and thoroughly enjoyed Dafna’s music. “She’s engaging and energetic,” she said. “She teaches kids at their level. [My] kids loved going and playing her music.”
By Tamar Weinberg