Lily Henley, 31, is a Brooklyn-based folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose most recent release, an album of new Ladino songs, “Oras Dezaoradas” (“Hours Without Hours”), was named the album of the year by our partners at Hey Alma. “I grew up playing fiddle and singing often at home with my family in English, Hebrew and Ladino, and listening to a wide palette of music from all over the world,” Henley tells us. Influenced by traditional Sephardic songs and culture, along with Celtic, folk and pop music, the album — which was recorded in Brooklyn during the pandemic — “is an exploration of transience, heartbreak, autonomy and change, and includes both completely original songs and also new melodies which I wrote to cradle traditional lyrics as Sephardi singers have done throughout our history,” she says.
For the full list of this year’s 36 to Watch — which honors leaders, entrepreneurs and changemakers who are making a difference in New York’s Jewish community — click here.
Who is your New York Jewish hero?
There are so many, but I’m going to say my father, Eric Henley. It will surprise him, because he’s one of those rare people who never really looks for any sort of congratulations from anyone. He loves to be part of a team, and what he cares most about is having a meaningful effect in what he does every day. He’s an MD and MPH who has worked in public health for his entire career. He’s someone who is always educating themselves and who almost never gives advice without being asked. When he finally retired from full-time work a little while ago, there were so many people I had never met who cried and said he had been their most important mentor. There’s almost nothing he enjoys more than music, and he’s always been supportive of the winding and uncertain path I’ve been on as an artist.
What’s a fun/surprising fact about you?
I am the proud owner of pet snails (not kosher, but very beautiful).
How does your Jewish identity or experience influence your work?
As a singer working in both English and an endangered Jewish language, Jewish identity is both a source of continued inspiration at the heart of everything I do artistically, and something which has caused a great deal of complicated self-examining. It is important to me to shine a light on underrepresented Jewish culture, history and experience, to connect to the wider Jewish world, and at the same time to continue to use my music and my voice to bridge the divide between Jewish and non-Jewish culture in a way that rejects assimilation and monolithic expressions of identity and creativity. I see pathways and parallels between my own complex Jewish experience and the experiences of people from a myriad of identities and backgrounds, and I see my music as an expression of my desire to connect to people regardless of our differences.
Was there a formative Jewish experience that influenced your life path?
When I was eight, my mother helped organize a community Pesach seder in Crestone, Colorado. It was attended by nuns from a local Carmelite monastery, the caretakers and attendees of the Hindu ashram, monks from the neighboring Buddhist temple, members of a nearby Protestant church and a myriad of community members. The seder was lead by a 70-year-old Holocaust survivor from Germany, and in preparation, our Hebrew-speaking neighbor taught my sister and me the Four Questions along with a handful of beautiful Hebrew songs, many with Sephardi melodies. My sister and I still sing these on Shabbat with our family.
What is your favorite place to eat Jewish food in New York?
Historically, all the best Jewish food has been found on my grandmother’s table!
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How can people follow you online?
@lilyhenley on Instagram or at lilyhenley.com
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