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A Joyful Noise

Will much of Jewish music's beauty and history be lost as it adapts to the needs of the contemporary congregant?


May 11, 2000 | 8:00 pm

The future of American Jewish music - which has an awful lot in common with its past and present - was spread out in all its diversity on May 2, when the American Jewish Music Festival returned to Los Angeles after a three-year absence. Delighting an overflow crowd of more than 1,000 people in the main sanctuary of Stephen S. Wise Temple, the evening covered most of the musical genres that have been woven into Jewish music during the past few decades, from klezmer to folk to rock to jazz to the art song.The guitars, accordion and electric bass that were present on stage for various pieces during last Tuesday's pro-gram - not to mention the electronic keyboard and hyped-up drums that roared through others - would have been unthinkable as accom-paniment to the music of worship in the synagogues of the listeners' grandparents. Jewish music followed certain rules; psalms and prayers had signature melodies that varied only with the time of year or the day of the week. The music was handed down from generation to generation. It represented our history and our aspirations. It was our conduit to God.It was boring, the grandchildren said. See ya.

The Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles, which sponsored the May 2 program and, according to its executive director, David Kates, is very much about the music of worship, is one of the institutions trying to convince those grandchildren - and their children and grandchildren - that Jewish music can engage people even as it seeks to connect them with a sense of the sacred. And it is trying to reassure traditionalists of every stripe that a psalm can sound like a madrigal, a hymn can sound like a cowboy waltz and a prayer can have a salsa beat - and still be Jewish music.

"There is nothing newunder the sun," Wise's cantor, Nathan Lam, who served as master of ceremonies for the evening, told the audience, reminding it that synagogue music has always borrowed from the cultures in which Jews have lived and has always used vernacular languages as well as Hebrew. But there is plenty new in Jewish music, which worries some Jews even as it delights others.

In purporting to present music that congregants might conceivably hear in a worship setting, the May 2 program tacitly laid out two of the issues engaging practitioners and consumers of synagogue music: the extent to which congregants should be able to participate in worship as singers and the extent to which stylistic boundaries of synagogue music can be stretched in order to attract new - younger - congregants and keep them coming back.

In Reform Judaism, no less a personage than Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), has called for worship featuring "music that is participatory, warm, and accessible." Addressing the UAHC's biennial convention in December, Yoffie asserted, "Our wisest synagogues invite their members to sing, because they know that Jews feel welcomed, accepted and empowered when they sing."

Local templegoers echo Yoffie's sentiment. "When I go to temple, if I don't sing, I'm not there," one Reform congregant said, adding that about the only piece she's happy to have the cantor sing as a solo is Kol nidre. "Most of us don't get to use our voices that much during the week," said a man who belongs to Reform and Conservative synagogues. "Just getting the vibrations going in our chests helps us spiritually."Not just congregants but some service leaders are comfortable with the idea of cantor as songleader rather than soloist. "When I lead services, it's far more important to bring the congregation together in song and prayer than to sing at them or for them," said Julie Silver, a popular songwriter and recording artist who also serves as cantorial soloist at Sha'arei Am in Santa Monica. "There is clearly a shift in the Reform movement, and I suspect in the other movements as well, away from the high cantorial presence and toward the group, the congregation, drawing people in through music and teaching."

The cantor who appoints himself or herself the guardian of synagogue music gives a lot of Jews a swift pain. "I'm not a huge fan of chazzanut," said Craig Taubman, a colleague of Silver's who grew up at Sinai Temple in Westwood and whose "Friday Night Live" services, featuring Shabbat liturgy set tohis bouncy pop tunes, are packing them in at Sinai every month. "Many of the people who preach chazzanut (cantorial chant and song) are so rigid: not just the right tune, but the way they do it, in their synagogue. Many traditional cantors believe it's important to be frozen in time, that it's their God-given responsibility to keep the music as it's always been."

But it isn't just vanity or attachment to tradition that causes the prospect of services-as-community-sing to send a chill down the spine of many cantors. There's the fear that the music will become one-size-fits-all and the worship experience will be less, not more, intense for many congregants. "Just sitting and listening is a no-no any more," said William Sharlin, cantor emeritus ofLeo Baeck Temple and a leading figure for more than 40 years in Southern California Jewish music."I find there's a possibility of 'just' congregational singing. It's very important to have participation, but that may also sometimes interrupt the flow, the continuum of the sacred stream."

Another problem is that when almost all the music of a service is geared to congregational singing, you wind up throwing out a lot of breathtaking music only because it's meant to be sung by a solo voice or a well-rehearsed ensemble. During the past 30 years, Sharlin, Michael Isaacson, Meir Finkelstein, the late Aminadav Aloni and any number of other composers have written synagogue music for soloist and/or choir much too beautiful - and, if you give it half a chance, much too powerful on a spiritual level - to be relegated to High Holy Days alone. Even Debbie Friedman, the high priestess of contem-porary congregational music, has written pieces such as her tender interpretation of the nighttime Hashkivenu prayer, "Shelter of Peace," and the introspective "Reb Nachman's Prayer" for solo voice - and they represent some of her best work.

"Accessing music does not always mean 'sing-along,' " said Sam Radwine, a Reform cantor who serves Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative synagogue, in Rancho Palos Verdes. "Accessing can also happen when the worshiper hears something and is able to connect to prayer."

Lam worries that the predominance of tunes for everyone to sing will eventually dumb down the music. "It's no longer about music that is good; it's about music that's accessible," he said in an interview. "We shortchange our congregants by not giving them credit for their musical sophistication."

Nor did the Jewish Music Commission, in providing a smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing numbers last Tuesday, include only what was "accessible" to the average congregant's singing ability; a majority of the pieces presented, both new and classic (including a couple that had won prizes from the commission), were geared to performance by soloist or choir and emphatically not to congregational singing. "The commission wants a modern era of Jewish music that does not sacrifice [traditional music] but includes it, that is participatory but retains the strength of the role of the cantor," Kates said.

Conservative Judaism, which historically has frowned upon tinkering with the liturgy and which makes greater demands of the worshiper than does the average Reform service, has also run into trouble with congregants who lack the Hebrew and the skills to feel at home in shul. "The worshipers with little or no background are seeking a prayerful experience but lack entry into the traditional service. ... They feel strange and disenfranchised and will give up easily if they can't find something to hold on to," said Ira Bigeleisen, cantor of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. "The craze for congregational singing and 'participation' is an outgrowth of this need," Bigeleisen added. "I don't mean that congregational singing isn't important; it is very important in creating a sense of community. But in reality, it is a poor substitute for being able to say the prayers oneself and really praying to God."

And creating opportunities for congregational singing doesn't mean the congregants will sing. "Even when you teach them, they just sit there," snapped one woman involved in her synagogue's music program.The issue of how the music of worship should sound, of course, is a classic example of "two Jews, three opinions." What transports one congregant puts his neighbor to sleep. One templegoer wants the music to sound exactly the way it did when she was eleven, when it sounded like Methodist hymns; another wants it to sound exactly the way it did when she was eleven, when it sounded like Peter, Paul and Mary. One thinks the traditional davening modes are enough music for any service; another believes it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

The traditional musical signatures for Jewish prayer, some of which date back to antiquity, are known collectively as nusach. These modes form the basis of prayer music and provide the dominant sound in traditional synagogues, includ-ing most Conservative synagogues, and they are incorporated by many contemporary composers who are trained in them, though sometimes subtly enough to go unnoticed by the untutored ear. While they are prayer itself to some Jews, they haven't found their way into much popular music (other than klezmer), and to some Jewish leaders, nusach comprises an archaic sound that drives away more potential worshipers than it attracts.

Even some congregations committed to tradition have made concessions to worshipers' changing needs. The Happy Minyan at Orthodox Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, for example, replaces a lot of the traditional chant with tunes by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and even wordless nigunim to bring congregants into a more joyous worship experience.

"Music has to be traditional, but it has to be music that people want to listen to," said Steven Jacobs, rabbi at Congregation Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, who, with Debbie Friedman, led aservice called "Nusach California" at a regional UAHC convention several years ago. "So much of Jewish music is mournful, not soulful. We're never going to get to young people if our music doesn't reflect joy."Thus the persistent folk-rock influence that has infused so much Jewish music since the late '60s. "Popular music has always played a major role in coloring the music of the service," Ira Bigeleisen said. "In Eastern Europe, it was klezmer music; in Germany, it was classical music." Bigeleisen points out that in Europe, where most people still listen to classical music, Jews reject the pop-oriented liturgical tunes that are so popular in the States.

Aviva Rosenbloom, longtime cantor at Temple Israel of Hollywood, also points to an American culture lacking in serious music education as an influence on Jewish music. "Not as many people go to classical music concerts as in the past generation," she said. "Not as many kids study instruments seriously and play in orchestras; classical music becomes foreign territory. This affects how they respond to more formal compositions [in the synagogue]."

To Taubman, however, genre is unimportant compared to effect. "Sacred music is what moves people, period," he said. "If it works for people, who am I to tell them it's bad? If it brings people into the synagogue, inspires them to do mitzvot, to connect - who's to say it's bad?"

In a project not quite like any heretofore created, Taubman is going to write the music for a Shabbat morning service in which he melds his signature pop sound with traditional nusach. "We hope the congregants will get the tools they need to pray in an easy, digestible form within the framework of tradition," said Bigeleisen, who is participating in the project along with other Conservative cantors, Rabbi Richard Levy of Hebrew Union College, and Synagogue 2000, the transdenominational institute studying the changing synagogue and whose temple will introduce the service. "I think this allows us to innovate while staying connected with two thousand years of Jewish tradition."

If certain trends within Jewish music today are causing certain Jews to grit their teeth, perhaps it's time to look at the big picture. "I think that many worshipers nowadays want to feel joyful at services because we have much to be joyful about: the State of Israel, the integrated position of Jews in America," Bigeleisen said. "These are major changes from 60 years ago."

Nor are cantorial or Jewish choral music likely to die out as long as there are people who care enough to keep them going. American Orthodox Judaism was moribund 40 years ago, but it came back to life in the 1970s and is thriving and growing today. Yiddish was a dying language 20 years ago; now young people are flocking to classes and learning to speak, read and write the mame-loshn. Chazzanut may take on some unaccustomed colors and shapes in the coming years, but reports of its demise are probably premature.Julie Silver is too excited to worry that Jewish music is anything but flourishing. "It's a very hot time in Jewish music," she says. "Things are changing and growing. We are embracing our past and dealing with the present while keeping a steady eye on the future. [The words] speak to more Jews - especially the ones who years ago would have turned and walked away from shul because of the classical rigidity, the perceived dogma, the inability of the synagogue to adapt and change.

"Music is the language that binds us," Silver continues. "We look to our Jewish songwriters to tell the stories, to remember the past with reverence, honesty and wit. But it is incumbent upon us to change, to be radical, to reach out and create new traditions. Our experiences, set to the music of our American homeland, will lead us back into the synagogue and make the worship experience meaningful, sweet, and relevant."

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