August 10, 2010
The Shofar: Not Just for High Holy Days Anymore
With our intentions — and especially our ears — tuned to the month of Elul, we might ask: Who turned up the shofar?
For Jews, its soulful sound is not just for High Holy Days anymore, and today, a growing number of Christians are hearing its call as well.
One night this spring, as I was driving home down a stretch of midcity Pico Boulevard, I saw the spiraled form of a Yemenite-style shofar sticking high up over a man’s shoulder in the window of a Latino evangelical church.
Was someone playing our song?
“I know of several churches which are using the shofar,” Pastor Leslie Peters of the Harvest Celebration Church in Northridge told me.
Peters should know, because he plays. Taught by shofar teacher and master player Michael Chusid, Peters sees blowing the shofar as symbolizing freedom. He also associates its sound “with the time when Jesus comes again.”
During services at his church, which are attended by a hundred or more people, Peters, who also plays keyboard in the church’s band, keeps his shofar close at hand. The pastor holds back, anticipating a moment when he feels the strong presence of God.
“That’s when I get up from behind my keyboard,” he said, “and give one long blast.” “People respond with great joy,” he added.
Other Christians have used the shofar as a political instrument.
This year, on the East Coast, a group of Tea Partyers blew the shofar to call attention to their battle against health care reform. “May the sound of the shofar reach the ears of almighty God,” the shofar blower said in a YouTube video of the event.
Here in Los Angeles, at a recent Wilshire Boulevard rally supporting Israel during the Gaza blockade crisis, three women also used shofars to show political support, in this case, for the State of Israel. “We’re from a messianic synagogue,” explained Shirley Bragg, one of the blowers.
Chusid, a Los Angeles building productmarketing consultant and ba’al tekiyah (master blaster), is also the energy behind hearingshofar.com, a Web site devoted to all things shofar. “My blog gets more hits from Christians than Jews,” Chusid said.
He counts among the site’s readers a shepherd from New Hampshire as well as a family of Thor followers in the Midwest.
Chusid is also an advocate of an expanded Jewish use of the shofar. “The shofar has become ossified,” he said.
In Chusid’s Internet book, “Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn,” he cites textual and historic precedents for blowing the shofar on Rosh Chodesh, Sukkot and Chanukah.
He also has found a use for the shofar on Passover, but not as an instrument.
At his seder, which he holds annually with friends and family in the California desert, he pours some wine into a shofar and uses it as Elijah’s cup. “The bends of the shofar keep the wine from spilling out,” he said.
Another Southlander, David Zasloff, further expands the boundaries of the shofar by using it to sound jazz riffs. This year, Zasloff — who also plays the shakuhachi (end blown) flute, trumpet and percussion — performed a piece he composed for shofar, titled “Jumpin’ in Jerusalem,” before an audience at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
Outdoing that, perhaps, he also blows a note-for-note rendition of “Hatikvah” in a video on YouTube.
Years ago, Zasloff found himself in Seattle working in a restaurant called Matzoh Momma. As he tells the story, “A rabbi invited me over to his house and asked me to play the shofar,” he said. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” was the first song to come out.
“The shofar helped me to reclaim my Judaism,” he said. “The sounds of the shofar remind you to be who you are. It’s a higher communication,” he said.
The reclaimed Zasloff now also uses the shofar to entertain. In a performance called Shofar-Palooza, he alternates playing impossible shofar pieces, like “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” with timely beats of Jewish humor.
Zasloff, who will blow the shofar in three different settings during this year’s High Holy Days, has also played it in non-Jewish settings. “The spiritually oriented have a familiarity with it,” he said.
Regardless of religious orientation, shofar blowers — be they performers, teachers or preachers — are all aware of the shofar’s emotional power.
A few years ago, during Elul, when Jews are supposed to hear the shofar every day, I accompanied our congregation’s shofar blower, my wife, Brenda Rodman, on a “shofar call” to a fellow congregant’s home. That morning, she blew one long blast, and the woman in whose front yard we stood burst into tears.
“People are astounded and transfixed by the sound,” Zasloff said. “It brings people to tears. They’re overwhelmed.”
“The sound recalls old memories,” Chusid said. “The blowing releases our feelings. It’s a powerful chain of tone that expresses what we cannot express. The rawness of the sound releases ancient pains that are encoded in our DNA.”
“It’s our power instrument,” Peters said.
A call “to joy in the world,” Chusid said.