JOE BUCHANAN’S A Lit­tle Bit Coun­try, And More Than A Lit­tle Bit Jewish, Too.

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Sam Kesten­baum

At the largest gath­er­ing of Re­form Jews in the coun­try held late last year, Joe Buchanan stuck out in the crowd. Thou­sands of Jews had gath­ered in Bos­ton for four days of wor­ship and learn­ing. But Buchanan was the only Jewish cow­boy.

In a black felt hat and a pat­terned hand­ker­chief tied around his wrist, Buchanan, 41, wove his way through the crowd of ed­u­ca­tors and ven­dors at the packed con­ven­tion cen­ter host­ing the Union for Re­form Ju­daism’s bi­en­nial con­ven­tion.

The URJ made a pam­phlet fea­tur­ing the many mu­si­cians in the crowd and high­lighted Buchanan as a poster boy for Jewish coun­try: “This is feel-good, toetap­ping Amer­i­cana with a Jewish Soul.”

Buchanan is a Texan con­vert to Ju­daism who has been ris­ing within the Jewish mu­sic cir­cuit. While much con­tem­po­rary de­vo­tional Jewish mu­sic draws from Amer­i­can roots mu­sic — think Deb­bie Fried­man or even Shlomo Car­lebach, who joined Ha­sidic melodies with folk in­flu­ence of the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture — Buchanan brings a coun­try twang to He­brew prayer. A long­time spir­i­tual seeker who once jumped from church to church in Hous­ton, Buchanan dis­cov­ered Ju­daism six years ago and de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence as a

‘Some­times it can feel like I’m on the out­side look­ing in.’

home­com­ing. His de­but al­bum, “Un­bro­ken,” fea­tures songs in He­brew and English and Buchanan de­scribes it as a per­sonal tes­ta­ment to be­lief.

The al­bum is a “story about find­ing faith and stand­ing tall,” Buchanan said, “and choos­ing to be cho­sen.”

Buchanan was born and raised in Hous­ton and, like most peo­ple he knew, went to church “I be­lieved in God,” he said. “But I strug­gled with the things that other peo­ple told me about God and about the af­ter­life. Like, why would a loving God send us to Hell?”

In the 1990s, Buchanan worked at a gam­ing and comic book store down­town. He would hang out with bud­dies on Satur­day night and on Sun­day go to church — of­ten a dif­fer­ent one each week­end. On slow days at the comic shop, he’d sit be­hind the counter and pluck at a gui­tar, which he had taught him­self to play.

One af­ter­noon, a woman named April Mitchell walked in the store and Buchanan felt the wind knocked out of him. “I lost my mind,” he said. “I just wanted to im­press her.” They would soon start dat­ing, even­tully marry — and years later con­vert to Ju­daism to­gether.

April, now a 44-year-old IT con­sul­tant, was raised

in Texas to a South­ern Bap­tist fa­ther and non-ob­ser­vant Jewish mother. She would at­tend church as a child, but of­ten felt aloof. “I would sit in the pews,” she said, “but wouldn’t pray.”

Her Jewish mother, orig­i­nally from New York, taught her some ba­sics about con­tem­po­rary Jewish his­tory — and gave her a Star of David neck­lace — but Ju­daism al­ways felt dis­tant. April joined a Methodist youth group as a teenager, but it was more of a so­cial thing, she said.

When April met Joe, she was work­ing in devel­op­ment for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Ser­vice and felt dis­con­nected from for­mal re­li­gion. “I was drift­ing fur­ther and fur­ther away from any re­li­gion and drifted away from God,” she said.

Joe’s spir­i­tual seek­ing may have rubbed off on her. As they got to know each other, she’d at­tend church with him on his wide-rang­ing trips around Hous­ton. They mar­ried in 1999, in a civil cer­e­mony.

Their son, Nathan, was born the next year. Joe jumped around jobs — selling cars, work­ing for a con­struc­tion com­pany — be­fore set­tling into a hu­man re­sources gig at an in­dus­trial clean­ing com­pany. April shifted to IT work. Joe’s spir­i­tual seek­ing con­tin­ued — fre­quently vis­it­ing a Methodist church near their home — but the fam­ily never set­tled on one con­gre­ga­tion or prac­tice.

Then a 2011 visit to the United States Holo­caust Memo­rial Mu­seum in Washington, D.C. changed ev­ery­thing. The Buchanans spent hours at the mu­seum, mov­ing through ex­hibits about the rise of Nazism in Ger­many and the hor­rors of the Jewish geno­cide. “It hit me. Some­thing was miss­ing. There was some­thing more,” April said. “A light­bulb went off.”

April stood out­side the mu­seum and told Joe that she wanted to learn more about Ju­daism. “You’ve been try­ing to fig­ure out God for a long time,” she said. “I think I want to get in touch with my peo­ple’s faith.” Joe was sur­prised — he had nearly for­got­ten that she had Jewish roots — but said he’d be open to try­ing Ju­daism out, too.

They were largely ig­no­rant about the re­li­gion then. All Joe knew, he jokes, was that Jews didn’t eat pork. April ad­mits now that she thought Ju­daism was just “Chris­tian­ity with­out Je­sus.”

Back home in Hous­ton, April and Joe went to their com­puter and searched ques­tions like, “What do Jews be­lieve?” The re­sults were over­whelm­ing. “There were so many cur­tains to pull back,” Joe said.

They be­gan delv­ing into Jewish sto­ries and pick­ing up re­li­gious ob­jects for their home, like a mez­zuzah — but even­tu­ally de­cided they needed some sort of guide and a com­muntiy.

Down the road from their home, they found a syn­a­gogue of around 130 fam­i­lies called Shaar Hashalom, one of three syn­a­gogues serv­ing the Jewish pop­u­la­tion in the south­west cor­ner of the city.

The con­gre­ga­tion’s rabbi, Stu­art Federow, 64, is a Re­form-trained rabbi with an Or­tho­dox back­ground who runs a Con­ser­va­tive syn­a­gogue — and sees him­self as not fit­ting neatly into one de­nom­i­na­tion. For over a decade he’s hosted a live call-in talk show about com­par­a­tive re­li­gion and is the author of a book ti­tled “Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity: A Con­trast.” Federow said he wel­comes con­verts who want to ex­plore their her­itage or are just seek­ing. The Buchanans felt at home. Par­ents and son be­gan learn­ing about Ju­daism with the rabbi — and con­verted to­gether in 2013.

There have been some bumpy mo­ments for the new Jewish fam­ily. Buchanan re­called be­ing ap­proached by an ul­tra-Or­tho­dox rabbi who ques­tioned the va­lid­ity of his con­ver­sion. “Some­times, it can feel like I’m out­side look­ing in, hon­estly,” Buchanan said. “I’m still try­ing to fig­ure out where I fit.”

As he be­gan at­tend­ing Shaar Hashalom, Joe would bring his gui­tar to the syn­a­gogue and play. Federow was im­me­di­ately struck by Joe’s charisma and ta­lent — and urged his new con­gre­gant to at­tend a group class for Jewish song­writ­ers, called Song Leader Boot­camp.

The song­writ­ing camp was his first ex­po­sure to the Jewish mu­sic world. He met can­tors, rab­bis and lay lead­ers from Con­ser­va­tive and Re­form cir­cles who were us­ing mu­sic and song in prayer set­tings.

When Joe came back to Shaar Hashalom he started try­ing out his own mu­sic-in­fused prayer ser­vices. They were so pop­u­lar that he be­gan vis­it­ing other Texas syn­a­gogues to play. Now, he trav­els nearly ev­ery week­end to a dif­fer­ent con­gre­ga­tion, where he’ll play and also lead work­shops where he shares his story. “Peo­ple want to know, why are peo­ple con­vert­ing? What are the seek­ing? How can we wel­come them?”

Joe’s rabbi said he’s proud of his con­gre­gant — even though he isn’t at his Hous­ton homebase as of­ten any­more. “Elvis didn’t stay in Tu­pelo, ei­ther,” Federow said.

Buchanan con­nected with Saul Kaye, a mu­sic pro­ducer known as the “king of Jewish blues” and recorded a 14-song al­bum fea­tur­ing old school or­gan and lap steel gui­tar. Buchanan’s rabbi even wrote the lyrics to a song, in­spired by a pas­sage from the Ami­dah. Buchanan left his job, work­ing in hu­man re­sources for an in­dus­trial clean­ing com­pany, to fo­cus on mu­sic.

“Peo­ple are of­ten ask­ing, ‘Where is the new Jewish mu­sic?’ Federow said. “There is a sea of it out there. And Joe is a part of that.”

Back at that mas­sive URJ con­fer­ence, Buchanan stood at the back of the au­di­to­rium by him­self. He had been per­form­ing ear­lier and in­tro­duc­ing other mu­si­cal acts. Then, he was hyp­ing up the crowd, lift­ing his arms to rouse the au­di­ence. Now, he was crouched in the back, tak­ing a mo­ment for him­self. He would be play­ing an­other large con­fer­ence the next day and ad­mit­ted he was feel­ing ex­hausted. “I still some­times feel a great dis­tance,” he said. “I needed a mo­ment to pray.”

COUR­TESY OF JOE BUCHANAN

HE’S GONE COUN­TRY: Joe Buchanan’s de­but al­bum fea­tures songs in English and He­brew.

COUR­TESY OF JOE BUCHANAN

TRUE BE­LIEVER: Buchanan left his gig at a clean­ing com­pany to fo­cus more on mu­sic.

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