HOW CAN A JEW LOVE GOSPEL SO DAMN MUCH?

Forward Magazine - - FORWARD COLLEGE GUIDE - By Philip Eil

Syn­a­gogue was never a par­tic­u­larly re­li­gious place for me. The songs, prayers and rituals I ob­served and par­tic­i­pated in at my home­town Conservative syn­a­gogue just never re­ally did it for me.

By “it,” I mean the feel­ing that I al­ways sensed I was sup­posed have in­side that build­ing with the stained­glass win­dows, wood-backed pews and time-worn prayer books: what peo­ple com­monly re­fer to as a “a re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence.” It could have been a sense of to­tal awe or com­fort, or a tin­gling through my limbs, or a giddy-warm sen­sa­tion in my chest, or a wave of emo­tion that brought tears to my eyes. But in years of at­tend­ing syn­a­gogue, it never came.

The clos­est I’ve come to that feel­ing has been when I have been around var­i­ous works of art: the mu­rals of Diego Rivera; the films of Pe­dro Almod­ó­var and the Coen Broth­ers; the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass; the ar­chi­tec­ture of McKim, Mead & White — and, per­haps most of­ten and most acutely, while lis­ten­ing to music. In par­tic­u­lar, Chris­tian gospel music.

This puts me, a Jew, in an awk­ward po­si­tion. Be­cause if I’m be­ing brac­ingly hon­est, I have to ad­mit that I’ve felt holier lis­ten­ing to Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” than I ever felt in He­brew school; that Nina Si­mone’s “Nearer Blessed Lord” brought me nearer to some sort of lord than I ever felt at Jewish sum­mer camp, and that I was more rapt watch­ing the 1984 doc­u­men­tary “Gospel Ac­cord­ing to Al Green” than I ever was dur­ing a High Hol­i­days ser­vice.

Now, I’m no stranger to the lit­tle speed bumps of guilt and con­fu­sion that line the road of my life. I hit them when I chomp on a piece of ba­con, or slurp down an oys­ter, or date a non-Jewish woman, or send a work email on Satur­day, or sneak a nosh be­fore sun­down on Yom Kip­pur.

But this gospel music sit­u­a­tion feels more in­tense. I don’t like to ad­mit that Jewish music doesn’t move me, and at the same time, what does it say about me that Chris­tian gospel makes me want to shout “Hal­lelu­jah!”?

Be­fore we go any fur­ther, it’s worth defin­ing some terms.

When I say “Jewish music,” I mean the prayers and melodies I’ve heard in syn­a­gogue over the years— the Sh’ma, Aleinu, the Kad­dishes, and end-of-ser­vice hymns, like “Ein Kelo­heinu.” I also mean the non­prayer songs I learned in He­brew school, in­clud­ing Is­raeli songs like “Yerusha­layim Shel Za­hav” and the coun­try’s na­tional an­them, “Hatik­vah.”

And while we’re at it, I also mean ev­ery other Jewish tune I learned along the way, from “Hava Nag­ila,” to Klezmer tunes, to “Dayenu,” to Adam San­dler’s “The Han­nukah Song.” They all leave me cold.

And when I re­fer to Chris­tian gospel, I’m re­ally talk­ing about the re­li­gious music from some of my fa­vorite clas­sic soul and rhythm and blues artists (al­most all of whom got their start in the church) that’s heav­ily Chris­tian in its lyrics. I’m think­ing of Al Green’s mes­mer­iz­ing per­for­mance of “Je­sus Is Wait­ing” on “Soul Train” in the 1970s, and Billy Pre­ston singing “That’s the Way God Planned It” at the Con­cert for Bangladesh in 1971, and Sam Cooke singing “Je­sus Gave Me Wa­ter” and “Touch the Hem of His Gar­ment,” and Otis Red­ding singing “Amen.” And I’m talk­ing, per­haps most di­rectly, about Aretha Franklin’s dou­ble al­bum, “Amaz­ing Grace,” recorded live at Los An­ge­les’s New Tem­ple Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church in the win­ter of 1972.

That al­bum sold more than 2 mil­lion copies, which made it both the best­selling al­bum of Franklin’s ca­reer and the high­est-sell­ing live gospel music of all time. It fea­tures an an­gelic, choir­backed cover of Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” that con­veys the sen­sa­tion of as­cend­ing up­ward through the clouds. It in­cludes a driv­ing, thump­ing, fire-breath­ing ver­sion of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and a jaw-drop­ping, 11-minute ver­sion of the ti­tle track, “Amaz­ing Grace.” As the music jour­nal­ist and author of a 2011 book on the al­bum, Aaron Co­hen, told me re­cently, Franklin’s per­for­mance on the dou­ble al­bum is, sim­ply, “her peak, as a singer.”

For a Jewish kid from Rhode Is­land who had never set foot in a real-life gospel ser­vice, that al­bum served as a Gospel 101 in­tro­duc­tory class when I first en­coun­tered it in my late 20s. But it was also an in­tro­duc­tion to an un­com­fort­able sense that some kind of spir­i­tual re­bel­lion was tak­ing place in­side me.

It didn’t take long into my in­ves­ti­ga­tion to ar­rive at my first semi-com­fort­ing con­clu­sion: The line be­tween Ju­daism and Chris­tian gospel is not nearly as bold and im­per­me­able as I once thought.

Of course, Bob Dy­lan — born Robert Zim­mer­man — had a gospel pe­riod dur­ing the late 1970s and early ’80s that’s been much dis­cussed lately, with the re­cent re­lease of a book called “Trou­ble in Mind: Bob Dy­lan’s Gospel Years

What Re­ally Hap­pened” by Clin­ton Heylin, and a multi-CD set called “Trou­ble No More — The Boot­leg Se­ries Vol. 13 –1979–1981,” re­leased last year. This was the era in which Dy­lan told an au­di­ence in Al­bu­querque: “I said the an­swer was blowin’ in the wind, and it was! And I’m say­ing to you now, Je­sus is com­ing back, and he is!

Jews even played a key role in pack­ag­ing and pro­duc­ing my most sa­cred gospel text.

There is no other way to sal­va­tion.”

Can­tor Jeff Klep­per of Tem­ple Si­nai of Sharon, in Sharon, Mas­sachusetts, is a well-known fig­ure in con­tem­po­rary Jewish music. And when I spoke with him, he de­scribed Dy­lan’s en­tire ca­reer as a kind of mir­ror for many Jews. The quandary I had ap­proached him with — es­sen­tially, what to make of my love for Chris­tian music — is “pre­cisely at the root of the psy­che of Bob Dy­lan: this be­ing torn be­tween his Jewish iden­tity, on the one hand, and his Amer­i­can roots-mu­si­cal journey on the other,” he told me. Gospel is a key in­gre­di­ent in Amer­i­can roots music, he ex­plained. And, Dy­lan is “in some ways… ev­ery Jew who comes from a Jewish back­ground, [who is] then... se­duced by the riches of Amer­i­can music.”

And he wasn’t the only one. Paul Si­mon per­formed for years with the gospel singer Jessy Dixon. And more re­cently, the Jewish-raised, gospelob­sessed mu­si­cian Eli “Paper­boy” Reed has played in gospel groups, per­formed in black churches, DJed gospel nights at bars in Brook­lyn and taught in Man­hat­tan’s Gospel for Teens pro­gram. And when I caught him on the phone for an in­ter­view, Reed, in turn, pointed out that “Pretty much… ev­ery sin­gle one of the im­por­tant record la­bel own­ers in the 1950s and ’60s was Jewish.” Ex­am­ples in­clude Leonard Chess from Chess Records; Fred Men­del­sohn, long­time pres­i­dent of Savoy Records, in New Jer­sey, and the Bi­hari broth­ers — Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe — who founded Mod­ern Records, in Los An­ge­les. Each of those la­bels was well known for pro­duc­ing and re­leas­ing gospel music.

Jews even played a key role pack­ag­ing and pro­duc­ing my most sa­cred gospel text, “Amaz­ing Grace.” The al­bum was, like so much of Franklin’s most in­deli­ble work, pro­duced by Jerry Wexler, who is cred­ited with en­cour­ag­ing the singer to

AMER­I­CAN GOSPEL STAR: Billy Pre­ston singing and play­ing the pi­ano in the 1970s.

‘Pretty much ev­ery sin­gle one of the im­por­tant record la­bel own­ers in the 1950s and 60s was Jewish.’

tap into her gospel roots when record­ing sec­u­lar tunes like “Re­spect” or “Chain of Fools.” (Franklin’s fa­ther, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a well-known Bap­tist min­is­ter in Detroit.) In Wexler’s L.A. Times obituary from 2008, the co-author of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, David Ritz, said, “With Aretha, [Wexler] knew how to de­con­struct her in or­der to re­con­struct her, and he re­con­structed her based on her own fundamental el­e­ments, which were the church and gospel music.”

As it turns out, I wasn’t even the first per­son in my fam­ily to be drawn to Chris­tian music. My fa­ther, Charles, is a long-prac­tic­ing en­docri­nol­o­gist who, when he’s not at his of­fice treat­ing peo­ple with di­a­betes and thy­roid is­sues, likes to sing. He’s sung in var­i­ous civic cho­ral groups for decades, and for years he’s also sung bari­tone in our syn­a­gogue choir dur­ing High Hol­i­days ser­vices.

When I asked my fa­ther whether he be­lieves in a higher power, he said, “I think there’s prob­a­bly an all-en­com­pass­ing be­ing of some sort,” and when I pressed fur­ther he told me that he feels most con­nected to that be­ing while singing. But not nec­es­sar­ily dur­ing the High Hol­i­days. “It’s no more mov­ing for me to sing the Jewish music than it is [to sing] the goy­ish music, be­cause I like them both,” he said. His fa­vorite piece, in fact, is one of the world’s most fa­mous Chris­tian praise songs: Ge­orge Frid­eric Han­del’s “Mes­siah.”

“I love the ‘Mes­siah,’” my dad told me. “I could sing the ‘Mes­siah’ ev­ery day.”

When I spoke with Can­tor Nancy Abram­son, Di­rec­tor of the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary’s H.L. Miller Can­to­rial School and Col­lege of Jewish Music, she ac­knowl­edged that this wasn’t the first time she had heard such crit­i­cism. And she noted that, af­ter “some soul search­ing,” the Conservative move­ment has be­gun to em­brace change — in­clud­ing shorter ser­vices, ex­panded To­rah dis­cus­sion and in­creased par­tic­i­pa­tion from mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion dur­ing ser­vices.

She also added that, while can­to­rial singing and gospel music may have af­fected me dif­fer­ently, she views the phi­los­o­phy be­hind the two as nearly identical. “What we are all try­ing to do is reach your heart­strings,” she said. “And not all of my col­leagues are suc­cess­ful at it, but I cer­tainly try to make sure that my stu­dents find their heart in what they sing, and can share that with their com­mu­nity — and that’s what the gospel singers that you’re so at­tracted to are do­ing. It’s like you can see right into their hearts when they sing.”

I also spoke with a Re­form rabbi, whom we both agreed could re­main anony­mous so that he could speak more freely. Be­yond my lack of emo­tional con­nec­tion to the Conservative ser­vices of my up­bring­ing, the rabbi said that it wasn’t just a mat­ter of mu­si­cal styles I was re­spond­ing to. It was also an in­her­ent dif­fer­ence be­tween Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity, them­selves. Af­ter all, Chris­tian­ity, he said, is all about per­sonal sal­va­tion, whereas Ju­daism em­phat­i­cally isn’t. “Ju­daism is about the Jewish peo­ple!” he said.

“You think you’re there for you, at a prayer ser­vice, but you’re not,” he said. “Ju­daism could give a rat’s ass about your per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Ju­daism cares about the fact that you are there, show­ing up, do­ing a mitz­vah, for God. Pe­riod. There is no other thing that you’re do­ing.”

You’re not sup­posed to get some­thing

out of it, he said. You’re sup­posed to show up and do the thing you’re sup­posed to do. Ju­daism doesn’t care about your spirit; Ju­daism cares about what

you do. “And what you do is, by show­ing up, you make a minyan; that en­ables the ser­vice to go for­ward, and we get to pray, and give our thanks to God,” he said.

“So it’s not about my feel­ings?” I asked.

“No!” he replied. “It’s never been about your feel­ings.”

In late March I at­tended a bris for my nephew, in Brook­lyn. It was a small event, about a dozen fam­ily mem­bers gath­ered in my brother and sis­terand-law’s apart­ment. While the mo­hel worked, he in­ter­spersed his English re­marks by softly singing He­brew prayers and melodies. And as I lis­tened to him, I looked at my brother, who seemed to be ab­sorb­ing the pro­ceed­ings with an even mix­ture of pride and ter­ror. I was in­tensely moved.

I’ve thought a lot about that mo­ment, and what moved me so much, since then. Maybe it was thoughts of my 97-year-old grand­mother, who had passed away al­most ex­actly a year ear­lier. Or maybe it was watch­ing my brother (who is al­ready the fa­ther of a 2-year-old girl) be­come a fa­ther yet again. Or maybe it was sim­ply the presence of this tiny, soft, breath­ing, pink, beau­ti­ful child whose ar­rival into our fam­ily, and this planet, we had gath­ered to cel­e­brate.

But I think I was also — per­haps es­pe­cially — moved by the Jewish­ness of the scene. That bris crys­tal­lized some­thing about how I en­gage, emo­tion­ally, with be­ing Jewish, which is that while “Hatik­vah” and Aleinu don’t do much for me, my ex­plo­ration of, and con­nec­tion to, Jewish his­tory does. The words and melodies that the mo­hel sang, and that we all hummed or sang with him, were a thread con­nect­ing me to a deep his­tory of Ju­daism. And that did leave me awestruck. That does move me. This mo­ment felt like a rev­e­la­tion, and one that hap­pened amid the wine bot­tles, baby toys and couches at my brother and sis­ter-in-law’s apart­ment, in­stead of at a stained-glass syn­a­gogue sanc­tu­ary. And it also called to mind some­thing from my con­ver­sa­tion with the Re­form rabbi to whom I had spo­ken.

At one point in our con­ver­sa­tion, he said that dur­ing ser­vices at his syn­a­gogue, from up on the bimah, he is spir­i­tu­ally moved by the con­gre­ga­tion singing and pray­ing with the music. It isn’t nec­es­sar­ily that he’s com­muning with God at that very mo­ment. Rather it’s the idea of see­ing that peo­ple are en­gaged with Jewish life.

“That is what I love,” he told me. “And I feel that acutely… if peo­ple are dig­ging it, then I know that Jewish life will sort of con­tinue and grow and evolve, and I am moved by that.”

Rob Tan­nen­baum is a vet­eran music jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten al­bum re­views, in­ter­viewed rock stars and cowrit­ten the book “I Want My MTV: The Un­cen­sored Story of the Music Video Rev­o­lu­tion.” He is also part of a satir­i­cal rock duo called Good for the Jews, which I wrote about years ago, when they played at Brown Univer­sity Hil­lel. “I’ve been writ­ing songs about be­ing Jewish for, it might be, 20 years. Partly be­cause I was so un­sat­is­fied with the ex­ist­ing cat­a­log of songs about be­ing Jewish,” he said when I spoke to him on the phone. “So I cer­tainly agree with your premise.”

Tan­nen­baum de­scribed him­self as a Jewish ag­nos­tic who is “con­tent with that con­tra­dic­tion,” and from there he mat­ter-of-factly told me that there are two things on earth that very quickly made him be­lieve in the ex­is­tence of God: St. Paul’s Cathe­dral, in Lon­don, and great gospel music.

“I think there is an un­lim­ited num­ber of ways to be a Jew,” Tan­nen­baum told me. Of the 613 com­mand­ments in the To­rah, a per­son can ob­serve any num­ber, in­clud­ing zero, and he would still con­sider them Jewish, he said: “You can never go to syn­a­gogue and still be a Jew.”

Music, he says, plays a key role in this frame­work. Be­cause if ev­ery Jew gets to make his or her own rules about Ju­daism, then this in­cludes the way they de­fine Jewish music. “So one of the things that I need to feel happy as a Jew is a broader sense of what it means to be a Jew,” he said. “And be­cause I love music, that in­cludes a broader sense of what Jewish music is.” This in­cludes an­cient hymns, but it also in­cludes Irv­ing Ber­lin and ev­ery Amer­i­can Jewish com­poser or song­writer af­ter him.

Sud­denly, doors flung open in my mind. So, by that logic, I asked, was Ge­orge Gersh­win’s “Rhap­sody in Blue” Jewish music? And Dy­lan’s “Blood on the Tracks”? Was it fair to even call them “Jewish gospel music”?

“I think it is, yes,” he said.

This was an elec­tri­fy­ing thought. Whereas be­fore I felt terrible that I hadn’t been con­nect­ing with my own iden­tity — that I was at odds with my tribe — ac­cord­ing to Tan­nen­baum’s def­i­ni­tion I wasn’t dis­con­nected at all; I just needed a change of per­spec­tive. The Beastie Boys are Jewish music. So is Amy Wine­house. So are Leonard Co­hen and Ca­role King.

By that def­i­ni­tion, even Aretha Franklin sings two Jewish tunes on “Amaz­ing Grace”: King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and, most ap­pro­pri­ately, the Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein song from the 1940s mu­si­cal “Carousel”: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

‘I feel that acutely. If peo­ple are dig­ging it, then I know that Jewish life will con­tinue and grow and evolve, and I’m moved by that.’

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