Singing songs out of shul

Jewish music has been banished from the shul. Orthodox synagogues no longer are places where one can go to hear professional renditions of Jewish melodies. Ninety percent or more of the shuls have amateurs leading the services. While these laymen may have nice voices and may sing on key (sometimes), they mostly are not professional singers.

So where does a Jew go these days for good religious musical inspiration? Lots of places apparently.

That is what reporter Abigail Leichman asks and answers in today's Bergen Record:

Music is 'cultural cue' for young secular Jews


The crowd at Chana Rothman's show at Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction last August was young and Jewish. As is Rothman herself, who describes her music as "an urban-influenced take -- reggae, pop, funk -- on Jewish teachings."

Anyone who's heard Hasidic reggae phenom Matisyahu on Top 40 radio knows something big is brewing in the world of Jewish music: It's become a cultural touchstone for young Jews with little religious education or identity.

The trend, says Rothman, "reflects the changing face of how people want to live out their Judaism."

Raised in a Canadian household where "Judaism is something you do and create yourself," Rothman traces the revolution to Rick Recht, a touring musician who took contemporary Jewish tunes from the summer-camp/synagogue scene to concert venues.

"We as Jews want to pop Rick Recht into the stereo the way we pop in Jack Johnson; to consume music the way Christians consume music," says Rothman.

The comparison is not accidental. "The Christian evangelical world spent time worrying about the decline of young people going to church," says Roger Bennett of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, a major Jewish funding organization.

"Rather than try to make young people attend [church], they focused on communicating values and utilized the burgeoning Christian music industry to deliver those messages. The Jewish community is just beginning to understand they can do something similar, albeit with a much smaller target audience."

The genre has seen explosive growth, with artists ranging from Basya Schechter (her band, Pharaoh's Daughter, performs Doors-like improvisations and liturgical chants with Middle Eastern and Hasidic stylings) to Jerusalem native Ayelet Rose Gotlieb, whose newest release is a reinterpretation of biblical love poetry from the Song of Songs.

There's also a growing niche of artists from the Orthodox world, like Matisyahu and the Moshav Band, whose shows at colleges, New York City clubs, and venues such as Mexicali Blues in Teaneck attract religious and secular Jewish audiences alike.

Both streams were among the crowds at Oyhoo, the weeklong New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival in September featuring newcomers like Rothman and veterans like "the Hasidic Hendrix" Yossi Piamenta.

"These are two groups that ... complement each other because you have cultural Jews in search of a Judaism and Orthodox Jews in search of a culture," says Steven Weiss, editor and publisher of CampusJ Jewish Collegiate News.

Even traditionally synagogue-centered cantorial music is finding a new fan base. Organizers of Sunday's "Helfgot Sings," a solo concert at the New York Metropolitan Opera featuring the "Jewish Placido Domingo," Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, expect the 4,000 attendees to include young, secular Jews.

"People are looking for music that inspires them," says Cantors World spokesman Benny Rogosnitzky, cantor at the Jewish Center of the West Side in Manhattan. "Cantorial music is a vocal art that tells a story, much like opera. Even if you don't understand the words, the notes in minor keys touch you and you get the point."

Whether or not they're personally observant, these performers aren't aiming to strengthen religious observance, just cultural pride and identity.

For the majority of aficionados, says Weiss, "This is their Judaism. It's their prayer service."

Bennett predicts the music phenomenon could be a big piece in the puzzle that philanthropists seek in assuring American Jewish continuity, but only if they understand its potential.

"Right now, Jewish funders seem to see it as a marginal thing, but for young audiences the messages and the community that music allows them to form is a critical manifestation that should be encouraged," says Bennett.

He is the creator of "Slingshot," a book available at www.2164.net that catalogs innovative Jewish programs helping young Jews build new cultural and religious connections. Among them is Storahtelling, a troupe that performs weekly Torah portions in nightclubs and theaters, and JDub Records, a label that promotes Jewish reggae and hip-hop artists. It represented Matisyahu until his recent switch to Sony.

Bennett's involved with Reboot Stereophonic, a non-profit record label "dedicated to digging through the crates of the Jewish past and rescuing forgotten gems to tell new, unexpected stories."

The release of "Jewface," its unique anthology of Jewish minstrel songs, got coverage in both the mainstream press and "trend-setting outlets where Judaism is hardly ever present, like Flaunt," he says.

Rothman, who teaches music in two non-denominational Jewish schools in New York City, considers creating her own indie label for female Jewish artists. Many of them are Israeli, or worked or studied there for a few months as she did.

"Spending time in Israel is key for some of the people involved in this trend," says Rothman, referring to both artists and fans.

"I wrote a song called 'Yisrael Ani Shelach' [Israel, I am yours] about the experience of feeling so inspired and then coming back and although you want to say all these huge, intense things, all you can say is 'It was good' because you can't really sum it up."

If the songs are drawing kids to Israel or reminding them of time spent there, they surely aren't drawing them to the synagogues and community centers where their parents may have forged their own Jewish identities.

"Buildings don't matter as much anymore," says Weiss. "The local JCC used to be a universal cultural cue and now it's music."

E-mail: leichman@northjersey.com

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