By Beth Kissileff
No one could have predicted thirty years ago that the cantorial school at Hebrew Union College would one day be named for Debbie Friedman. At the dawn of her career, Friedman was considered a maverick, someone who didn’t know about the traditions of Jewish music, a self-taught song leader rather than the prevailing model of cantor, a carefully trained musician. The first time I attended a performance of hers, in the early nineties in a non-descript suburban New Jersey synagogue, my husband and I brought along a recent convert to Judaism who had been a member of the Princeton University Tiger Lilies, a female a cappella group. Since music was so important to this young woman, we wanted to be sure that she knew the range of possibilities inherent in Jewish music. The surroundings at the synagogue were fairly drab, industrial brick walls, uncomfortable folding chairs, but the physical backdrop became irrelevant as all the audience members rose to their feet, singing and clapping, raucously enthused by Friedman’s performance. My friend turned to me and screamed over the roaring crowd, “Who said Jews don’t have soul?” That was Debbie Friedman’s gift, the ability to use her music as a vehicle to reach peoples’ souls. She created moments of prayer in the midst of a performance and reached her listeners in their kishkes.
But where is soul in Jewish music today? To try and get a flavor of it, I recently attended two very different amateur group performances in Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh Gospel Choir performing in honor of Martin Luther King Day and the Maccabeats singing at a local Orthodox shul. In both performances, the power of amateur performers—those who do not make a primary income from performing—was evident. In some ways, amateurs can have more verve than professionals. No one is making them perform; they are doing it from their souls, as an emanation of emotion expressing something significant. At the Pittsburgh Gospel Choir, the most moving performance was by an elderly woman who had been using her voice to praise God for most of her seventy-some years. She exemplified the soul for which gospel choirs are famous, bringing the performance and the prayer together as one; for Jews the question is where music fits in as a way to access our Jewish souls.
On the Jewish end of my exploration, the Maccabeats proved musically talented, engaging and fun to listen to, but they have yet to meld performance and prayer to an extent that gives that same kind of soul to their audiences. Instead, they drowned in an air of celebrity; an eyewitness averred that when they came to the local Orthodox day school on Friday afternoon, the atmosphere was charged, as though the Beatles had come to town. Apparently there was much screaming, particularly by the distaff sex, when they arrived; to the kids, and those of us who saw their faces so often on the “Candlelight” video, they were Jewish rock stars. On the topic of soul, one of the Maccabeats, Yonatan Shefa, wrote via email that the two aspects are hard to compare “When we lead davening as a group, our aim is to uplift davening, and help people connect; we don’t want that the focus should be on us, but rather on the prayer. We want people to respond, not merely sit and listen.” Perhaps this was the difficulty for some of us listening to them daven: The congregation may be too focused on them and their star power. Though the crowd was roused, and most were singing along, something about the atmosphere felt too performance-like for a prayer service.
While the role of a gospel choir in providing soul and ballast to a church service is clear; the question for Jews is about the future of music in American synagogues. Though talented, the Maccabeats never got the audience pumped enough to stand up and scream as Friedman had so often done. Not everyone needs to have the same performance style, but these “rock stars” never got the audience to dance in a mosh pit or frenzy. What Debbie Friedman brought to Jewish music was soul. The challenge for the Maccabeats will be giving modern Orthodoxy a more musical focus, creating moments engaged in both prayer and performance, as Debbie Friedman did for Reform worship. No matter where it comes from, we need Jewish music that will make people ask, “Who said Jews don’t have soul?”
Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis and has completed a novel. She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.