Rav Raz Hartman is usually found in a crowded shul in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood, reached by a steep staircase. His shul fuses music and mysticism, attracting Jews across the denominational and sartorial spectrum. A Jerusalem hipster may be swaying next to someone dressed in a flowing white robe.
The name Zusha is most commonly associated with an 18th century chasidic rebbe from the town of Anipoli in southeast Poland. Reb Zusha was a student of the Maggid of Mezritch, a main disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and was known for his great piety, scholarship and penchant for bursting out in spontaneous joy.
Ever wondered what would happen if you take dozens of hyper-literate Jews and give them a microphone and five minutes on a stage to riff on the weekly Torah portion? Look no further than SermonSlam, a succinctly self-described “poetry slam, but for sermons,” which will be making its New York debut at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope on Thursday night, January 22.
This past Thursday night, in the basement of Mechon Hadar on the Upper West Side, nearly sixty people gathered to sit in the round and listen and participate with the music being performed by Joey Weisenberg and several other musicians. Weisenberg, a staff member at Hadar who leads regular music and singing workshops, also teaches at JTS, Hebrew Union College, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. An accomplished singer, guitarist, percussionist, and mandolin player, Weisenberg played mandolin and guitar on Thursday night, and was joined by the Hadar Ensemble, which featured two vocalists, a violinist, a fiddler, a stand-up bass player and a hand drummer.
The gap year in Israel is a phenomenon that has sprung up in recent decades in most Modern Orthodox communities. The idea is simple: 18-year old boys and girls who have just graduated high school spend a year of intensive study in yeshiva or seminary in Israel before they return to attend college. It is intended to be a year of reflection and growth, and it is not uncommon for many participants to return more religiously connected and observant than when they left.
On a Monday night in late September, forty people gathered in a spacious, two-floor Chelsea Loft for the debut of the Maqam Project, a fusion of Judeao-Arabic music and reflective Jewish poetry. A maqam is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation. Spearheading the project was its musical director, Epichorus founder, and oudist Rabbi Zach Fredman, who was selected as one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” and serves as rabbi and music director of the New Shul in Greenwich Village. He was joined by a flutist, percussionist, and violin player. St. Louis-based writer and teacher Rabbi James Stone Goodman interspersed poetry pertaining to the parsha, or weekly Torah portion, across the Middle-Eastern melodies.
How does one get in the right frame of mind for the High Holy Days? For Shira Kline, bandleader and musical director for Lab/Shul’s High Holy Day service, the answer is obvious: music. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have such beautiful liturgy,” Kline said. “To not engage participants through music is to miss a huge opportunity.”