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For MLK Day, Israeli Gospel Jazz Choir Hits N.Y.
An Israeli couple, trained in the U.S., play 'strictly kosher gospel,' minus religious references.
Special To The Jewish Week
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As Sly and the Family Stone famously sang, it’s a family affair.

Iris and Ofer Portugaly are a married couple, jazz musicians and teachers at Israel’s famous Rimon School of the Arts, leaders of their own combo and a spirited and exciting gospel jazz choir.

Cantor Rebecca Garfein of Congregation Rodeph Sholom was looking for a musical group that would tie together Jewish and African-American influences to perform at the synagogue’s annual observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She remembered a Tel Aviv wedding she had attended in 1989 in which the bride and groom played with the wedding band. Garfein has vivid memories of the bride sitting behind the drum kit in her gown, driving the beat. That would be Iris Portugaly; the pianist-groom was Ofer. Why was Garfein at the wedding? Because Iris is her cousin and friend.

The Portugalys, their band and choir are performing at Rodeph Sholom Jan. 18 as part of Shabbat services.

“This was a wonderful opportunity,” Garfein exclaimed. “Iris and Ofer were planning a visit to U.S. with their gospel choir, we’ve talked for years about having them come to the synagogue and we were able to work out their coming for this weekend.”

Although the couple received their musical training at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, they decided to return to Israel shortly afterwards to pass along the jazz knowledge they had acquired in the States.

“It was important that we come home to Israel 21 years ago,” Iris says. “We wanted to make a connection between jazz and Israeli culture. We always combined things that had Israeli roots with American jazz. We arranged Israeli songs and it felt very natural.”

A dozen years ago, while on tour in Nigeria, the duo hear a local choir performing gospel material and it registered strongly.

“I decided to start a gospel choir at Rimon School,” where she is head of the voice department, Iris recalls. “The head of the school liked the idea very much, it solved the problem of finding a place for so many singers.”

At first the project was just another performance class at the school, but within two years, the Portugalys had a professional-quality choir mixing jazz and gospel with great elan. More recently, Ofer, who is a pianist-arranger-composer, starting doing settings of piyutim (liturgical poems) for the group, which is in keeping with the rather non-Christian nature of the band.

“Oh, we’re doing strictly kosher gospel,” Ofer says with a laugh. “When we decided to perform Edwin Hawkins’ ‘Oh Happy Day, we had an Israeli lyricist rewrite it in Hebrew and dropped the references to Jesus.”

Iris adds, “We don’t say the word ‘Jesus.’ Americans find it very funny, gospel with no Jesus.”

Ofer continues, “American gospel is amazing. We don’t relate to it [as] religion but the music has so many nice things about it — optimism, giving hope to people, good vibes.”

“It makes you happy,” Iris says.

“It moves you,” Ofer replies.

It has been over a decade since the pair were in New York City and they are understandably eager to play here again.

“We’re very excited about it,” Iris says. “It’s new for us also. We have no idea — we’re doing the best we can to make the music as good as we know. That’s what we always do, try to be there with the spirit.”

And keep it in the (extended) family.

Iris and Ofer Portugaly and their Gospel Jazz choir will be performing Friday, Jan. 18 at Congregation Rodeph Sholom (7 W. 83rd St.) as part of the Shabbat service, which begins at 6 p.m. Guests will include soprano Diana Solomon-Glover, soloist at Riverside Church and VOCÉ (Voices of Christ Ensemble), a gospel choir who also frequently appear at Riverside, as well as Cantor Garfein.


Last Update:

06/04/2013 - 19:55
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I don't know what "Americans" "find it very funny" that there is Gospel music WITHOUT Jesus--but it's a safe bet that that they don't come from traditional Black churches. There is no point in "sanitizing" Black gospel texts in order to make the music "acceptable" or "politically correct" to those outside the tradition. JESUS (Yeshua) is at the very HEART of Black gospel music, and it must be remembered that the original writer of this text was describing their own conversion experience--"when Jesus washed my sins away." In fact, the lyrics to "O Happy Day"--an old gospel hymn--are centered upon this experience of confession and forgiveness of sin. This PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH THE LIVING JESUS and the message of salvation available through Him is what drives Black gospel music and is integral to all the music represents. People outside the Black church and outside the Black gospel tradition often forget that these songs were--and still are--songs of personal experience, biblical faith and fervent WORSHIP that incorporates both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. That personal experience was and is born out of great personal struggle and anguish, and the Spirit of God poured those songs through their composers! Black gospel music was always meant to be sung in a worship context, and these songs should not be trivialized with cutesy arrangements or sanitized texts designed to "entertain" those who have been conditioned by movies, TV shows and commercials to see Black gospel music as just some kind of "cute ethnic music" to be appropriated by anyone for any reason or to sell any product. If anyone is really all that "offended" by hearing JESUS sung about by Black Christians who have encountered Him, experienced His salvation and felt that "God-connection" through Him, then why bother listening to the music or imitating its style? Black gospel music is not written "to make you feel good" or "to bring people together"--these are "by-products" of the MESSAGE of the gospel, and the "Holy Ghost" energy that pulsates through the music meant to worship GOD is what makes this music more than just an aggregation of particular chords arranged in a particular way.
"Re-writing" these texts not only desecrates the music and trivializes its message;
it also trivializes the sacred experiences and faith of those who worship God through this music, and marginalizes those who compose and perform the music to celebrate what God had done not only in creation and redemption, but in their personal lives. If you cannot honestly sing the text, that's alright--just don't desecrate the music and trivialize the singers by "taking out the name of Jesus." For those of us who love Him and have experienced His "saving grace" personally, Jesus is the raison d'etre of Black Gospel music.

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