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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Sacred Music

Galilee Diary #545, August 17, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

Praise Him with the blast of the horn; praise Him with the psaltery and harp. Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe. Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals; praise Him with the clanging cymbals. Let every thing that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah.
         -Psalm 150:3-6

I recently spent a Shabbat in Tel Aviv with a group of young Jewish educators from the US, and finally had the opportunity to participate in Kabbalat Shabbat with "Bet Tefila Yisraeli," a Jewish renewal congregation led by Esteban Gottfried, a rabbinical student in the Israeli Rabbinic Program at HUC. During the summer, the congregation holds its Kabbalat Shabbat service on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv port, an "in" place with shops, entertainment, and restaurants along the waterfront. This service has become such an attraction that the municipality publicizes it as one of the cultural events occurring in the port. Attendance can reach 1,000. I didn't count, but it felt like the crowd on this particular Shabbat was of that order of magnitude, seated on long rows of plastic chairs facing the sun setting over the Mediterranean. The community has published its own prayerbook, containing the core of the traditional liturgy and a lot of additions, especially selections of modern Israeli poetry and song. The rabbi is supported by an ensemble of instruments and a high quality sound system, and the service is very musical, including both artistic (i.e., hard-to-sing-along-with) and familiar songs and prayers.

I had mixed feelings about the experience, as did the members of my group. On the one hand, a festival atmosphere prevails: people skate and bike by, coming and going throughout the service; others come in beach attire, carrying cold drinks; in the middle of the service people jump up and call out a greeting to a long-lost friend they recognize five rows away; some sing along consistently, while others drift in and out of attentiveness - chatting is OK. On the other hand, the sea and the sunset and the music, and the sense of communal celebration, and the fact that the content is, after all, liturgical, do have a certain power. The Israeli family sitting next to us, ice cream cones in hand, said that they would never go to synagogue, but that they come every week to this Kabbalat Shabbat as a meaningful family experience. So maybe this is a harbinger of a new Israeli form of Judaism.

On Saturday night we wanted an Israeli cultural outing for the group, and bought tickets to a concert of Diwan Halev at the Zappa Club, without really knowing what to expect. This is an ensemble of four musicians proficient in Middle Eastern and western instruments, and four vocalists. They wear a variety of robes and turbans and dreadlocks, and play music drawn mostly from North African traditions of Jewish liturgical poetry, but in a fusion with rock or jazz styles. At first it felt a bit weird and I wondered how long my group of Americans (who appeared to be the only tourists there) would last, especially after a few beers (the place is a large night club) and especially when the leader asked us to sing along and clap with the music - but not to applaud, since the songs were all prayers - so there was silence after each piece. After two hours, the place was alive with a strong sense of community and involvement, with people dancing in the aisles. On the way home, a few group members commented that it wasn't clear which night was the service and which night was the concert.

It seems that the denominational models we Ashkenazic Jews built in our European and North American Diasporas may in the end not be the models that will sustain the spiritual life of the reborn Jewish state. As these models encounter eastern traditions, and the new reality of a secularized Hebrew culture, new syntheses are only now beginning to appear. It is exciting to contemplate what "Torah will go forth from Zion" a generation from now.

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