Gospel Shabbat!

Wow! Blog readers, I wish you had been there tonight. My synagogue had a special Friday night service – the first-ever performance of a Gospel Shabbat composed by Stephen Saxon, a cantor and jazz musician from San Ramon, California. 

It was amazing. While a typical Friday night service might draw 50 to 100 congregants, the sanctuary was packed with about 700 people, both Temple Sinai members and visitors. It felt like a high holiday service: Our rabbi even joked, as he introduced Saxon, that it was time to sing Kol Nidrei

Gospel Shabbat at Temple Sinai - (from right) Cantor Stephen Saxon, Cantor Ilene Keys, Rabbi Steven Chester and singers. Photo credit: Robin Nasatir

Saxon was accompanied by an a cappella choir called Flying Without Instruments, as well as a quartet of gospel musicians from nearby Oakland churches. He had basically set an entire Shabbat service to gospel music – taking each major prayer (the Barchu, the Sh’ma, the Amidah, the Mi Shebeirach etc.) and creating an English-language gospel version of it. 

He got the whole room singing immediately with an opening “Hallelujah” composition. In between the musical numbers, he introduced and explained each part of the service. People were on their feet – swaying, singing, clapping – for much of the evening. 

It felt slightly jarring to hear familiar Hebrew prayers sung in English to music from such a non-Jewish tradition. I wished there had been a little more Hebrew — more “Adonai” and less “Lord.”

But it didn’t feel compromised or heretical – the Hebrew translations were accurate in meaning if not literal, and Saxon’s introductions also made clear that this was all in the structure and context of a Jewish Shabbat service. Overall it was uplifting and inspiring, and engaging in a visceral way that doesn’t often happen with more traditional Reform services. 

Sometimes it’s good to take familiar things and put them in an entirely new context. 

And the gospel context is so rich – the legacy of African-American oppression and transcendence, the great music, the way you are caught up and carried along in the rhythm and choruses. 

Classical Reform Judaism is often focused on “head.” This added epic doses of heart, gut, and even hips. 

Rabbi Steven Chester – our senior rabbi, with whom I’m doing my Bat Mitzvah studies – added a political context during the closing benediction when he spoke about Arizona’s controversial new legislation allowing police to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. 

He noted that both gospel and Jewish traditions stand against oppression and discrimination, and he read a statement by the Reform movement opposing the Arizona law.

Gospel Shabbat musicians Photo credit: Robin Nasatir

But I’m straying afield. Back to the Gospel Shabbat – it was moving, uplifting and inspiring. I’d love for our temple to host  it again, maybe several times a year. And I could easily see this receiving an enthusiastic welcome at both synagogues and churches across the country. One of Saxon’s aims with the service, in fact, was to deepen interfaith understanding and connections between Christian churches and Jewish congregations.

Dozens of people stayed after the service officially ended, swaying and clapping and continuing to sing the final song, Saxon’s gospel transformation of Oseh Shalom.

I was one of them. I went home singing it

Saxon has a web site with some of his music, and you can listen to his Gospel Shabbat compositions here.  But a caveat — the online versions are him singing solo, and they are a pale shadow of how things sounded at temple with the live choir, the band, and a sanctuary full of hundreds of people singing.

Listen, but add your imagination.

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5 Responses to “Gospel Shabbat!”

  1. Susie Says:

    Ilana, that sounds great!

    If they decide to do it again, maybe you can post on FB or to an email list. I’d love to go.

    Susie

  2. Reader Says:

    Here’s a link to the gospel service lyrics and musical clips:
    http://www.saxon.com/oakland/

  3. johnmangels Says:

    I really liked this. The gospel style of music has such great connections to Exodus it seems a natural for this purpose. I’m all for improved relations between Christians and Jews. And if it comes with good, interesting music, and timely comments on current events, all the better. If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d also like to know if this happens again. If you hear that it’s happening in Sacramento, I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know …

  4. Susan K Says:

    I guess I was in the minority – I didn’t like the Gospel Service. It felt more like a performance than something spiritual and I didn’t connect with it at all.

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