Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Saxon’

Less than one month out

February 2, 2011

Our temple‘s monthly bulletin arrived this week, including the page that lists congregational birthdays, anniversaries, new members and b’nei mitzvah for February. And there I am — a little color photo of me right next to one of the 13-year-old boy whose bar mitzvah precedes mine!

Things are pretty much under control. My d’var Torah is written and my Torah/haftarah portions are learned. I’ve coordinated music selections with Cantor Stephen Saxon — yes, the cantor from the Gospel Shabbat that I blogged about last spring! — who will be filling in since our regular cantor is on sabbatical.  I’ve met with the caterer about the kiddush lunch after services, and figured out who will be doing aliyot,  and picked a favorite quote to appear in the printed program. Still ahead are two dress rehearsals with Rabbi Chester, plus a medley of additional small logistical errands.

When I run into friends these days they say, “Oh, just three weeks! Are you excited?”

And weirdly, I’ve only been able to say, “I guess so.”

This is entirely my own doing. I have a lifelong mental habit of looking at things with a critical, skeptical eye. I see the deficiencies, the limits, the broad context that makes something just a tiny dot on a big field. That’s a useful habit for journalism,  and for politics, and is in fact essential in editing one’s own writing.

It is not so useful in personal life.

Take parenting. I always resisted being one of those parents who SWORE that their child would be the next Mozart because she banged on the piano when the Raffi tape was playing. I made a point of keeping things in perspective — yes, she’s cute, smart, talented, but heck, so is every other three-year-old, and the piano banging is really only piano banging, and it’s really no big deal. Which is all true, but maybe I missed out on a little bit of fun by not letting myself crow like a character from Peter Pan.

And now my Bat Mitzvah. I’ve spent the past year telling myself it is no big deal. I’m not 13 and Becoming A Woman, I don’t want a big party, I gave myself so much time to do this that the work has been pretty mellow, these are skills that come easily to me, what would be a much bigger deal is selling my novel….  and so on.

I’ve made it hard for myself to feel excited. But now I want to feel excited! I don’t want to plod through the day like I’m checking off items on a to-do list and only afterward say, “Huh! That was pretty cool.”

I need to let go a little bit and let myself feel proud  — even if, truly, it hasn’t been as hard as selling a novel.

It turns out that letting go of my reflex of skepticism may actually be harder than any of the chanting I’ve had to learn.

Gospel Shabbat!

April 30, 2010

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.