Estranged on the High Holy Days
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
A 2008 Tashlikh ceremony is performed on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota. (photo: GSankary)
We’re now on the other side of the Days of Awe — the ten-day period starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. This year I participated in a Tashlikh ceremony for the first time since my childhood Hebrew school days. Tashlikh (also referred to as Tashlich) is a ritual of reflection and repentance where people throw shards of bread gather into a flowing body flowing water, symbolically casting off their sins from the previous year.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as joggers and power walkers streamed by, I gathered with a few others by a lake in Minneapolis to recite prayers and sing songs including one of my favorite melodies, Avinu Malkeinu. Later that evening, a larger group of mostly strangers assembled for a Rosh Hashanah potluck featuring sweet kosher wine and home-baked challah. I learned about both of these events online and decided to show up even though I didn’t know anyone. With my family back on the East Coast, I didn’t want to experience the High Holy Days alone.
To break the ice, we introduced ourselves along with the name of a Jewish food that shared the first letter of our first name. When my turn came, I couldn’t think of anything. The group rescued me with “noodle kugel.” I wasn’t the only one who got stuck. A Unitarian woman needed the group to brainstorm a Jewish food for her too.
The experience of these rituals surfaced a mix of emotions. It was nice having a place to go on Rosh Hashanah where I was received with openness and warmth. And yet, I didn’t feel exactly at home. In theory, I feel like I should experience a meaningful bond with other Jewish people based on the fact of our shared Jewishness but, in practice, it’s not necessarily enough.
I didn’t grow up reciting prayers or regularly attending services (or even eating noodle kugel for that matter, although my mother makes a mean matzoh ball soup). I’m embarrassed by my hazy recollections of the rituals and prayers and my inability to read Hebrew, much less make out the transliterations. I know that no one is judging me, but it’s difficult to feel estranged in situations that should be like a kind homecoming.
One Voice in a Jewish Spiritual Renaissance
by Krista Tippett, host
At the beginning of my conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous and again at the end, we discuss a seminal prayer-poem of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef. It is a recital of commonplace mortal perils of the year to come:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low…
Our culture — human nature magnified — denies frailty and finitude with a million devices. This religious ritual, more realistically, stares them in the face and asks us to make sense of our lives in and because of them.
Our show “Days of Awe” (listen in the audio above) evokes so much that I love about Jewish tradition — like the fact that it is supremely attuned to human nature’s messiness as well as its nobility. It comprehends the fact that we turn a phrase like “living like there’s no tomorrow” into a cliché, an excuse for froth or license. And so, by the calendar, cyclically, Jews both secular and devout are stopped in their tracks by the long blasts of the shofar and rituals of the High Holy Days that cleanse, humble, deepen, anchor, and refresh. In long hours of prayer, liturgy, and fasting, worshipers name and reckon with the transgressions and omissions of the year past — both individual and communal — and wipe the slate clean for the moment in time ahead.
We wanted to find a way to explore the Jewish High Holy Days for years, and we might have interviewed any number of wonderful guests who would have provided myriad windows into the themes and meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as we researched this show, my imagination was caught by Sharon Brous. She is a rabbi in the conservative school of Judaism but spent a number of actively disaffected, secular years doubting the validity of faith in a modern life. She now leads an urban community she helped to found in Los Angeles in 2004 named IKAR — after the Hebrew word for “essence,” or “core.” Her congregation is bursting at the seams, mostly with people in their 20s and 30s. IKAR calls itself both progressive and traditional. Alongside social justice engagement, their Yom Kippur worship will include the ancient spiritual posture of full-body prostration.
Solemn words like “repentance” and “atonement” define the Days of Awe, though these English translations of Hebrew words are resonant culturally with their Christian appropriations. More importantly, they don’t capture the poetic and visual nuances of the Hebrew. Yet Sharon Brous embraces them intellectually and kinetically. In the deepest spirit of Jewish tradition — of midrash and Talmud, of reverent yet imaginative interpretation of text and practice, of sacred and fearless conversation across generations about them — she fills them with new connotations for her generation.
There is a new Zeitgeist that she embodies, and that intrigues me. Sharon Brous could not be more different from other younger guests I’ve had, such as Shane Claiborne or Eboo Patel, but she reminds me of both of them. They are all thoroughly modern, deeply thoughtful, spiritually wise beyond their years — at once fully engaged in modern life and rooted in ancient spiritual soil. They are fierce about making their traditions relevant and as passionate about transmitting the beauty and wisdom their faiths have revealed across the ages.
In one moving part of our conversation, Rabbi Brous speaks about teachings in Jewish tradition that grieve her, as a woman in particular. But she adds that “the wisdom that comes from this text comes from the same place as the excruciating pain that flows from it.” And even the tears she cries over the pages of Talmud or Torah, she insists, become part of the mix of the living tradition that she carries forward into a new year.
Awe-some Music Inspired by the Jewish High Holy Days
Colleen Scheck, Producer
If you’ve never listened to the SOF Playlist that accompanies each program, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week’s show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, “Days of Awe.” You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.
As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:
“On Rosh Hashanah”
Bassist David Chevan’s 10-minute rendition of “On Rosh Hashanah” is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He’s melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.
“On Rosh Hashanah” is from Chevan’s 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a “groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days.” ”On Rosh Hashanah” features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it’s based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt.
“Rivers of Babylon”
Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of “the vibe of services at IKAR.” Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it “one of the most soulful compositions” she’s ever heard. It’s based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960’s Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O’Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.
As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: “Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being.”
The lead female voice on “Rivers of Babylon” is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:
“I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite’ espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…
The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they’re praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn’t a someone performing it for them.)
It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community.”
Check out the “Days of Awe” play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?