New CD Brings Rock and Roll from the Synagogue

by Brian on February 3, 2010

in Reviews

The Jewish rock scene in Israel is thriving these days, with erstwhile Anglo performers like Yehuda Katz and pop crooner Aaron Razel to newly religious Israeli hit makers Ehud Banai, Etti Ankari and Erez Lev Ari (see my post here) all burning up Torah-inspired dance floors across the country. It’s rarer, though, to find a synagogue recording its own album of Jewish rock.

But Jewish Renewal congregation Nava Tehila in Jerusalem has released just such a disc and the result admirably holds its own against its more established cousins.

Five-year-old Nava Tehila has made a name for itself in progressive Jewish circles in Israel for its accessible spiritual approach, blending egalitarian prayer with high-energy rock and roll. All the music played at Nava Tehila is original – no repackaged Shlomo Carlebach standards here – and it’s nothing like you’d expect at a more traditional shul.

The first difference is that the prayer style, which is more chanting than racing through the full service. The concept comes from the Shulchan Aruch, says the congregation’s founder Rabbi Ruth Kagan. “Sometimes it’s better to do a little bit with kavana (intent) than doing a lot where it doesn’t inspire you and where you don’t have any meaningful connection with the divine.”

That approach influences the structure of the CD where most of the songs consist of between 1-3 lines repeated a number of times over. A 28-page booklet that comes with the CD allows listeners to follow along in both Hebrew and English transliteration.

“Dancing in the Glory” covers the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service, psalm by psalm. The music, written by local musicians Daphna Rosenberg and Yoel Sykes, moves seamlessly from Middle Eastern motifs to reggae with even a polka thrown in for good measure.

The opening track, “Creating the Sea” (Asher Lo Ha’yam – all of the songs have both Hebrew and English names) starts off with a delicate children’s choir, then builds as Rosenberg’s rich voice takes over before joining the kids in harmony.

Sykes’ “The God of Glory Thunders” (El HaKavod Hiri’im) has a gospel feel to it, while “Hear and Rejoice” (Shema v’Tismach) sports an Irish jig as its centerpiece.  “Blaze” (Anan v’Arafel) is mixes reggae and klezmer, while “The Mountains are Singing” (Naharot Yimchau Kaf) ends with a percussion solo and call and respond chant that is vaguely reminiscent of Chicago’s early hit “Beginnings.”

Then there’s that polka. Sung by Rosenberg with a wisp of accordion accompaniment, it sets the words of “Lecha Dodi” to the Jewish standard “Tumbalalaika.” While lots of fun on the disc, it misses some of the raucous dancing that the tune inspires during a “live” performance.

Which begs the question: why not simply record the congregation doing its thing instead of heading into a studio, which cost over $10,000 to produce?

Kagan says that if they had a disc where the same song is chanted 20 times it would get old fast. “People would ask, how can it be so wonderful in the community but dead boring on CD?”

The result is a professionally produced album that includes, in addition to Sykes, Rosenberg and Kagan who sing on nearly all the tracks, 13 musicians who were hired to play a wide variety of instruments including flute, clarinet, oud, cello, violin and darbuka. In keeping with its Friday night origins, the CD is entirely acoustic.

The resulting songs are shorter and tighter than their shul versions, but also more mysterious with several leading off with a haunting flute or Flamenco guitar.

The producer of this album of Jewish music, surprisingly, is a Catholic monk. Oliver Darras (known now as Father Zachary) is a member of the Beautitudes monastic order located near Latrun that is interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity. Before becoming a monk, the Hebrew-speaking Zachary was a professional musician specializing in Irish music.

Beyond the studio experience, the Beautitudes contributed a chunk of the financing required to produce the disk. Nava Tehila also won a prize from the Minsk foundation that was also put towards the CD.

The Nava Tehila ensemble has just returned from a U.S. tour of Jewish community centers and synagogues. The congregation meets Friday nights in Baka (check the website for details).

The CD is available for NIS 60 in Israel, and for $18 a disc, $12 for an MP3 digital download at CD Baby. Individual MP3 tracks can be purchased at OySongs for $1.99 each.

You can listen to several full tracks at Nava Tehila’s MySpace page.

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