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New Jersey Jewish Standard

Kirtan Rabbi to bring blend of Judaism and Eastern spiritualism to Hoboken

Rabbi Andrew Hahn sets Hebrew prayer to Indian chants

By Josh Lipowsky
November 19, 2010

Kirtan Rabbi and Band at BhaktiFest

Rabbi Andrew Hahn, second from left, brought his Kirtan Rabbi Band to Bhaktifest in Joshua Tree, Calif., in September. Hahn will perform his blend of Hebrew and Indian chants Saturday night in Hoboken.

A distinctly Indian melody flows from Rabbi Andrew Hahn’s harmonium. People rise from their seats, hips swaying, arms waving slowly through the air as they slowly repeat the Hebrew words Hahn is chanting.

This isn’t your abba’s Lecha Dodi.

Hahn, aka the Kirtan rabbi, will bring his unique blend of Indian and Hebrew chanting to the United Synagogue of Hoboken Saturday night. Kirtan is a call-and-response, participatory form of chanting that originated in the Hindu temples of India. Kirtan is also considered to be the highest form of yoga, bhakti or spiritual yoga.

“It’s a kind of street music for the masses,” Hahn told The Jewish Standard. “The idea is to have a lot of fun.”

Instead of the Hindu words of praise, though, Hahn uses short Hebrew phrases from the Jewish liturgy. He has Kirtan-ized the Sh’ma, Lecha Dodi, and even the Kaddish. Hahn now finds himself an ambassador, bringing yoga meditation to the Jewish world and Jewish wisdom and Torah to the yoga world.

“There is an initial hurdle as to what this is, but once it’s overcome people readily embrace it,” Hahn said. “For many people this is a way for them to connect with Judaism that they have not been able to before. The most common comment I get at a yoga studio is, ‘I haven’t touched Judaism in 20 years and this is the first time I get it.’ It’s very gratifying and quite unexpected.”

Hahn received his doctorate in Jewish thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary and he was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He didn’t want to be a pulpit rabbi, but he wasn’t sure what else to do. He went to Boulder, Colo., home of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, and took part in regular study groups with the rabbi. Hahn didn’t consider himself one of Schachter-Shalomi’s disciples, however, and he was still looking for how he fit into the Jewish world — and the job pickings were slim.

“I expected to maybe be a funky but regular Reform rabbi — wear a tie and give sermons,” he said. “I was ready to give back something and it wasn’t working out.”

Hahn fell into a depression, but in 2004 he received a CD of Sanskrit Kirtan from a friend. After listening to it, Hahn thought he could do the chants in Hebrew. He ordered a harmonium — a European keyboard instrument that became a staple in India after the British introduced it — and began setting Hebrew words to the chants.

Since then Hahn has brought his energetic chants to synagogues, conferences, and retreats. During his concerts — Hahn prefers to think his audiences are performing in concert with him rather than just listening — he typically gives a short explanation of the Hebrew words.

“Increasingly the way I’m teaching Torah is through this context,” Hahn said.

Hahn has performed for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform audiences, as well as yoga centers. He doesn’t push any particular view of Judaism with his music, he said. He wants it only to be a gateway to education.

“There’s no ‘ism’ in Kirtan,” he said. “It’s just let it be what it is, let people enjoy it for what it is, and allow people to trust their maturity and respect their spiritual decisions.”

Like Hahn, United Synagogue of Hoboken’s Rabbi Robert Scheinberg hopes people will look at Kirtan as a re-entry to Judaism.

“It’s always been very sad for me to see that for all of Judaism’s spiritual richness, there are some people who are never invited into Judaism’s spiritual doorways, and if the first time they’re invited into spiritual doorways it’s through another religious tradition, they just assume that tradition is spiritually richer than Judaism,” Scheinberg said.

There is a buzz in the synagogue about the program, the rabbi said, and he noted that some people who are planning to attend have looked outside of Judaism for spiritual fulfillment.

Hahn’s mix of Eastern chants and Judaism is “unambiguously Jewish,” Scheinberg continued.

“It’s Jewish, but in an art-form or an aesthetic form borrowed from another culture, and that’s something we’ve seen repeatedly in Jewish tradition,” Scheinberg said. “It is clearly in no way a religious or theological compromise.”

Hahn is known for his Kirtan and building a bridge between Judaism and Eastern philosophy, but the rabbi part of his title still outweighs the Kirtan side, he said.

“This is the way for me to be a rabbi,” he said. “This happens to be my rabbinate. The goal is to bring Torah or Jewish wisdom to the community, to both Jews and non-Jews.”

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