Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Category Archives: Hebrew Kirtan

Submitting Havayah to the Jewish Forward Soundtrack Search

Today I submitted the much-loved chant, Havayah, from the new album, Kirtan Rabbi: Nondual for consideration in the Jewish Forward’s search for the latest in Jewish music. As you can read in a previous blog entry, Havayah was the inspiration — the chant out of which the rest of Nondual spiraled upward and outward. And even as much exciting material emerged later (the Kedushah Reggae comes to mind), this first chant I did on guitar remains my favorite on the album. (Well, actually, the two track Zikr is my secret favorite, but that’s another story.)

Graphic from when Havayah was released as a single

In submitting the track to the Forward we were asked to comment. Here is what I wrote to each of these questions. I thought the Kirtan Rabbi community might enjoy the the idiosyncracy of the answers.

1. Please include a short bio explaining what Jewish music means to you and how it inspires your community

Criss-crossing the country for the last ten years as the Kirtan Rabbi, I have followed Abraham Joshua Heschel’s saying: “First we sing, then we believe.” It is the music – whether this be at a prayer service, slapping our hands on a Shabbat table, or the droning intonation of a Torah reading – which has always driven my Jewish practice. Our innate musicality takes us beyond ourselves and our daily concerns, breathes meaning into our texts, and binds us together as one.

In my own practice, the chant and tonal expression serve two specific purposes:

First, Hebrew kirtan – continual, call-and-response chanting of short phrases from the Jewish tradition – makes Jewish prayer and meditation accessible. A very simple prayer technology developed in India, kirtan opens up a space for us not only to sing, to do, but also not to do… to listen. A motif is offered; playfully improvised variations build to an ecstatic mash-up; then, the chant grounds itself, gracefully coming to resolution. The silence afterwards allows even “poor meditators” to discover a deep, unruffled silence.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, Kirtan, as exemplified in Havayah, the chant offered here, renders us “ach sameach:” simply, completely blissful and happy.

2. Who are your influences?

The influences upon Kirtan Rabbi’s music, live and recorded, are many. Since the 80s, as a Ph.D. student at JTS, I have been a sponge for Jewish music in all forms: including synagogue music of all streams, piyyutim, Shabbat table rounds with unbridled harmony, and long, relentless niggunim. My biggest influence to this day remains the music of Shlomo Carlebach, especially as brought down in services at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York.

I am a Western classically trained musician (I studied classical guitar in conservatory). I have also had a love from my youth for Indian classical music, first popularized by Ravi Shankar in the 70s. As my music — like most Jewish music through the ages — is “hyphenated,” I greatly admire the work of Western kirtan artists such as Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Wah!, and Snatam Kaur – as well as that of Indian masters such as O.S. Arun, Shweta Jhaveri and Jagjit Singh. Rock music from the 60s and 70s runs deep in my veins, especially the work of Bob Dylan and the space jams of the Grateful Dead.

On my new album, Kirtan Rabbi: Nondual, if you dig deep, you will discover references to the music of early Jewish composers such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski. On track offered here, Havayah, you might find an odd combination of the influences of Johann Sebastian Bach and Iron Maiden!

Let me know what you think of these statements. And, come September, please keep an eye out for when the Forward asks for your comments.

Listen to Havayah

Nondual album cover

Singing Kaddish for my mother

I have sung my Kaddish many times for others who have requested it. And I have received messages from all over the world thanking me for writing it, and singing it, and also for the fragment of a teaching by Reb Shlomo Carlebach, may his memory be for a blessing, which you can hear before we start the chant on Kirtan Rabbi:Live!

My long-time percussionist and friend, Shoshana Jedwab, sometimes talks with her wife, Rabbi Jill Hammer, about what we might call their “inverted bucket list.” This list, rather than detailing all of the things they would like to do before they kick the bucket, instead says: “If I kicked the bucket tomorrow, what have I done to this point? What have I given? What’s on that list?”

Now, Shoshana was a real doubter when I leaned over to her one Saturday morning at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan – right after the loud organ and voices of the Rabbis rang, Y’hei Sh’mei Rabba M’vorach, l’olam u-l’olmei almaya! – and said: “I’m going to make a kirtan out of that!” So, I was gratified when several years later, after we had performed it together countless times, and after it had been recorded twice, that Shoshana said of the Kirtan Rabbi Kaddish that it had made her and Jill’s bucket list. “Jill and I were talking last night; and we decided, were you to kick the bucket today, you have given the Jewish world and beyond your kaddish.

This all comes by way of saying that while, quite by chance, a kaddish emerged from my harmonium, I have always sung it for others – to help them. It was always a bit abstract: I got that it worked, but I did not know how; nor was I fully inside it, perhaps. Last night was the first time that I have ever sung this kaddish for my mother, for someone close to me, within the shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning, no less.

Frankly, I was not sure I was going to be able to hold it together. But, thanks to the community in the room and the singers on stage, we did. I got it. It went, for me, higher than it ever did before. I felt like I had the first direct conversation with my mother, since she passed two weeks ago this evening. I felt her soul safe, held, risen. And I also felt all of the other souls – most immediately, those souls related to others in the room, and then, spiralling out from that, the community of angelic beings who get to sing day-in, day-out to God: Yitgadal ve’yitkadash Sh’mei Raba, who get to praise God’s great name, and elevate it, and lift it, and rise it up, and bless it, and all of the other 200 eskimo-snow-like words we have in Judaism for being grateful and thankful for this life and for the even more blessed one after.

Thank you all for singing with me over the years. And especially for singing this Kaddish. May its melodies and words continue to help many as we struggle to see an earthly loss as a heavenly gain.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya-aseh shalom. Aleinu, ve-al-kol-yisrael, ve-al-kol-yoshvei teivel.
Reb Drew

Kirtan and the “regular” Jewish service (matbea) — Part One of an infinite discussion

It has been a long time since I’ve offered a Blog post. I am now making a redoubled effort to write something here regularly. Monday, I did a mini-kirtan workshop for a cohort of rabbinical students under the auspices of Rabbis without Borders. At one point in the discussion, I said that, just for myself, I actually often prefer going to the “regular,” traditional service instead of something new-fangled and innovative. This, of course, struck some people as curious, given my work bringing Hebrew kirtan to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Another question which came up, in the same context, had to do with how to innovate within synagogue life. Below follows what I wrote in an email, perhaps a bit ramblingly, in response:


When I said I prefer a more regular service, I was being ever so slightly rhetorical. It is true, on the one hand: When push comes to shove, I prefer a more traditional practice to anything that is too drippingly “spiritual.” I think I alluded to my opinion that much of the more self-congratulatory spirituality which is going on out there (often in the name of “change” or even renewal) attempts to supply the spirituality for those on whose account they are crossing before the ark. There is something to what Max Kaddushin characterized as the “normal mysticism” of the Rabbis (the ancient sages), i.e., allowing things sometimes just to be ordinary. This means trusting that people have their own spirituality and they can supply it when they need to; it does not have to be handed to them via a silver platter of a service (or practice) which makes no room for just feeling in a regular state of mind on this particular day, or for these particular 20 minutes of a long, three hour morning. A “spirituality service” also implies that the old-fashioned service, even the choir in the pipes ones with which I grew up, somehow are not spiritual, which they are — or were in their time (see Larry Hoffman’s The Art of Public Prayer). There can be a certain arrogance on the part of those of us who present as resuscitating a supposedly moribund tradition. I am trying very hard to avoid this, which is no easy task, especially when one is excited about bringing something purportedly “new” to birth.

To that end, I actually try to avoid the word “spiritual” altogether, as it can insult. I prefer the word “complimentary” (the analogy being from medicine). More on that another time….

So, to bring it back around, I actually am all for (a) including kirtan elements in regular services (and have done so now many times), and (b) for a kirtan avodah during zman ha-t’filah which is even 100% kirtan-adik. (Indeed, I am dreaming of having a 27 hour Yom Kippur where all we do is one chant the entire time. Different people would tend the fire of that altar. This has great precedence in temples in India where the maha mantra has been going on 24-7 for centuries, no one knowing just how far back. Talk about a Ner Tamid!)

But with all of this, as you make clear, it is important to tread carefully. I have received one or two emails accusing me of trying to “change Judaism.” At first I absolutely denied this. But, in truth, maybe we are trying to change the religio, but in an evolutionary fashion and not as revolution (see Dostoyevski’s The Possessed). Also, as I mentioned, there are those who think that Jewish Kirtan people are trying to make Jews into Hindus, which is ridiculous. It is my desire that what we do be genuinely Jewish, or at least contiguous with an evolving faith’s path. So, it is actually crucial that Hebrew Kirtan (and other chant forms) be deeply liturgical—not just merely shlepping some Indian-style melodies on some Hebrew words.

But how to do this? As I say, cautiously. And in an integrative fashion. It is important to take one’s time: study kirtan (I went to dozens before I did one of my own in public); know Hebrew grammar; and, most of all, meditate, meditate, meditate. I think it also helps to be a bit older, to have walked (and even crawled) several times around the Jewish block, but that’s convenient for me to say… 😉

The other thing I’m working really hard on is, as I said at the session, to gain access to the mainstream Jewish world with this complimentary practice. There is often an initial hurdle. Sometimes a huge hurdle. But I find if I can reach the rabbi of a synagogue and talk to him or her, I always get an engagement with them. Cantors can be particularly tough; but I have yet not to win one over. Interestingly enough—for reasons I am getting a sense of intuitively—I am having the most success with Conservative communities (not politically conservative).

So, I’m working very hard at getting into all aspects of the Jewish world: synagogues, seminaries, shteiblach, Hillels, JCCs, you name it…. I also increasingly love presenting in the yogic world, something which has been growing and growing for me.

Speaking of which, I finally want to underscore what R. said about those who simply don’t go to synagogue and never will. We need to respect this, admire it. In the yoga world in particular, I find myself on the utter edge of keiruv. I can’t tell you how often people come up to me and say, “Rabbi, thank you for coming to this studio or festival. For 30 years now I’ve been doing yoga, and we chant at the end, and I like it but have never felt completely comfortable. This was the first time that I could bring it all together… to connect to Judaism at all.”

At such a moment, it is really important not to say, “Oh, great. So, now come to shul. Or, can you do another mitzvah?” (It’s even more important genuinely not to want to say this!) It’s crucial just to let the practice be the practice. I believe this strongly: There should be no “-ism” in Kirtan meditation. Just chant in vibrational Hebrew; teach Torah as kavvanot; chant some more; and end the kirtan. Period. If our tradition is so wonderful (which it is), if we see God as loving (which s/he is), if our teachings grant so much insight (which they do), then all we have to do is “not do” by presenting it as such and let, mature responsible, spiritually adept adults in the 21st century draw their own conclusions.

I think there is a great place for extra-statutory services in the Kirtan and other forms. Increasingly, the plain of Jewish prayer is going to have to go out to these fields—even as we plow into the traditional infrastructure—if we are going to cease circling the wagons, affirm love of God and proclaim the over-riding mitzvah of Gratefulness to the world.

Chag sameach and blaring light on this last evening of Chanukah,

KR Andrew

Birthday and the Beatles

I’m going to keep this post short, because it’s my birthday, and I don’t feel like working too much – or staring at a computer screen.

This morning, as promised on facebook, I woke up and played the second “side” of the White Album, because it opens with the song … Birthday! Take a chan-, chan-, chan- chance! I always sing some crusty version of the song into my friends’ voicemails on their birthday, so why not the real thing on mine?

I have been having a bit of Beatles resurgence of late. This is thanks to my friend Cameron Afzal, who is a professor of religion at Sarah Lawrence College. Last I visited him and his family, he turned me on to the recently recently re-mastered and re-released original mono versions of the Beatles’ earlier CDs. I highly recommend checking these recordings out, because, though subtly so, they are different than the stereo recordings with which we all grew up. Apparently, when the Beatles were first recording, there was no stereo yet in Great Britain, so they mixed in mono. Then, because the US was switching over to stereo, these recordings had to be converted almost immediately to stereo.

But here’s the catch: The mono recordings represent the sessions where the Beatles themselves were in the studio providing their artistic input. The stereo mixes were then turned over to the “pros,” who had to remix them. In the course of doing so, they made some changes. For example, there are instances where, say, John wanted a truck to drive right through the recording loud and clear. The professional engineers, hearing this (and needing to mix and pan the sounds), must have thought:  “Why is that truck so loud there? Let’s move it back.” So, the truck is still in the recording, but it no longer reflects the intentions of John and the others who did the original mono mix.

Those of you who have worked in the studio know how important things like this can be. I’ll share with you what was absolutely the toughest moment in the recording of the most recent Kirtan Rabbi CD, Achat Sha’alti (one thing I seek). It had been tough going getting some good vocal takes to make a lead track for one of the tunes. During one of the best takes I felt I had done, Frank went out to have a cigarette. I heard the door sliding sound as I was singing. Quite clearly. We got in an argument. I was saying we needed to do this or that or the other thing, and, by the way, right in the middle of my best take, you went and slid the door and ruined the whole thing! He literally responded by saying: “This is my house. This is my studio. When we are in this room, we do it my way!” Obviously, the toughest moment in a nine month process. By the end of the day, we were chummy again as usual. I eventually realized that I was being a bit uptight and – not used to the studio process –I was getting too attached. I had calmed down. Frank, smiling reassuringly, said, “Listen. You need to relax more about this.” (This was my first time ever in the studio.) “You need to know that if there is a sound in the recording which we don’t want, I will fix it.” And then he said the thing which is the main point of this digression: “Besides. You never know. When we’re mixing, we might hear that door sliding sound and say, ‘Wow! That was cool.’ We might decide to isolate the door sliding sound and loop it through the track and it’ll become the distinguishing feature of the tune.” He paused. “In this process, you just never know. So you have to let go and trust.”

My point here is that the professional engineers who converted the Beatles mono recording to stereo also didn’t trust. They couldn’t believe that John wanted a truck sound so prominent and upfront. They couldn’t believe that there should be this scratching sound or that siren so dominant. So they moved all of that back. Check out the mono recordings. They are a new experience.

Recently, a new friend of mine asked me what I thought of the Beatles. She felt she had detected some Beatles influence on Achat Sha’alti. It was sychronistic that she said that, because I had also been thinking about the Beatles and just how up their music was. I, too, felt that my new CD – precisely because it is such an uplifting album – was influenced by the magic four. So, when she asked me that, a bell went off. I remembered a moment, not too long before, when I had asked my percussionist, Shoshana Jedwab, why she thought people were flocking to Kirtan Rabbi events. I was a bit mystified. Shoshana’s answer came without hesitation, and it was quite simple: “It’s because we make people feel happy. These are hard times, and people want to have the opportunity simply to feel happy.”

Precisely what the Beatles did – and still – do. My thought for the day, then? Kirtan which is not as uplifting as the Beatles’ music is not good kirtan. They say it’s your birthday? Gonna have a good time!

The 70% Rule

The significance of the fact that I begin my blogging career with this post is not lost on me.

For, The 70% Rule is the most important lesson I have learned in my many years of studying Tai Ch’i and related martial and healing arts. It is the principle upon which I base all of my meditation; it closely guides how I lead Hebrew Kirtans; and it generally serves as an aspirational outlook for anything I seek to “accomplish.” So, it’s fitting that I make my first Blog entry ever on the 70% Rule. In coming Blogs, I expect that I will return often to this fundamental principle – applying it to breathing exercises (for singing and chi gung meditation), on how to teach what you have assimilated, to leading prayer services, on psycho-spiritual development through life, to skiing… you name it!

So, what is Tai Ch’i’s 70% Rule?

Simply put, it states: Never do more than 70% of what you can do. [Ikka d’amrei (there are those who say): 80%] In other words, the 70% rule implies that you should always keep at least 30% of your ability and power close to you. Always hold something back; never, ever show it all. This is one of the main tenets of Taoist practice: Even at maximal Yang expression, the tai ch’i artist always maintains some Yin containment.

That’s it. Simple, no?

Yet, just such a principle is very difficult for many of us to live by today. We are high achievers. We want to do well, to excel at everything we put our minds and hands to. How can we allow someone to say to us, hold something back? Don’t give your all?! Weren’t many of us told growing up – throughout our education – something along the lines of: “You must give 110% to everything you do. 110%!”

Fortunately, that 110% imperative now makes me chuckle every time I hear it thanks to an early Simpsons episode. In it, Mr. Burns has pulled together a company softball team featuring Darryl Strawberry as the nuclear power plant’s ringer. At one point, Burns decides to bring in a hypnotist to spur the group on to greater accomplishments and assured victory. The hypnotist intones mantras along the lines of, “we are all one team,” and the players repeat them back. This goes on for several statements (a kind of hypno-Kirtan, I suppose), none of which can I remember. All goes well until the hypnotist drones to the team: “We must give a 120% effort, we must give 120%!” Instead of just repeating what he says, as they have done up to this point, the team replies, in similar droney fashion – and, in unison: “That is logically impossible. No one can give 120%. It is impossible to give 120%….”

All jokes aside, the idea of doing less – of intentionally doing less – is something which many of us find difficult. It is decidedly Type-B. I mean, according to this Rule, we’re not even supposed to give 100% (which is logically possible).

But the truth is, I have learned, and often the hard way, that doing less is in truth doing more (another Taoist principle); that by not expressing all ability, all “talent,” all power – you are really more powerful, “talented” and effective in your actions. I will definitely draw this out in more detail in future blogs. So, I hope it will become more clear.

There is nothing more humorous (and embarrassing) than watching someone try to become “highly accomplished” in Tai Ch’i. I suppose it is possible – if your tai ch’i goals are to win tournaments or to shove people around, but it is not true tai ch’i. Nor is it true meditation. Nor can it be true Kirtan. In a sense, if you set out to do Kirtan “well,” you are doomed to “failure.”

Finally, this topic inspires me to think of Jerry Garcia, surely one of the biggest influences on my music and on my life in general. (As one friend of mine put it, “my first rebbe.”) I once heard someone express something so beautiful: Jerry Garcia displayed the highest level of achievement that a “type-B personality” could attain. His playing was really very yin; yet think how powerfully he moved people in live appearances. As in a good kirtan, even at the most ecstatic moments, one felt safe with Jerry: You knew that he was holding the space in a way that nothing could spiral out of control. Part of this may have attributable to the fact that Jerry, took himself out of the way (as did the Grateful Dead as a band); it was never about him, rather always about the music. (By the way, Garcia was a huge reader of Martin Buber and saw his playing as a conscious I-Thou engagement with his audience.)

Being a decidedly Type-B lead guitarist, Bart Simpon underachiever: This might be another way to look at the 70% rule.

To many of us, this might seem outrageous. Especially to those parents with children whom they want to see succeed, or to busy adults with to-do lists whose unattainable completion makes them lose sleep at night.

So, let’s just relax. Like all rules, this Rule, too, is meant to be broken. For now, let’s just sit with the idea of it. Let’s not try to apply it right away. Let’s turn it over and over for awhile. Continue to do things the way we have. And…by all means, let’s not try to give 120% at doing less!

As I said, I shall return to this idea often. There will be time.