Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Category Archives: Prayer

A prayer leader’s dilemma: Everyone’s dropped in, so why go on?

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We are two chants into a musical Friday evening Shabbat service. We have not even gotten a fifth of the way into the prayer plan. Yet, thanks to Shoshana Jedwab’s mystical drumming and whatever space I am able to hold, when that second chant comes to an end, the entire yurt is completely silent, sitting. Now what? Why go on?

Back in college, one of the professors had a cartoon on the outside of his office door which showed two Buddhists sitting in full lotus: There was a plump, senior teacher, and there was his young disciple. The disciple had a perplexed look on his face. Something was clearly gnawing at him. The speech bubble was with the teacher: “Nothing happens next.  This is it!”


Cartoon by Gahan Wilson

Last week, I had the honor to lead a musical meditation service at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. It was part of a weekend called “Let My People Sing,” and I was brought in to teach about chant and offer services and kirtan. When the second chant — song, really — came to an end (Lechu N’rannena into Shiru LaShem), we started to meditate as a group. As I find happening increasingly, it was easy, effortless: Everyone just dropped in. And… stayed there. I didn’t say anything beforehand, suggesting a direction, not even “now let’s sit.” It just happened organically. The entire yurt was still; not a person moved.

When I took a moment, a couple of minutes later, scanning the room to see how everyone was holding out, a thought occurred to me. We’re done. This is it. The “prayer service” is over: we could and should remain silent like this for the remaining hour and twenty minutes. There was no reason to go on. No Lecha Dodi. No Barchu and Shema. No standing meditation. No mourner’s kaddish. No. Nothing.

I truly believed that if I had allowed the meditation to go on indefinitely, this group was already primed to sit as long as it possibly could. I mean, if even one person had shown any restlessness – just one! – that would have been my cue to draw the others back. But no one did.

I have been blessed to experience this increasingly as I lead prayer services around the country – and all the more so, of course, at kirtans. And it’s raising a real dilemma for me: Is it right to interrupt such a moment, so pregnant, only in order to continue what we’re supposed to do next, the “should,” because that is the structure, the matbea, the “set list?” In Jewish practice, can we learn to give space to prayer, let it emerge naturally, and – if that’s the way it goes – let it resolve into “this is it,”  into silent contemplation?

Unfortunately, it is not an option just to let the service go longer, to make room for spontaneous direct connection to God. As one Conservative movement cantor friend of opened up  to her congregants in the context of my giving a talk at her synagogue: “I always feel like the time keeper here, instead of a true prayer leader. We have an hour and half, or whatever, and we have so much that traditions dictates we cover. As much as I want to take time and make it meaningful, when the services start, for me, it’s off to the races!”

As many of you know, at kirtan sessions, we nearly always hand out a sheet with at least ten chants on it. Inevitably, when a new singer practices with me beforehand, looking with concern at the sheet, s/he will ask: “Are we going to do all of these chants?” My tried and true response: “If it’s a bad kirtan, we will.”

“I find it hard to interrupt a group sitting so silently like you all are….  We now turn to Lecha Dodi…”

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