By WALLACE BAINE
The posters advertising the monthly Rock Shabbat service at the Temple Beth El in Aptos promise a “mystical experience,” and when Rabbi Paula Marcus begins the “Kirtan Shema” with the Rock Shabbat band behind her, you get the feeling this is way the poster was talking about.
The Shema is the traditional sacred prayer that Jews the world over use as their daily recitation and connection to their faith. But “kirtan” is from the Hindu tradition and refers to the devotional practice of chanting to the accompaniment of music. When Marcus begins her recitation, the band settles back in an expansive groove. She repeats the familiar prayer again and again, building on itself until time is suspended – just as you would expect in a rock show.
In the past three years, Rock Shabbat has become a phenomenon both among Santa Cruz County Jews and music fans. The band includes such well-known local musicians as guitarist Peter Weiss – aka the “Singing Scientist” – percussionist Dror Sinai who for many years ran the Rhythm Fusion drum business and pianist Michael Levy. Once a month, TBE turns its weekly shabbat service over to free-form rock and world music.
Rock Shabbat was originally a project of Marcus and her colleague at the Temple, Rabbi Shifra Weiss Penzias who serve as co-singers with the group, which also includes bassist Shahir Elysheb, harmonica player Shmuel Thaler and sound technician Andy Yanowitz.
Penzias said that the idea behind Rock Shabbat, which takes place Friday in Aptos, was to honor Jewish tradition while at the same time adapting its messages to contemporary times and to the tastes of contemporary people. “I see us reaching back into ancient history,” she said, “and connecting with that universal message and then bringing it all the way back and into the future.”
Penzias got the idea while living and working in Seattle, where she was part of an effort by a local synagogue to “bring in the missing demographic.” When she came to Santa Cruz, she brought the notion of Rock Shabbat to Marcus, herself a veteran musician who had been a member of the once hugely popular all-female world-music band Pele Juju.
Marcus called today’s Rock Shabbat movement a “second wave” to a similar effort that took place back in the 1970s. “I grew up in a congregation with a cantor who would bring in electric guitars and drums,” she said. She also played music as a folk musician – Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell were particular favorites – and Rock Shabbat serves as a showcase for her singing skills.
Penzias comes from a long family line of rabbis. Her grandfather was an orthodox rabbi and she’s been a rabbi for 15 years. She said that though her grandfather might find the Rock Shabbat approach unusual, he would have seen the spirit behind it. “Really, he was all about love.”
The Rock Shabbat performance features musical interpretations of many Jewish prayers, sung in Hebrew. But it mixes in several other flavors and textures from gospel to world beat to even rap – both rabbis do stylized raps as part of the service. The group also sings songs from other artists, such as Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn and orthodox Jewish rapper Matisyahu.
During performances, the group also gives space for guitarist Weiss to get in the flow of things with rapturous guitar solos. And it supports Dror Sinai’s improvised chants. Sinai, who grew up in Israel from Yemeni roots, uses the performance as an opportunity to communicate his religious devotion.
“People get to see him in a whole different light,” said Marcus. “He grew up drumming with his Yemeni grandmother. When he’s up there playing, he’s really praying.”
The singing rabbis want the Rock Shabbat to function as a weekly shabbat service for Temple congregants – Rabbi Richard Litvak also participates, leading Kaddish prayers and healing sermons. But they also want the flexibility to try new things, even at the expense of old things.
“That’s the paradox,” said Marcus. “How do we hold on to our traditions and still create a new way of devotion? How wide can we spread this? The world has changed. Either we get with it, or we become dinosaurs.”