S.F. cantor makes the soundtrack of Shabbat

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Turn down the lights. Light up the candles. Take the challah out of the oven and uncork the Shabbat wine. It’s Glassman time.

In “Journey to Shabbat,” Congregation Sherith Israel’s Cantor Rita Glassman has cut an album tracing the progression of a Kabbalat Shabbat service.

“This recording came about because we started at Sherith Israel a monthly service called ‘Journey to Shabbat’ with more contemporary musical settings for the liturgy,” explained Glassman.

“The music is contemporary and modern and it comes in many shapes and sizes and styles. For instance, some of the music might sound a little bit folky, some of it has jazz elements to it and some of it might be pop — one of the songs has a little touch of reggae.”

For those of you who equate the synergy of the terms “Jewish music” and “contemporary” with those horrible show-tune parodies someone always drags out at Passover (a song called “Elijah” to the tune of “Maria” from “West Side Story,” for example), worry not. The largely Hebrew lyrics and understated backing melodies are not part of a novelty act but a spiritual musical experience.

“The thing I think is important about Jewish worship is that we start at one point and end up at another point,” said Glassman.

“I often tell my congregants that when you come to a Shabbat service, if you’re not transformed in some way by the end of services, something hasn’t happened that should have happened. What we want to accomplish here is to create something to help that transformation happen.”

Glassman and her backup band — reed and mandolin player Mikel Estrin, percussionist Katja Cooper and guitarist and backup singer Achi Ben Shalom — chose an awfully spiritual place to record the album: beneath the famed dome of S.F.’s Sherith Israel.

The CD’s 13 tracks were all recorded live from beginning to end at the temple before being polished a bit in the studio. Glassman and the band would have made life easier for themselves if they’d done the album from beginning to end in the sound booth, but they decided the inspiration of working in the main sanctuary was worth the extra effort (and at three five-hour sessions, that’s a lot of extra effort).

“My co-producer said, ‘Don’t you want to do this in the studio?’ But no, I love the acoustics at Sherith Israel. Everyone talks about the beauty of the stained glass, but nobody talks about the acoustics. And that’s where we sing and pray every week. I really wanted to capture the soul of the music in that room.”

The synagogue is throwing a release party for Glassman’s CD (her fifth, incidentally, and the first with only Jewish music) at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3. Order forms for the $18 album can be located at the congregation’s Web site, www.sherithisrael.org.

“The great contemporary Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the Sabbath is a palace in time,” said Glassman. “I’d like to think this is the music to take people into the palace.”

To RSVP for the CD release party for “Journey to Shabbat” at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3 at Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. call (415) 346-1720 ext. 18.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.