O-town the Jewish Motown?
Maybe so, as Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham has spawned not one, but two newly released music CDs from both of its principal clergy.
Though both CDs feature Jewish music, Rabbi Marc Bloom and Cantor Richard Kaplan could not have come up with more diverging styles. Bloom’s magnum opus is “Rock ’N Roll Shabbat,” a rollicking headbanger of a CD, while Kaplan released “The Hidden One: Jewish Mystical Songs,” a collection of hushed Hebrew and Yiddish chants appropriate for meditation and lowering high blood pressure.
“Our synagogue covers a huge gamut of music,” says Bloom, who fronts and sings lead for the Rock ’N Roll Shabbat band, which performs on the bimah several times a year. “[Kaplan’s] music is incredibly uplifting, spiritual and contemplative. I’m not a music critic but he rarely misses a note.”
The cantor is just as complimentary of Bloom’s vocal chops, noting the rabbi was a congregational song leader before becoming ordained. Bloom also grew up on a steady diet of the Beatles, the Eagles and other essential baby boomer bands, as well as playing in bands as a teen.
Apparently you can take the rabbi out of rock ’n’ roll, but you can’t take the rock ’n’ roll out of the rabbi.
Bloom started the Rock ’N Roll Shabbat band in 2002, with only Temple Beth Abraham members in the lineup. They mostly do covers of Craig Taubman or Debbie Friedman songs — renditions of essential Shabbat prayers and liturgy like “Lecha Dodi,” “Mi Chamocha” and “Barechu.”
But they do original songs, too — some by Bloom and others by the band’s resident musical multitasker, Murray Davis.
“Murray is a serious musician, even though he’s not professional — a fine guitar player, a wonderful voice and a great sense of arrangement,” Bloom says.
Over the years, the band has refined its repertoire, as well as its stage persona. Bloom notes some members of his Conservative synagogue won’t attend the Rock ’N Roll Shabbats because they feel it isn’t in keeping with the spirit.
And other members only come to Rock ’N Roll Shabbat.
“To me, Shabbat is joy,” Bloom says. “There are halachic limits, but I’m for anything we can do to increase the joy, and this does that.”
There’s no electric guitar anywhere near the music on “The Hidden One,” which Kaplan produced and arranged
himself. Consisting of 18 contemplative chants, nigguns and sacred songs, the album was designed, as Kaplan wrote in his liner notes, “for spiritual practice.”
That could mean anything from doing yoga to trying to chill out while driving in stalled traffic on 880.
“I’ve been zeroing in on day-to-day consciousness,” says Kaplan, who has released two other CDs. “I tried to keep those wonderful experiences and visions we sometimes have on Shabbat throughout the week: Is it possible to stay connected to our highest self throughout the day?”
The pieces on “The Hidden One” come from all over the Jewish world — Turkey, Morocco, Belarus, Spain and even Mongolia. But all share a deep reverent style, especially thanks to Kaplan’s mellow baritone.
He says that while in the studio he would frequently don tallit and tefillin just to keep his heart and soul in the right place. “I needed the extra help,” he recalls. “You want your deepest depths in the recording.”
With the CD’s spare arrangements, Kaplan says he strived to “keep the spiritual intimacy, and leave lots of space and silences. I wanted [the songs] to be really poignant. It’s amazing how full an experience you can have with a voice and a frame drum.”
Like Bloom, Kaplan often gives special performances at Temple Beth Abraham. Though instead of a rockin’ Shabbat, he typically officiates at more meditative services, employing the hypnotic music heard on the CD. He also conducts workshops and leads Shabbatons around the country.
Bloom’s band is not as peripatetic, generally preferring to keep close to their Temple Beth Abraham home base. But just because they don’t tour doesn’t mean the Rock ’N Roll Shabbat band isn’t a fan favorite.
“We have tons of people who want to be in the band,” says Bloom with a laugh. “It’s hard to keep it tight.”
For information on Cantor Richard Kaplan’s CD “The Hidden One: Jewish Mystical Songs,” visit www.kaplanmusic.com.
For information on Rabbi Mark Bloom’s CD “Rock ‘N Roll Shabbat,” visit www.tbaoakland.org.