The Shema goes gospel: Cantor blends Jewish liturgy with old-time spirituals

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Twenty-five years ago, before Stephen Saxon became a cantor, he walked into a Baptist church in Chicago during the congregation’s evening service. He and several friends were there to hear, or rather to experience, the 60-person gospel choir.

Stephen Saxon and Natalia Ukrainska perform in 2009 at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, site of the upcoming gospel Shabbat. photo/richard bermack

Saxon was in awe: Some 1,000 people clapped, stood or danced in the sanctuary as the choir belted out gospel harmonies. People in a state of euphoria fell down in the aisles; nurses were on- site to assist those writhing in the aisles, overcome by the spirit.

If God was anywhere, Saxon thought, he or she was most certainly in that building on that evening.

“It was something that this Jewish kid from California had never experienced before,” said Saxon, who grew up in Oakland and still lives there. “I had never experienced that kind of emotional and spiritual intensity in any Jewish service I’d been involved with and I wondered what was up with that. That’s when I really started wondering: How could you get that kind of spirit into a Jewish service?”

After years of considering how to merge gospel music with Jewish liturgy, Saxon has composed a number of original gospel songs based on traditional Friday night prayers.

The songs will debut during the erev Shabbat service April 30 at Temple Sinai in Oakland. The service is free and open to the community.

Saxon has rewritten the Amidah, Aleinu, Hallelujah (Psalm 150), Bar’chu, Shema, Mi Chamocha and Hashkiveinu. He’s still working on a gospel version of L’cha Dodi.

Stephen Saxon

“Stephen has exceeded my expectations,” said Ilene Keys, Temple Sinai’s cantor. “The pieces are beautiful and very accessible, which is what gospel is all about. It’s music for the people, by the people, get-down-into-the-kishkes music. … I think it’s going to be really powerful.”

Saxon’s friends in the gospel community will join him on the bimah of Sinai’s 96-year-old main sanctuary. A group of a cappella singers, Flying Without Instruments, will also lend their voices. Singers will be accompanied by a rhythm section of a Hammond organ, piano, bass and drums.

Saxon first approached Keys in September about creating gospel Shabbat liturgy. He thought a Reform congregation would be the optimal place, and that Sinai in particular was a good fit because of its urban setting and diverse, progressive congregants and staff.

The service will be a precursor to an even larger-scale gospel Shabbat in 2011 in honor of Rabbi Steven Chester’s retirement. The veteran rabbi loves gospel music, Keys said.

There will be no prayerbooks at the April 30 gospel Shabbat service. Saxon not only wanted the congregation to sing gospel-style, but to pray gospel-style, which means call-and-response instead of reading lyrics from a siddur.

As such, Saxon wrote songs with repetition and lyrics with some rhyming so that congregants could easily learn the music on the spot.

“Without books, text, something to hold — there will be nothing to stop you from participating,” Keys said. “It’s a hands-on experience that gives people ownership of the music and lets people feel very empowered. It’s what the gospel spirit is all about.”

Saxon has been a cantor for more than 20 years, including eight years at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. His first experience merging gospel and Jewish prayer came in 2006, when he worked for Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo and integrated a professional gospel choir into the retirement service for Rabbi Alan Berg.

“Some people were kind of slack-jawed, wondering what’s going on, but more people were just completely digging it,” Saxon recalled. It gave him the confidence to create a more elaborate merging of the two music traditions.

Saxon is also a jazz singer, trumpet player, klezmer musician and composer. He is the bass singer for the award-winning a cappella jazz quintet Clockwork, and has performed or recorded with Chet Baker, Chanticleer, Bobby McFerrin, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, David Grisman and Frank Zappa, among others.

He started composing the songs for gospel Shabbat in September 2009 and is not quite finished. He began each composition with a key phrase. For example, “listen,” for the Shema, which evolved into the song’s chorus: “Listen … listen … listen … God is one.”

He then wrote the melody for this key phrase and wrote the music for the verses. Finally, he composed lyrics for that section of the music.

In his home studio in Oakland, he recorded the songs four times, in four different harmonies, and then mixed them together to create a huge chorus — of which he is the only singer. The music is available at

Saxon is paying the musicians and singers himself. He’s making the investment because he has faith that something good will come of it.

He believes it has the potential to revitalize Jewish communities and reach out to unaffiliated or interfaith families — and he’d love to see other congregations try gospel Shabbat. Saxon also thinks gospel has the power to link Jewish congregations and churches through the commonalities of the prayers.

Nothing is planned yet, but “in my heart of hearts,” Saxon said, he’d love to see synagogues nationwide pair up with gospel churches for Friday night and Sunday morning services, an initiative that would bring together their choirs, musicians and congregants.

“I’ve heard it said that music is the communication of emotion,” Saxon said. “Gospel music in particular is a very emotional music. What I’ve found is that in the world of synagogue music, emotion can be somewhat lacking. I think our music is generally much more head-centered and much less heart-centered … and there’s more emotion involved in gospel music than in any of the other music I’ve done.”

Gospel Shabbat will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 30 at Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St. (corner of Webster and 28th streets), Oakland. Information: (510) 451-3263 or

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.