At Gospel Shabbat, it was hardly the same old song and dance

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I’m just going to say it: I find Shabbat services to be boring. This is why even though I previously have written in this very space about promising to go more often, I haven’t followed through.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the prayers, because many of them I know by heart. And it’s not that I don’t like the melodies, because I do.

It’s that most services feel motionless to me. I don’t always know the meaning of the prayers I sing. My mind wanders. I feel restless and spend half of the service wondering when it will be time for oneg.

I had a completely different experience last month at Temple Sinai.

I actually whispered these words during a Friday night service: I am having so much fun.

The Oakland Reform congregation had a Gospel Shabbat service April 30. About 700 people packed the sanctuary, a feat usually only accomplished once a year for Kol Nidre services.

Stephen Saxon, a cantor and jazz musician, led the service accompanied by the harmonies from an eight-person choir, an organ, piano, drums and bass.

Saxon spent months composing eight original gospel songs based on the traditional Friday night liturgy.

The music was beautiful and joyful. People danced in the aisles, swung their hips, bobbed their heads. Some held their hands up to the sky, praising God with their bodies and their voices and their souls.

The room had a rhythm, a pulse, an aura completely unlike the gray and listless sanctuaries I’ve sat in throughout my life. For the first time, I was completely present in a Jewish service.

“More than one person came up to me and said, ‘I was more spiritually moved in that service than I had ever been in any service,’” Saxon told me a few days later.

The service was different from the get-go. For one, no prayerbooks were used. Instead, as in the gospel tradition, all of the prayers were call and response. People learned the prayers quickly because the lyrics Saxon wrote were simple and straightforward. Instead of a congregation of people looking down at their laps, everyone looked up and around, their voices projecting out, not down and muffled.

Nearly all of the prayers were in English. So when I sung “Open my lips, Lord, my God, so that my mouth may sing your praise. Open our lips, Lord, our God, and our voices we will raise,” instead of the Amidah, I actually knew what I was saying, and that allowed me to connect more deeply with the prayer.

Saxon told me he didn’t change the words to the prayers. He retranslated. Faithfully.

The Sh’ma became “Listen, listen, God is one.” The Barchu became “Come let us bless the Lord together.”

In Saxon’s opinion, new versions of old prayers make the prayers richer, more alive. Like music.

“Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘How High the Moon’ is wonderful but it’s not the only way to do the song,” Saxon told me. “Listen to Dexter Gordon, Bobby McFerrin, Kurt Elling sing the same song. When they come up with another way of approaching it, I feel you get a more well-rounded and deeper understanding of where the song truly comes from. It’s the same with prayer.”

The fact that attendance was so high for Gospel Shabbat tells me that I’m not the only Jew who’s hungry for prayer that’s new, different and more deeply spiritual.

I know many Reform and Conservative congregations have tried themed musical Shabbats (Beatles, Grateful Dead, rock ’n’ roll, hiphop, etc.), and though these can be fun, they’re not usually a huge departure from the conventional styles and forms of a regular Shabbat service.

Gospel Shabbat was wildly different. It made me yearn for more creativity and risk-taking in our liturgical tradition.

If every Friday night were like this I might go to services more often. I left Temple Sinai feeling happy, introspective and grateful. These emotions are often not mined during the typical Friday night service because I’m usually too bored to have any kind of revelatory thoughts.

Bravo, Temple Sinai and Stephen Saxon. Thanks to Gospel Shabbat, I now know what it is to be inspired, moved and elated by Jewish prayer.

Stacey Palevsky
lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.