Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, the hazzan at The Kitchen, is the driving force behind the independent San Francisco congregation's new album, "Shabbat in The Kitchen."
Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, the hazzan at The Kitchen, is the driving force behind the independent San Francisco congregation's new album, "Shabbat in The Kitchen."

New album serves up what’s been cooking at The Kitchen

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Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer is ready to sing her own songs.

The Kitchen’s charismatic hazzan, or cantor, has spent the past three and a half years turning the congregation’s davening team of nonprofessional singers into a forum where creative ferment joins spiritual fervor. Looking to concentrate on songwriting and recording, she’s departing The Kitchen at the end of this month and taking a break from pastoral life. But she’s leaving behind a powerful record of the vibrant musical community she’s fostered at the independent San Francisco congregation.

The new album “Shabbat in The Kitchen” drops today and includes some of the sumptuous songs that Meyer and her davening team have cooked up — that is, arranged and sung — during services in recent years, including “Modah Ani,” “Lecha Dodi” and “Mizmor L’David.” It can be streamed on Spotify or purchased from Bandcamp.

Recorded during the depths of the pandemic and supported by a $150,000 Signature Grant from the New York-based Covenant Foundation, the album taps into the singular power of communal singing as a binding force. Meyer told J. it represents “what West Coast Jewish music sounds like right now. Jewish communities in London, Tel Aviv, Montreal and New York all have their own sounds. We wanted to do something collaboratively with this place, a place where people have often been running away from their Judaism. There’s a sound that’s developed here, created by people from different backgrounds rooted in this place.”

While the music captures a particular time and place, it also evokes the Jewish world’s interconnection with other spiritual traditions. The incantatory arrangement of “Romemu” is partly inspired by performance of a similar prayer by the legendary Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

The project evolved out of an early pandemic collaboration with the polymathic Found Sound Nation filmmaker Jacob Blumberg. In June 2020, he created a music video of the davening team singing a version of “Mi Chamocha” based on a Chabad melody that started as a Belarusian drinking song detailing the pleasures of vodka. After each davener sent him footage they took of themselves singing their part, Blumberg wove the material into a video.

He went on to direct The Kitchen’s first sheltered-in-place High Holiday services, which were livestreamed. “When it was devastating not to be together, it was really a revelation how he used the camera to create this experience where we felt so deeply connected,” Meyer said.

Blumberg ended up producing “Shabbat in The Kitchen,” which showcases the davening team, including Kitchen founder Rabbi Noa Kushner and Kitchen members David Rodwin, Molly Seltzer, Jessica Austin, Jacob Samuels, Laura Burkhauser and Aaron Danzig, who contributes oud on one track.

The album also features a host of illustrious musicians: drummer/percussionist Sean Tergis, guitarist Oren Neiman, Rachel Valfer Sills on oud and vocals, Eliyahu Sills on bansuri and ney, and Veretski Pass bassist Stuart Brotman, whose role in the pioneering band The Klezmorim provides the album with a direct link to the 1970s klezmer revival. Meyer also singled out the contributions of Berkeley jazz guitarist John Schott as a steady source of inspiration and moral support.

The road to “Shabbat in The Kitchen” was often bumpy, Meyer said. When she first took over the davening team, she found a chorus that sometimes functioned more like a debating society.

“They were great, but it was like a dynamic Jewish family,” she said. “It was very argumentative and nobody was listening to each other.” Inspired by one of her heroes, Jewish multidisciplinary artist Meredith Monk, Meyer incorporated listening exercises into the team’s rehearsals.

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The music that team produced ended up sustaining the congregation’s spirits through the dark days of the pandemic. “This album really captures a moment for us, one where we made it through Covid together,” said Spencer Weiss, The Kitchen’s executive director. Weiss noted that while there aren’t any plans for a second album, “now that we’ve opened this door, we’re excited to go through and see what’s next.”

Kushner founded The Kitchen in 2011 to, as she told J. at the time, “create something that filled a gap, that met needs that weren’t being met.” The congregation, which has hundreds of member households, used to meet primarily at the San Francisco Friends School in the Mission District, with High Holiday services held at the JCCSF. But since the beginning of the pandemic, it has met at several different venues, including the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. Kushner still leads the congregation, which belatedly celebrated its 10-year anniversary with a party on May 18.

This Friday, the congregation will officially say goodbye to Meyer during Shabbat evening services at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. So what comes next for her?

She told J. she’s taking some time off to focus on music, putting in some serious practice time on guitar and violin. She will lead High Holiday services at the JCC East Bay. “And then we’ll see if there’s an album of some of my own music, maybe in collaboration with the music of some of my friends,” she said. “I imagine being on the road visiting different communities.”

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.