Rabbi Joe Black (Photo/Bart Levy)
Rabbi Joe Black (Photo/Bart Levy)

Musician Rabbi Joe Black brings his sabbatical songs to Bay Area

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For some rabbis, a sabbatical might mean finishing a book, buckling down to parse some Talmud or seeking a little solitude for spiritual reflection. But for Rabbi Joe Black, time away from the bimah means picking up his guitar, writing a song or hitting the road.

The senior rabbi of Denver’s Temple Emanuel since 2010, Black has long pursued a secondary calling as a recording and performing artist. He was already recognized as a leading force in Jewish contemporary music when his 1998 children’s album, “Aleph Bet Boogie,” earned widespread attention; two of his songs, “Boker Tov!” and “The Afikoman Mambo,” have been made into children’s books and distributed by PJ Library.

The ace guitarist, singer and songwriter makes several Bay Area appearances in the coming weeks, starting with a performance Thursday, Jan. 26, at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. The concert is presented with Palo Alto’s Kehillah Jewish High School, where Black is ensconced for a late-January musical residency. He will also serve as artist-in-residence at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, sharing his music and teachings during services on Jan. 27.

Black might be best known to the Bay Area Jewish community as a longtime faculty member at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Swig and Camp Newman, a run that lasted from 1996 to 2010. He also has a deep circle of musical compatriots in the region, some of whom will be joining him at his performances. The Bay Area Judaic musical power couple, singer-songwriter Saul Kaye and Temple Beth El Cantor Elana Jagoda, has assembled a band for the shows, though that’s only a small part of the residencies.

“The main thing is to teach Torah, which is what I try to do with my Jewish music, whether working in a music class or teaching a class on psalms and Midrash,” Black said. “I find that I’m becoming more obsessed with the process of songwriting. Now I look at form and structure, rhyme scheme and rhythm, studying songwriting as a craft and wanting to pass that on to others.”

The rabbi’s sabbatical offers him a rare opportunity to settle in for a few days while taking his music on the road. “I’ve taught at song leader camps, performed at UJR Biennials and in lots of different forums, but not a lot of weeklong residencies,” he told J. “I’m a full-time congregational rabbi, but I have a sabbatical, which gives me a chance to focus more on the musical parts of my rabbinate.”

The timing is felicitous, as a month-long sabbatical last year allowed Black to record and release two albums with the support of a successful Kickstarter campaign. His first new recordings in nearly two decades expanded his Jewish songbook with “Praying with Our Feet” and introduced a diverse set of secular songs on “Wire and Wood,” which includes “some country tunes, some rock and some songs that are silly,” he said. Proceeds from the CD support Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

While the call of music beckoned Black before he thought of becoming a rabbi, the two paths are inextricably linked. Raised in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, he threw himself into song leading in various Jewish settings. Inspiration was close at hand, as he rubbed shoulders with the matriarch of contemporary Jewish songwriting as a teenager. “Debbie Friedman was my camp counselor in 1972,” he said, noting that she had died 12 years ago to the day. Friedman would play a significant role in Black’s musical career in the coming decades. But in the meantime, Chicago’s thriving Jewish community kept him busy.

The main thing is to teach Torah, which is what I try to do with my music.

“I decided I loved Jewish music, and I started teaching music and song leading,” he recalled. “It was the right place at the right time. I was playing bar mitzvahs and weddings, and by the time I graduated high school I had several well-paying jobs as a cantorial soloist.”

Staying local to attend college at Northwestern, Black got a lucky break in the late 1970s when he was tapped to host a new Jewish family show on WBBM-TV, “The Magic Door.” His description of the gig sounds surreal — “I played Tiny Tov, an elf who lived in an acorn in the town of Torahville” — but the Sunday morning broadcast won a local Emmy and reached a huge audience. “You laugh, but ‘The Magic Door’ opened up a lot of doors for me,” he said.

Black put a band together to play his secular songs, but it didn’t take long before he realized “that something was missing, a spiritual and intellectual component,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a professional musician, always looking for my next gig. At that point, I decided to go to rabbinic school. But music has always been central for me, and fortunately the three congregations I’ve led have understood that’s a part of who I am.”

Black came full circle working with Sounds Write Productions, the San Diego company that distributed recordings, songbooks and videos by Debbie Friedman and fellow contemporary Jewish music performers Randee Friedman (no relation) and Julie Silver, “which gave me more national distribution,” he said. But no matter how successful he became as a musician, “performing is a tension,” he said.

The beauty of a sabbatical — the blessed period that provided the title of his 2003 guitar-centric album — is that the tension melts away. Music takes center stage. For his upcoming concert at Beth Am, he’s planning to present a cross section of his songbook. “For many people it’s the first time they’ve heard my music,” he said. “I’m very excited about the new songs, which are fun, up-tempo and engaging, with stirring vocals and lyrics that make you think.”

“A Night with Rabbi Joe Black”

7 p.m. Jan. 26 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Free.

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.