Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sacred Spaces: Klezmer Shabbat Service at Temple Emanu-el

I have had it in the back of my mind to do a blog series on sacred spaces. The idea is to visit various places of worship around town and write an essay about the experience at each place. I was invited to attend a special Shabbat service at Temple Emanu-El on Birmingham’s Highland Avenue last Friday, so I have taken that opportunity to begin my Sacred Spaces Series.

Temple Emanue-El is a Reform Jewish congregation founded in 1882. Their mission statement  on their website states : “Temple Emanu-El is a welcoming Reform Jewish congregation, engaging members in prayer, study, fellowship, and acts of loving kindness for our congregational family and the community at-large.”

Last Friday, August 26, 2016, was the world premiere of the Klezmer Shabbat Service, a musical production written by Dr. Alan Goldspiel. Dr. Goldspiel is Chair of the Department of Music at the University of Montevallo and is the music director of the Magic Shtetl Klezmer Band which features Goldspiel on the classical guitar, Pei-Ju Wo on violin, Robert Janssen on clarinet, and Michael Glaser, percussionist.

Klezmer, according to the program notes, is “a musical tradition originating in the shtetls and ghettos of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, where musicians performed at joyful events since the early middle ages.” Klezmer was originally inspired by secular melodies and is often used for weddings and for dancing. Though it can be very soulful, it is not a tradition normally associated with Shabbat, so this was a truly original musical event.

Preparing Ahead

Before going to the Shabbat service, I consulted my trusty volume, How to be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook to familiarize myself with what to expect and how I needed to act. The basic information I got was that since Temple Emanuu-El is a Reform synagogue, I would not be required to wear a yarmulke and that I should stand when everyone stands during the prayers. As for dress, for men, the book said, “a coat and tie are always appropriate.” Since my copy of A Perfect Stranger is 20 years old now, I wondered if this were still the case. I knew that among Protestants and Catholics dress has become considerably more relaxed, and I thought of how an evening at the symphony once always indicated a coat and tie, but now that is usually just business casual.

I decided to forego the tie, since men’s neck ties are becoming rather rare. I wanted to “blend in” but not stand out. I opted for a sport coat, slacks, and dress shirt with open collar. I considered that this event involved prayer and music, both deserving of some respect in my manner of dress. When I arrived, I saw that there was an even mix of business casual and sport jackets/suits among the men, so I felt comfortably “blended in.”

Hearing the Music

As the program began, the instrumental music had a familiar ring. It sounded like music I had heard as background music in movies, and it triggered memories of cinematic scenes in New York City, though I could not think right off hand what specific movies I had heard this genre of music in.  That is to say, the music was lively and accessible. (A quick online search later revealed klezmer influence in the musical scores of such movies as Cabaret, Oliver!Blazing Saddles, Once Upon a Time in America, and, of course, Fiddler on the Roof. 

When it came to movements in which traditional Jewish prayers for the Sabbath were sung by the choir, the music had a full, even oceanic feel at times with other movements given more to gentle reflection. Some of the movements conveyed a sense of proclamation. The music also called for several solo parts by cantor Jessica Roskin, whose voice carried the music with beauty and skill. It was a joy to hear the Magic Shtetl Klezmer Band as well as the cantorial choir of Temple Emanu-El.

Praying the Prayers

Everything was in Hebrew, but page numbers were included in the program, so I was able to follow along in the prayer book. Though the prayers were written Hebrew, there was usually an English translation included which allowed me to get some sense of the prayers being offered. For example, the opening prayer, Hinei Mah Tov can be translated “How good it is, and how pleasant, when we dwell together in unity.”

The next prayer, L’cha Dodi is translated, “Come, my Beloved, to meet the Bride; let us welcome the Shabbat. Observe and Remember, the one and only Gd caused us to hear in a single utterance; the L-rd is One and His Name is One, for renown, for glory and for praise.”

And of course there is the Sh’ma (shema) which begins,  Sh'ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad… “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

As one who has spent much time in Protestant and Catholic Churches, there were some similarities to be seen among our differences. The offering of praise to God was similar. Indeed, there is a certain weightiness about hearing these ancient prayers being offered up -- prayers that have been said by the faithful for thousands of years in hundreds of gatherings throughout the world. Other similarities were the prayers for the sick and the remembrances of those who had died. 

All in all, it was a significant evening. I was able to witness something quite new while hearing prayers that are quite ancient, weighty, and sacred. Temple Emanu-El has their services webcast, so you may see the Klezmer Shabbat Service online at http://ourtemple.org/webcast/ .





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