Saturday, March 25, 2006

Prayer, Performance, and Matsiyahu

A kind email from Adam this morning, re: prayer and performance. He notes the differences between two synagogue "stages" and the performances they suggest:
In Safed, the Abuhav synogogue, which local lore cites as having flown like a rocket-ship from Spain, is set up in Classic Sephardic mode: People look to one another along cushioned benches. In the middle, the Torah reader or Cantor leads the prayers. I often think of the liturgical texts which the piytanim would compose & sing to the congregations in Spain. Here was poetic-devotional theater.

Certainly hearing the original compositions was more stimulating than a Rabbinical sermon.

I was also present recently at the Liberal Jewish Synogogue in London. There, the choir & organist led the prayers. I found that somewhat alienating as it seemed that these Jews wanted their service to resemble Anglican Church or Roman Catholic performances rather than the authentic Jewish expressions.
When I was a younger man, living in Washington D.C., I davened every week at Fabrangen, a long-standing havurah made famous in Rabbi Arthur Waskow's writings, although he is no longer living in the area. The worship space was a room at the George Washington University Hillel, and the setup was in the round, as Adam describes the Sephardic synagogue in Sefad. After a few weeks, I certainly felt like part of the collective performance there, although after a couple of years, I must confess that I always drifted out when we got to the Torah discussion. It felt too much like a seminar discussion of poetry--too close to work, I guess. I liked the singing more.

(In Leon Weiseltier's derisive phrase--to me, simply a description--I believe in the "religion of singing.")

My sense is that the second architecture Adam describes, with organ and choir, puts the congregation into the role of audience, rather than performer. I grew up in synagogues like that, and hated them, as a rule, because I was lucky if anyone in the room was actually praying. No one in the pews seemed to be--not that I could acually see them--and the rabbi and cantor, although performing roles, never seemed to lose themselves in actual devotion. Whatever gates there are stayed closed.

(I should add, though, that my own ability to pray was deeply fostered by the Roman Catholic, mostly-black church in D.C. where my wife's cousin was the priest, whose praying and singing styles were more Baptist than traditionally Catholic.)

My wee Carlbachian twist a moment ago, about "the gates," was inspired by yesterday's obsessive on-line listening to Matisyahu, the young Lubovitcher reggae singer who is making such a splash these days. Whatever his merits and flaws, I'm struck by how watching him perform Jewish identity (in songs and in videos) opens up a performance style for me, singing along, that I haven't used in several years now: and through that style, certain emotional registers as well. What does Michael Ventura say about Elvis's hip-swiveling equivalent? "A dance it took a whole civilization to forget, and ten seconds to remember," or something like that. I'll be interested to watch, over the coming ten or twenty years, the ways in which his stylings filter up into unOrthodox Jewish prayer performance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've recently been slapped in the face so hard by realizing my teenage idol is nothing but a hippocrite, and now to have Matsiyahu climbing the ladder of success at an incredibly fast speed amazes me. I only heard about him a week ago or so but didn't even catch his name, he filled my heart with goodness, and I praise his success to come. My slap in the face comes from perry farrell, aka perry bernstien, former lead front man of jane's addiction, porno for pyros, and now a lame unexciting used up man that stated in a stupid essay on the inside of the album ritual de lo habitual about how he loves his fans so much and parents should realize that but then he makes a world of heroin addicts by expressing the romance of being a heroin addict. What the last straw was, hearing him at a porno for pyro's show, a show that I have recorded which is the evidence of him spreading hatred. He says that the orthodox jews have no fashion and should cut off those stupid looking side burns. I'm not a jew but that thinking disgusts me. 6 000 000 dead because they were guilty of being jewish, and I highly, ultimately respect a person that will choose his religeon over fashion. It's time to take this hate monger down, or at least ask him why he'd say something like that? And now people talking about matsiyahu performing at lollapalooza, this event that is supposed to be about love and tolerance, but hey, Jews look stupid with those sideburns so put them in an oven. This is stuff I cannot even fathom, remember public enemy's professor grif??? Funny how he couldn't remember saying things that were recorded. I think it's time to give mr farrell a lesson in tolerance, because if he has a problem with that then he can freely choose another religion. NEVER FORGET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!