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Heschel also became a prominent social critic and civil rights activist, marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and opposing the war in Vietnam. Add it all up, and you’ve got a pretty good candidate for the patron saint of progressive Judaism: If your definition of being Jewish includes having a personal relationship with “the sacred,” if you think Kabbalah is cool and you plan to celebrate Passover at your local outpost of Occupy Wall Street, then Abe’s your uncle — philosophically speaking, of course.
Early in life, Heschel was also a poet who wrestled with notions of spirituality and divinity. On “Songs of Wonder,” Schechter sets a series of poems from Heschel’s first published work, a collection of poems titled “The Ineffable Name of God: Man” that is chock full of surprises. Take, for example, “Ich und Du” (“I and You”), which locates God in the individual — or rather, in all individuals:
Am I not — you? Are you not — I?
Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech — a distant, quiet voice — in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden.
I live in Me and in you.
It sounds like a slick contemporary take on Martin Buber. It also sounds as if it could have come straight out of the series of televised conversations that Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers had in the 1980s — the one in which Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College who wrote extensively about myth, repeatedly made the point that God is in all of us, a notion that he borrowed from Hindu philosophy. But Heschel wrote it some time between 1927 and 1933, while studying theology at the University of Berlin.
You do not, however, have to understand Heschel’s Yiddish stanzas to enjoy “Songs of Wonder”; the music sees to that. “I and You” starts light, with Schechter’s clear, cool vocals floating atop a crisp acoustic guitar pattern and some liquid percussion. As the song progresses, the texture is thickened by Frank London’s muted trumpet, an increasingly insistent piano track and a thumping bass drum. As more and more layers are added, the piece gathers energy, swelling to a climax before suddenly subsiding — a minor miracle of arranging, engineering and taste.
It’s that kind of performance, more than her admittedly compelling biography, that makes Schechter worth listening to. If you want a sense of the ineffable, of what Heschel called “radical astonishment,” you’ll find it on just about every track — as you will the delightfully odd juxtaposition of a beautiful female voice spinning Brooklyn-accented Yiddish over a sensuous, often vaguely Middle Eastern background.
I know, we are well past the point when the sound of Yiddish sung over anything — punk rock, free jazz, black gospel — should seem at all out of the ordinary. But to me, there is still something deliciously surreal about hearing the language of the shtetl, of my grandparents and great uncles and, yes, of Boro Park, convey the spiritual musings of a charismatic Polish mystic over rhythms and modes redolent of olive groves and fig trees, cinnamon and myrrh. There’s awe and wonder in that, too — especially when it’s done with such panache.
Alexander Gelfand is a regular contributor to the Forward. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Economist and (his favorite) Bartender magazine.