Kabbalistic Kirtan: Just Replace Hindu With Hebrew

By Rachel Zuckerman

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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f you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve probably performed kirtan, an ancient Hindu call-and-response chant practiced by Hindus and Sikhs.

Now imagine that the phrases you were chanting were not Hindu, but Hebrew. Welcome to the newest rung in the Jewish spirituality ladder: kabbalistic kirtan.

The genre — which features chanting Jewish names for the divine over Middle Eastern rhythms, articulated by a wailing oud and thumping percussion — was single-handedly created by Philadelphia resident Susan Deikman in 1999, when she first discovered kirtan at an informal session at an Indian friend’s house.

“The call-and-response singing coupled with text was so powerful as a spiritual practice,” Deikman recalled in an interview with the Forward. “I felt a connection with the group and lost a separate sense of self. But at the same time, I wasn’t keen on chanting the Hindu names of gods, which didn’t resonate with me. Later I thought, why can’t I do it Jewishly?”

The following year, Deikman started performing Jewish kirtans at P’nai Or, a Jewish Renewal Congregation in Mount Airy, Pa., and now performs regularly at Philadelphia-area yoga studios and Jewish renewal synagogues, as well as the Elat Chayyim retreat center in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Her self-financed CD, “Kiss the Beloved: Kabbalistic Kirtan,” which she completed in August, features eight tracks performed in Hebrew, Aramaic and occasionally English. The songs feature very few words, and instead present mere utterances sang by Deikman like mantras, and repeated by backup singers. In addition to versions of “L’chah Dodi” and “Oseh Shalom,” the disc features the singer’s evocations of the divine in songs like “Echad B’echad” and “Hamakom Hazeh.”

This winter, Deikman will lead kirtans across the country at yoga studios, liberal synagogues, and Sufi centers. And she’s received the imprimatur of one of the most important figures in the Jewish spirituality movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who gave her the name “Yofifah,” a contraction of yafeh and fiyeh, meaning “beautiful mouth of God.”

“It’s a new form that’s pushing the boundaries in a way that’s really needed,” Deikman said of her kabbalistic kirtan. “The evidence for me is when I perform at yoga centers and Jews come up to me who are in no way connected to the Jewish world, and tell me that the music makes them feel very excited.”

Until about 10 years ago, though, Deikman considered herself a spiritual speaker with little to no connection to Judaism. She grew up in a “culturally Jewish” home in the San Francisco Bay Area, where her parents went on Buddhist retreats and to Sufi study centers. She never had a bat mitzvah, nor had she ever learned a word of Hebrew.

After unhappy stints at the San Francisco and Boston Conservatories, the classically trained soprano quit singing for 10 years. She moved to New York and worked as an art director in magazine publishing. Ironically, it was Judaism that facilitated her return to music.

In 1994, a Lubavitcher cousin encouraged her to join a Jewish choir. She reluctantly joined Bilubi, an Orthodox choir at Congregation Ohav Zedek on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where women were allowed to sing as long as they refrained from performing solos.

Singing transliterated versions of “Adon Olam,” “Shalom Aleichem” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” struck a chord in Deikman. “I loved the tonality and the poignancy of the music and the musical modes the songs were in,” she remembered. “It just sort of resonated very deeply within me.”

In 1997, Deikman wanted to move out of New York City and her cramped fifth-floor walk-up studio, to live in a city where she could afford to work as a full-time musician and music teacher. Friends pointed her toward Mount Airy, a liberal Jewish enclave in Northwest Philadelphia that is also a hotbed of the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. It was there that she discovered a like-minded community of left-leaning Jews who embraced practices such as yoga.

“After I finish a chant I’m so dialed into the group,” Deikman said . “At the end of the evening, the sense of presence in the room is palpable,” she continues. “I have a stupid grin plastered on my face that I can’t wipe off. My heart is cracked open, and I laugh and cry at the same time.”

For more information, visit www.hebrewkirtan.com.

Rachel Zuckerman is a staff writer at Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent.

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