‘Rabbi Cool’ and Rock Opera Draw Stars, Upscale Spiritualists

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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Jewish grandmothers, aging hippies and Jerry Seinfeld all filed into the auditorium of Manhattan’s Asia Society last week for a $500-a-head benefit for CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Then the lights dimmed and a man with large hair took the stage, wearing tight black pants and a shimmering golden shirt unbuttoned halfway to his belly.

He was Joe Lynn Turner, former lead singer for the heavy metal band Deep Purple, which recorded such classics as “Lick it Up” and “Bad Attitude,” and he was there to present the audience — including Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld, George Stephanopolous, and Robert DeNiro — with the world premiere of a rock opera about Galileo.

Departing from the old story of the enlightened intellectual, the improvised tale portrayed Galileo as an impetuous snob standing up to a righteous Catholic Church. Backed up by an eight-piece band, Turner sometimes assumed the role of stargazer, and sometimes the role of Pope Urban, using 1970s-style hip gyrations and disco arm swinging to dramatize the story.

Billed as “an innovative program bringing together religion and science through the story of Galileo,” the event, titled “In Concert for One People,” was designed to honor “the diversity of the American Jewish community, and [celebrate] CLAL as a leading national voice for religious pluralism.”

As a show of this commitment, after the performance the president of CLAL, Rabbi Irwin Kula, led a panel discussion with a Jesuit priest and an investigative reporter about the relevance of Galileo’s story for a modern audience.

The purpose of all this, said Kula, a lanky man with the long gray hair and informal ways of a contemporary folk singer, is to “smash the idols” of the Jewish community. Doing so is the only way to “open up the search for truth,” he said, adding that people must fight the “fundamentalisms” that develop in any worldview — scientific, Catholic, Jewish or atheistic.

“Rather than use Judaism to make Jews Jewish,” Kula said, “we are using the spirit of Judaism to enhance the ethical culture of America. The byproduct of that is that Jews will want to become Jews.”

Indeed, the Jewish content was a little hard to locate in the program. CLAL, best described as a think-tank dedicated to questions of Jewish identity and religious practice, often skates the rim of cultural edginess in its quest to expand the boundaries of Jewish communal life. Sometimes, the difference between a slip and a success is in the eye — or the ear — of the beholder.

“I would have actually enjoyed it more if the volume was a little lower,” said a 61-year-old woman to a small crowd waiting for the elevator to the dining room. The conversation quickly turned to hearing impairments, and surgical remedies for the problem.

But others in the upscale, spiritually-minded crowd were more moved by the opera.

“I want to do some of this kabbalist stuff,” said Turner, the singer, who talked at dinner about growing up Catholic and going to Hebrew school with his friends. Turner said that the talks he has had with Kula — or, as he calls him, “Rabbi Cool” — have stoked an interest in Judaism again. “Not to be too self-confident, but I think I’m literate and experienced enough. I told Rabbi Kula, I’m ready.”

Sitting next to Turner at the dinner was Joe Kudish, 53, who had grown up attending the Long Island synagogue where Kula’s father was a cantor. Kudish has been a reluctant synagogue-goer in recent years, but the night’s program piqued his interest.

Kudish admitted that he was unsure what the story of Galileo had to do with the very real and pressing problems facing the Jewish community, but he dropped the subject when he became wrapped up in a discussion with Turner about Bertold Brecht. Kudish thought Brecht could be compared with Galileo in his behavior before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both Brecht and Galileo, Kudish pointed out, had recanted and run when their lives were on the line.

Turner saw his point, and began singing a song from the opera, based on Galileo’s famously ambiguous statement uttered after his own recantation, “Eppur Si Muove,” “And Still It Moves.” Kudish bobbed his head in time.

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