Synagogue was never a particularly religious place for me. The songs, prayers and rituals I observed and participated in at my hometown Conservative synagogue just never really did it for me.
By “it,” I mean the feeling that I always sensed I was supposed have inside that building with the stained-glass windows, wood-backed pews and time-worn prayer books: what people commonly refer to as a “a religious experience.” It could have been a sense of total awe or comfort, or a tingling through my limbs, or a giddy-warm sensation in my chest, or a wave of emotion that brought tears to my eyes. But in years of attending synagogue, it never came.
The closest I’ve come to that feeling has been when I have been around various works of art: the murals of Diego Rivera; the films of Pedro Almodóvar and the Coen Brothers; the autobiography of Frederick Douglass; the architecture of McKim, Mead & White — and, perhaps most often and most acutely, while listening to music. In particular, Christian gospel music.
This puts me, a Jew, in an awkward position. Because if I’m being bracingly honest, I have to admit that I’ve felt holier listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” than I ever felt in Hebrew school; that Nina Simone’s “Nearer Blessed Lord” brought me nearer to some sort of lord than I ever felt at Jewish summer camp, and that I was more rapt watching the 1984 documentary “Gospel According to Al Green” than I ever was during a High Holidays service.
Now, I’m no stranger to the little speed bumps of guilt and confusion that line the road of my life. I hit them when I chomp on a piece of bacon, or slurp down an oyster, or date a non-Jewish woman, or send a work email on Saturday, or sneak a nosh before sundown on Yom Kippur.
But this gospel music situation feels more intense. I don’t like to admit that Jewish music doesn’t move me, and at the same time, what does it say about me that Christian gospel makes me want to shout “Hallelujah!”?
Before we go any further, it’s worth defining some terms.
When I say “Jewish music,” I mean the prayers and melodies I’ve heard in synagogue over the years— the Sh’ma, Aleinu, the Kaddishes, and end-of-service hymns, like “Ein Keloheinu.” I also mean the nonprayer songs I learned in Hebrew school, including Israeli songs like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” and the country’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” And while we’re at it, I also mean every other Jewish tune I learned along the way, from “Hava Nagila,” to Klezmer tunes, to “Dayenu,” to Adam Sandler’s “The Hannukah Song.” They all leave me cold.
And when I refer to Christian gospel, I’m really talking about the religious music from some of my favorite classic soul and rhythm and blues artists (almost all of whom got their start in the church) that’s heavily Christian in its lyrics. I’m thinking of Al Green’s mesmerizing performance of “Jesus Is Waiting” on “Soul Train” in the 1970s, and Billy Preston singing “That’s the Way God Planned It” at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, and Sam Cooke singing “Jesus Gave Me Water” and “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” and Otis Redding singing “Amen.”And I’m talking, perhaps most directly, about Aretha Franklin’s double album, “Amazing Grace,” recorded live at Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the winter of 1972.
That album sold more than 2 million copies, which made it both the best-selling album of Franklin’s career and the highest-selling live gospel music of all time. It features an angelic, choir-backed cover of Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” that conveys the sensation of ascending upward through the clouds. It includes a driving, thumping, fire-breathing version of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and a jaw-dropping, 11-minute version of the title track, “Amazing Grace.” As the music journalist and author of a 2011 book on the album, Aaron Cohen, told me recently, Franklin’s performance on the double album is, simply, “her peak, as a singer.”
For a Jewish kid from Rhode Island who had never set foot in a real-life gospel service, that album served as a Gospel 101 introductory class when I first encountered it in my late 20s. But it was also an introduction to an uncomfortable sense that some kind of spiritual rebellion was taking place inside me.
It didn’t take long into my investigation to arrive at my first semi-comforting conclusion: The line between Judaism and Christian gospel is not nearly as bold and impermeable as I once thought.
Of course, Bob Dylan — born Robert Zimmerman — had a gospel period during the late 1970s and early ’80s that’s been much discussed lately, with the recent release of a book called “Trouble in Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years — What Really Happened” by Clinton Heylin, and a multi-CD set called “Trouble No More — The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / –1979–1981,” released last year. This was the era in which Dylan told an audience in Albuquerque: “I said the answer was blowin’ in the wind, and it was! And I’m saying to you now, Jesus is coming back, and he is! There is no other way to salvation.”
Cantor Jeff Klepper of Temple Sinai of Sharon, in Sharon, Massachusetts, is a well-known figure in contemporary Jewish music. And when I spoke with him, he described Dylan’s entire career as a kind of mirror for many Jews. The quandary I had approached him with — essentially, what to make of my love for Christian music — is “precisely at the root of the psyche of Bob Dylan: this being torn between his Jewish identity, on the one hand, and his American roots-musical journey on the other,” he told me. Gospel is a key ingredient in American roots music, he explained. And, Dylan is “in some ways… every Jew who comes from a Jewish background, [who is] then… seduced by the riches of American music.”
And he wasn’t the only one. Paul Simon performed for years with the gospel singer Jessy Dixon. And more recently, the Jewish-raised, gospel-obsessed musician Eli “Paperboy” Reed has played in gospel groups, performed in black churches, DJed gospel nights at bars in Brooklyn and taught in Manhattan’s Gospel for Teens program. And when I caught him on the phone for an interview, Reed, in turn, pointed out that “Pretty much… every single one of the important record label owners in the 1950s and ’60s was Jewish.” Examples include Leonard Chess from Chess Records; Fred Mendelsohn, longtime president of Savoy Records, in New Jersey, and the Bihari brothers — Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe — who founded Modern Records, in Los Angeles. Each of those labels was well known for producing and releasing gospel music.
Jews even played a key role packaging and producing my most sacred gospel text, “Amazing Grace.” The album was, like so much of Franklin’s most indelible work, produced by Jerry Wexler, who is credited with encouraging the singer to tap into her gospel roots when recording secular tunes like “Respect” or “Chain of Fools.” (Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a well-known Baptist minister in Detroit.) In Wexler’s L.A. Times obituary from 2008, the co-author of his autobiography, David Ritz, said, “With Aretha, [Wexler] knew how to deconstruct her in order to reconstruct her, and he reconstructed her based on her own fundamental elements, which were the church and gospel music.”
As it turns out, I wasn’t even the first person in my family to be drawn to Christian music. My father, Charles, is a long-practicing endocrinologist who, when he’s not at his office treating people with diabetes and thyroid issues, likes to sing. He’s sung in various civic choral groups for decades, and for years he’s also sung baritone in our synagogue choir during High Holidays services.
When I asked my father whether he believes in a higher power, he said, “I think there’s probably an all-encompassing being of some sort,” and when I pressed further he told me that he feels most connected to that being while singing. But not necessarily during the High Holidays. “It’s no more moving for me to sing the Jewish music than it is [to sing] the goyish music, because I like them both,” he said. His favorite piece, in fact, is one of the world’s most famous Christian praise songs: George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”
“I love the ‘Messiah,’” my dad told me. “I could sing the ‘Messiah’ every day.”
When I spoke with Cantor Nancy Abramson, Director of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music, she acknowledged that this wasn’t the first time she had heard such criticism. And she noted that, after “some soul searching,” the Conservative movement has begun to embrace change — including shorter services, expanded Torah discussion and increased participation from members of the congregation during services.
She also added that, while cantorial singing and gospel music may have affected me differently, she views the philosophy behind the two as nearly identical. “What we are all trying to do is reach your heartstrings,” she said. “And not all of my colleagues are successful at it, but I certainly try to make sure that my students find their heart in what they sing, and can share that with their community — and that’s what the gospel singers that you’re so attracted to are doing. It’s like you can see right into their hearts when they sing.”
I also spoke with a Reform rabbi, whom we both agreed could remain anonymous so that he could speak more freely. Beyond my lack of emotional connection to the Conservative services of my upbringing, the rabbi said that it wasn’t just a matter of musical styles I was responding to. It was also an inherent difference between Judaism and Christianity, themselves. After all, Christianity, he said, is all about personal salvation, whereas Judaism emphatically isn’t. “Judaism is about the Jewish people!” he said.
“You think you’re there for you, at a prayer service, but you’re not,” he said. “Judaism could give a rat’s ass about your personal experience. Judaism cares about the fact that you are there, showing up, doing a mitzvah, for God. Period. There is no other thing that you’re doing.”
You’re not supposed to get something out of it, he said. You’re supposed to show up and do the thing you’re supposed to do. Judaism doesn’t care about your spirit; Judaism cares about what you do. “And what you do is, by showing up, you make a minyan; that enables the service to go forward, and we get to pray, and give our thanks to God,” he said.
“So it’s not about my feelings?” I asked.
“No!” he replied. “It’s never been about your feelings.”
In late March I attended a bris for my nephew, in Brooklyn. It was a small event, about a dozen family members gathered in my brother and sister-and-law’s apartment. While the mohel worked, he interspersed his English remarks by softly singing Hebrew prayers and melodies. And as I listened to him, I looked at my brother, who seemed to be absorbing the proceedings with an even mixture of pride and terror. I was intensely moved.
I’ve thought a lot about that moment, and what moved me so much, since then. Maybe it was thoughts of my 97-year-old grandmother, who had passed away almost exactly a year earlier. Or maybe it was watching my brother (who is already the father of a 2-year-old girl) become a father yet again. Or maybe it was simply the presence of this tiny, soft, breathing, pink, beautiful child whose arrival into our family, and this planet, we had gathered to celebrate.
But I think I was also — perhaps especially — moved by the Jewishness of the scene. That bris crystallized something about how I engage, emotionally, with being Jewish, which is that while “Hatikvah” and Aleinu don’t do much for me, my exploration of, and connection to, Jewish history does. The words and melodies that the mohel sang, and that we all hummed or sang with him, were a thread connecting me to a deep history of Judaism. And that did leave me awestruck. That does move me. This moment felt like a revelation, and one that happened amid the wine bottles, baby toys and couches at my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment, instead of at a stained-glass synagogue sanctuary. And it also called to mind something from my conversation with the Reform rabbi to whom I had spoken.
At one point in our conversation, he said that during services at his synagogue, from up on the bimah, he is spiritually moved by the congregation singing and praying with the music. It isn’t necessarily that he’s communing with God at that very moment. Rather it’s the idea of seeing that people are engaged with Jewish life.
“That is what I love,” he told me. “And I feel that acutely… if people are digging it, then I know that Jewish life will sort of continue and grow and evolve, and I am moved by that.”
Rob Tannenbaum is a veteran music journalist who has written album reviews, interviewed rock stars and co-written the book “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution.” He is also part of a satirical rock duo called Good for the Jews, which I wrote about years ago, when they played at Brown University Hillel. “I’ve been writing songs about being Jewish for, it might be, 20 years. Partly because I was so unsatisfied with the existing catalog of songs about being Jewish,” he said when I spoke to him on the phone. “So I certainly agree with your premise.”
Tannenbaum described himself as a Jewish agnostic who is “content with that contradiction,” and from there he matter-of-factly told me that there are two things on earth that very quickly made him believe in the existence of God: St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, and great gospel music.
“I think there is an unlimited number of ways to be a Jew,” Tannenbaum told me. Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, a person can observe any number, including zero, and he would still consider them Jewish, he said: “You can never go to synagogue and still be a Jew.”
Music, he says, plays a key role in this framework. Because if every Jew gets to make his or her own rules about Judaism, then this includes the way they define Jewish music. “So one of the things that I need to feel happy as a Jew is a broader sense of what it means to be a Jew,” he said. “And because I love music, that includes a broader sense of what Jewish music is.” This includes ancient hymns, but it also includes Irving Berlin and every American Jewish composer or songwriter after him.
Suddenly, doors flung open in my mind. So, by that logic, I asked, was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” Jewish music? And Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”? Was it fair to even call them “Jewish gospel music”?
“I think it is, yes,” he said.
This was an electrifying thought. Whereas before I felt terrible that I hadn’t been connecting with my own identity — that I was at odds with my tribe — according to Tannenbaum’s definition I wasn’t disconnected at all; I just needed a change of perspective. The Beastie Boys are Jewish music. So is Amy Winehouse. So are Leonard Cohen and Carole King.
By that definition, even Aretha Franklin sings two Jewish tunes on “Amazing Grace”: King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and, most appropriately, the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the 1940s musical “Carousel”: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Philip Eil is a writer and editor based in Providence, R.I.