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Beating away idols during a percussion Shabbat

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

CHULA VISTA, California –If it had been the subject of publicity, it might have been labeled “Percussion Shabbat” because at the beginning of the Friday night service congregants of Temple Beth Sholom helped themselves to drums, cymbals, triangles, tambourines and maracas.

As they drummed, tapped, rang, and shook their way through the melodies of the Friday night prayers–among them, for example, Leha Dodi — I wondered, perhaps, if this was intended as a salute to Buddy Rich, or Max Weinberg, or any other of the many well-known Jewish drummers who have enlivened our lives.

Arlene LaGary, president of the Conservative congregation (who also served the dinner preceding the service) told me that this night was no different than many other Friday nights;  percussion is a regular feature of the services conducted by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, a Lubavitcher trained rabbi who now leans toward Reconstructionism.

Temple Beth Sholom at 208 Madrona Street has a small but polyglot membership, with congregants coming from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  Some identify themselves as Ashkenazim, others Sephardim, but all as Jews.   Percussion is not only a common language for them, but also for one young member of the congregation who is deaf.  Watching others,  he got the “vibe” and  tapped two sticks together in rhythm with the rest of the congregation.

My grandson, Shor, wailed on a single bongo drum, while I got into the groove with a tambourine.  Up on the bima, Samuel chanted the Shabbat evening melodies while keeping time with another tambourine.

The rabbi  observed that some traditionalists might look askance at all this music, perhaps in the belief  that prayer services must always be sedate, contemplative affairs.  However, he said, the Torah and other sacred Jewish writings are replete with references to music lifting up the soul.  Music can take people to places where they never have been before, Samuel opined.  Why shouldn’t prayer be fun and exciting?

African-American Churches renowned for their gospel choirs obviously have known this for a long time, but isn’t all this drumming out of place in Jewish worship?  Apparently anticipating the question, Samuel related it to the Torah portion of the week, in which the Israelites built for themselves a golden calf.

In modern times, he suggested, people have many false idols — money, materialism, fleeting fame — all of which they mistakenly believe can substitute for the genuine happiness that comes from a knowledge of  self-worth.  So it is too with some Jewish rituals, which some people follow by rote because they think the rituals will make them better Jews, even though in actuality they derive nothing from them.

Rituals are meant to serve people, rather than the other way around, Samuel said.  Those rituals that do not elevate the soul or motivate people to strive for betterment are no longer useful and should be discarded.  They are idols.   Samuel suggested that even a synagogue building can be an idol, if within its interior the spirituality and ethics of Judaism do not reverberate.

At the end of the service, instead of chanting “Adon Olam,” or some other traditional melody,  the rabbi invited the young people to come up to the bima, and distributed to them some large sunglasses, so they could all look like members of the same rap group.  Then the rabbi completed the service by performing a rap song of his creation

What did it say?* My ears are not attuned to rap. Whenever I hear a rap, I wish I could slow it down to better discern the lyrics. Not that today’s young rappers would understand the references, but I want to play their 78 rpm versions on 45 rpm, so I can hear each word.

When I thought the service was over, I found out it wasn’t. Soon the rabbi was forming a line, which he led out of the sanctuary onto the synagogue’s front lawn. With instruments still in some of our hands, we danced a hora out there–and I found myself wondering if the people in the cars that drove by, hearing the music and seeing the dancing, weren’t thinking to themselves, “Well, golly, look at that, will you?”

[*] Rabbi Samuel later provided me with the lyrics. They were as follows:

Every deed is a noble task,
Learn to give, when nobody asks
Let your actions speak louder than words,
Honor your truth, you shall be heard

Character is always the best persuasion
So long as there is no moral evasion
Live your life with lots of play
Honor friendships, never betray

Happiness is not out there
There is a joy  & purpose for those who care
Children do not require lots of money,
Only a parent who love them and calls them “Honey”

If you wish to be loved in the end,
Always strive to be a kind friend
Be flexible, and learn to bend
Be someone they can surely depend

Life can be a serious mental disease
Without meaning or a sense of ease
Man is a being in search of meaning
Regardless of his political leaning

Your fortune in life is beyond compare
Billions are living without underwear
Music gives wings to the mind
Especially when you act very kind

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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