I traded in last night’s chazanut for some gospel this morning. I do percussion for a gospel choir here at Drew. Our director, Mark Miller, is pretty well-known as a composer, organist and choir director in his slice of America. A brother-sister rabbinic team, Rabbis Leah Berkowitz and Perry Berkowitz, two of the frumpiest-looking Jews you could every hope to find, hold a full set of High Holidays services every year in a Unitarian church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, featuring periodic bouts of fantastic gospel music. Joshua Nelson, increasingly well-known proponent of “Kosher gospel music” was also on hand for several songs.
The Rabbis Berkowitz, it seems, are far from frumpy. The folks that turn out for these services, however, need some work. The service operates in a loose and free-form sort of liturgical not-quite-structure. A sort of meditative, stream-of-conscious, never-ending narrative springs forth from the rabbis throughout the whole service in topics of alertness, repentance, joy, music and the liturgy itself. The machzor, if you could call it that, is an 8-page packet of 11×17 paper with bits of a variety of machzors grafted on.
Normally, I’m not one who tolerates highly-abbreviated or flippant liturgy, but with these two rabbis, it works. Maybe it works for me on RH, for reasons I mentioned earlier in this series: I don’t like this holiday and I don’t get it. Maybe their non-stop sermon, dribbled as it was all throughout the service gave me enough to think about that I was able to get something out of this service.
The music, of course, was beyond good. Everyone seemed to know that in the congregation, but many seemed unsure of how proper this was. And if it was proper, they didn’t know quite how to respond. Many clapped hesitantly or awkwardly, while others peered over their reading glasses in disbelief. But no one could deny it was good.
The downside: It was four hours long! When I finally escaped the building at 2 p.m., I was so hungry for lunch, I thought Yom Kipur might already be upon us!
The musical highlights: Hearing Mark, whom I know as a gospel pianist, playing along to Rabbi Perry’s perfectly chazan-y Avinu Malkeinu; and Joshua Nelson and his singers belting out Hinei Mah Tov to the tune of When the Saints Come Marching In.
The rabbinic highlights: Rabbi Leah’s shouted stream of wrongs in the world, punctuated by Rabbi Perry’s spastic shofar blasts.
Not to mention the sheer entertainment value in watching the two rabbis jump all over the bimah ecstatically waving tambourines around with such gusto that, as Four Weddings and a Funeral put it, “I feared lives would be lost.” These are two energetic rabbis. The congregation should take a few pages out of their machzor.