When members of the cutting edge jazz ensemble Afro-Semitic Experience released their latest CD, they had no idea they were making a statement.
But now that they have, they’re not backing away from what was inadvertently started. They even embrace it.
The album is called “Further Definitions of the Days of Awe,” — a blending of jazz, cantorial and African music. And the statement? It’s OK to dance on the High Holy Days.
The issue began when the album’s publicist sent out a press release to the media with this line:
“The Afro-Semitic Experience has discovered how they can make sacred music danceable and well-worth listening to beyond occasional commemoration.”
Dancing? On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? In the synagogue perhaps? What’s going on here?
When reached by the Chronicle, bassist David Chevan, a founder of the band, said promoting the CD as a dance album certainly wasn’t the group’s intent.
But on further reflection, he warmed to the idea.
“It’s an interesting thought,” Chevan said. “I have to tell you, in all my years I’ve done a lot of dancing in the shuls, but never on the High Holy Days. But I would never stop anyone from doing it.”
In fact, he rattled off several instances where dance is mentioned in the Bible, even alluded to as a temple ritual. Specifically, he referred to passages from Chronicles and Kings.
“It’s right there in the Bible; I’m not making something up … [it’s] within Jewish practice during the time of the temple,” he said. “I do believe if someone wanted to revive a Jewish practice, that’s where I would begin.”
Indeed, he mentioned how several modern day congregations allow — even encourage — dance as a form of expression, including the Chasidic sects, which have a rich history of dance.
Not that Chevan would advocate dance for congregations uncomfortable with it.
“I don’t think that’s productive,” he said. “I have members of my own family who are very frum, and I don’t think they would go along with anything I say because of their observant practice, but I think they take things as law that are really tradition.”
“Do I think people should dance in the shul on the High Holidays?” he continued. “I think if you could find that kind of shul, it would be cool.”
Finding that kind of “shul” around Pittsburgh could be hard, though some area cantors and rabbis are remarkably open to the idea.
Cantor Richard Berlin of the Parkway Jewish Center near Monroeville, said dance already occurs at his synagogue during its “Friday Night Fusions,” musical Shabbats during which a band, including his daughters Liz (of Rusted Root fame) and Kate, perform.
The High Holy Days are a different matter, though Berlin didn’t slam the door on dancing.
If congregants asked him if they could dance, “I would answer the question with a question, and ask, why do you want to dance?” he said. “There may well be a reason to dance. We certainly dance on our Friday night fusions with instruments. … We always break out for a hora right after Lecha Dodi.”
“Dance and celebration of God is part of Judaism,” Berlin added, “because there certainly is a personal connection to God, and that is one way to express it.”
At Adat Shalom near Fox Chapel, Rabbi Yair Lehrer, who also is a cantor, noted that traditionally, dancing was not unheard of even on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
“Yom Kippur afternoon was a time not for dance; it had to do with matchmaking,” Lehrer said. “But there was dance associated with that as well.”
He quoted a passage from the Mishna, Ta’anit 4:8, in which Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel says:
“There were no better days for Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on those days the young women of Jerusalem used to go out in borrowed white garments, so as not to embarrass whoever did not have any. All the garments required immersion. And the young women would go out and dance in the vineyards. What would they say? ‘Young man, lift up your eyes and see, what do you choose for yourself.’ ”
Not exactly a commandment to dance in the synagogue during services, but Lehrer noted that there are many nusachs (liturgical music modes) used by Jewish communities around the world, some of which do lend themselves to dancing.
In Pittsburgh, “we’re used to a very solemn liturgy that takes place on the High Holidays, Lehrer said, “but there are other nusachs. … There are aspects of Judaism that are more joyous, even on the High Holidays. If you go worldwide you’ll find a wide variety.”
“So it’s not out of the question to consider dance within a certain cultural context to be an appropriate way to pray,” he added. “Now, that being said, If you’re in a synagogue with a very solemn nusach, and you stand up and dance, it’s really out of sync with what’s going on and that doesn’t add to the service, but if you’re in a synagogue where everyone is dancing, that can be very incredible.”
As a Jew, a musician and a member of a band that fuses jazz, Jewish and African music, Chevan has researched rituals of the faith and how they changed over the centuries, especially following the transition from a temple- to synagogue-based religion.
“It made me curious to understand, what did the Jewish faith give up in certain kinds of practice when it transformed itself from a ritual religion to a prayer-centered religion,” he said.
Ecstatic dance might have been one of those rituals, he said.
“One of the things I have been doing as a creative artist is [finding] ways that, if someone wished, could participate in ecstatic dance as a way of expressing their gratitude to God. I would be all for it.”
Several cantors sang on the latest Afro-Semitic Experience CD, including Jack Mendelson, a Conservative cantor, who recalled how the live performances, which comprise the album, brought many in the audiences to their feet.
“It’s very interesting because when I did these concerts with David [Chevan] that this album is based on — it was all live, there was no studio music in it — I can recall at each venue there were some people dancing in the back. So it makes sense.”
“I’m very tickled that people would even think of dancing to this,” Mendelson added. “I think it would be a wonderful thing. In many moments [on the album] there would be instances that are appropriate for dancing and that would be wonderful; the beat is quite infectious.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)