Cantors album offers a new spin on the prayer experience

Sometimes Jennie Chabon worries that contemporary Jewish music might be in critical condition. So the East Bay cantor is doing some musical CPR.

“Jewish music can have a bad reputation,” says Chabon, who serves as cantor at Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah. “People think ‘Fiddler’ or they think klezmer. They think narrow. But [Jewish music] is broad and rich and deep.”

Jennie Chabon

That’s what her new album, “Roots & Branches,” attempts to show. It’s a collection of established prayers and pop tunes repurposed as liturgy. All told, the music constitutes what Chabon calls “modern piyyut, a new spin on the prayer experience.”

“It’s not just music for Friday night,” Chabon says of the CD. “It represents what B’nai Tikvah is liturgically, musically and culturally.”

Don’t look for “Roots & Branches” on iTunes or Amazon. Produced by Lisa Zeiler, the CD will be sold only at B’nai Tikvah; proceeds go to the synagogue’s music fund, which supports programs such as, well, any future Chabon recordings.

Chabon recorded the album at Berkeley’s famed Fantasy Studios, drawing on the talents of experienced session musicians and guest singers, such as Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom and Julie Batz of Chochmat HaLev.

But riding over all is Chabon’s exquisite voice, a soprano with brandy-rich contralto tones.

Among the CD’s 13 tracks are Shabbat standards, such as “Lecha Dodi” and “Shalom Rav,” though she chose less commonly heard melodies. Her versions of “Oseh Shalom” and “Shalom Aleichem” originated at Nava Tehila, a Jerusalem prayer group championing a progressive approach to sacred music.

She also recorded a few traditional chazzanut of the sort she studied at the seminary years ago. “It’s what I normally do live and a cappella,” she notes. “It’s how I daven the most easily.”

Then there are surprises: “Adio Querida,” a wistful love ballad sung in Ladino; two songs first recorded by the folk trio the Wailin’ Jennys; and “A Life That’s Good,” a country tune Chabon first heard on the TV show “Nashville.”

“I choose music first and foremost that moves me,” Chabon adds. “If it moves me it will hopefully move others.”

“Roots & Branches” is not the first CD Chabon has recorded since coming to B’nai Tikvah 10 years ago. She cut two previous albums, both of them designed to introduce new liturgical music to the congregation, sing-along-with-Jennie style.

“Within a year everyone was singing at services with me,” she recalls, “and the whole energy was different. It felt like the [musical] landscape was changing.”

These days, in addition to regular Friday night services, Chabon also leads once-a-month Shir Joy services, which emphasize music, backed by a rocking band.

A Berkeley native, Chabon grew up singing in children’s choirs and playing violin. She graduated from Columbia University, where she studied anthropology with a focus in comparative religions. She then spent two years in Israel before enrolling in the  Jewish Theolog-ical Seminary. Before coming home to the Bay Area, she launched her cantorial career at a congregation in New Jersey. She is married to Steve Chabon and is the mother of three sons.

Her professional passion has always involved expanding the boundaries of liturgical music. “Jewish music is painful and beautiful,” she reflects. “We’re a people with a rich, painful legacy and the music should represent that. If people walk out and don’t feel a mix of pain and joy, then you haven’t done a good job.”

And with her ability to make vocal hairpin turns from davening cantor to pop crooner, has Chabon ever seriously considered testing the secular pop music waters?

In a word, no.

“It wouldn’t stir me in the same way,” she says. “What moves me is prayer and music. But if my bar and bat mitzvah students had their say, I’d go on ‘The Voice.’ ”

“Roots & Branches” by Cantor Jennie Chabon is available for $18 at Congregation B’nai Tikvah, 25 Hillcroft Way, Walnut Creek. (925) 933-6833

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.