VIDEOS: Spiritual music hits the right notes with ecstatic crowds

January brought two innovative Jewish spiritual musical offerings to the Bay Area: the Nava Tehila Ensemble, an outgrowth of Jerusalem’s musically innovative Renewal community of the same name; and Zusha, whose first full-length album debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard World music list. Both were reminders of how thin the line can be between prayer service and musical concert.

Nava Tehila Ensemble

Chochmat HaLev, Berkeley, Jan. 17

Is Nava Tehila a prayer community or a musical group? And are its performances concerts, or a sort of free-form, nonliturgical prayer experience?

The answer to both questions is yes. Or both. Or who cares, just enjoy the music.

Nava Tehila is, on one hand, a musically cutting-edge outpost of the Jewish Renewal movement in Israel. The hallmark of this group is its devotion to creating spiritual music for use in services, music it also makes freely available to Jewish communities around the world. To accomplish that, Nava Tehila is also a traveling musical group, in the form of the Nava Tehila Ensemble. (The group also played at services at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, which I didn’t attend.)

“Nava Tehila’s musical spiritual leaders generate new prayer modalities, compose new music for prayer, and train Jewish leaders, including rabbis, cantors and students, in the art of musical and innovative prayer leading,” says the website.

Indeed, its music has become widespread. If you’ve ever spent time in a Renewal-affiliated or Renewal-influenced community, you may already know a few Nava Tehila songs. At the concert I found myself singing along to a familiar version of “Oseh Shalom” that is a mainstay at The Kitchen in San Francisco and a “Shalom Aleichem” I know from Romemu, a congregation in New York City.

The concert — though I hesitate to apply that limited term — was attended by folks from all over the East Bay Renewal-ish community. The Chochmat sanctuary, which is decorated with Middle and Far Eastern rugs and kabbalistic artwork, was filled almost to capacity. And this was the exact right crowd for a Nava Tehila show. During the first song, people were already singing along full-throated, and many were dancing.

“I see I don’t have to point out that this is a prayer space as well as a concert,” band leader Daphna Rosenberg said. By the end, as the spirit in that space reached a fever pitch, virtually no one remained seated. To help us join in, the band gave out lyric sheets.

Observing others in the room, I could see how this experience was much more than a concert to them. It had the spiritual, soul-lifting quality of ecstatic Jewish prayer. Or perhaps it went beyond that, demonstrating the ability of an unstructured musical experience to move people past the limits of any structured prayer service.

One highlight was “Mikolot Mayim Rabim,” which takes its lyrics from Psalm 93, referencing “great waters” or “many waters.” In introducing the song, the band made note of the rains that had started falling in the Bay Area; the ecstatic dancing that accompanied the joyful, triumphant tune reflected the crowd’s excitement at this still-novel downpour. (See a video of this and one other song from the performance at the bottom of this page.)

Like many Nava Tehila songs, “Mikolot” was tinged with a pleasingly Middle Eastern sound. It would be hard to list the many regions and genres that influence their music, everything from klezmer to Carlebach to flamenco. There are assorted hand drums, guitar, saxophone and more — and always the voices, mingling and harmonizing.

Congregations in search of contemplative, uplifting music for their services would do well to check out Nava Tehila, whose most recent album is “Waking Heart.” The website is www.navatehila.org.

Zusha

Beth Jacob Congregation, Oakland, Jan. 29-30

Zusha, fresh off the release of its full-length album “Kavana,” spent last Shabbat with this bustling Modern Orthodox shul in Oakland. The group led Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night, which I was sad to miss. But I was there the next morning when Zusha led Musaf, the additional Amidah service. This lengthy, uplifting Musaf was in place of a full sermon from the rabbi.

Zusha, joined by guest bassist Max Jacob, performs at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. photo/david a.m. wilensky

I’m already a big fan (I have listened to Zusha’s album and EP on Spotify dozens of times), so getting to hear the group leading part of a service was a real treat. Zusha is a trio, with the remarkable vocals anchored by Shlomo Gaisin, an inhumanly tall fellow with a gentle but resonant voice. Musaf turned out to be mostly a showcase for Gaisin, but his bandmates, percussionist Elisha Mlotek and guitarist Zachariah Goldschmiedt, assisted with harmonies.

This was, I have to say, the best Musaf I’ve ever heard. The melodies were familiar, but Gaisin is some kind of savant, a quiet, soulful, calming presence whose style is loose and improvisational, yet not at all hard to sing along with. And sing along we did. The beautiful A-frame sanctuary was nearly filled to capacity (I’m told this is typical for a Shabbat morning at Beth Jacob), and though I can’t speak to how loudly the congregation normally sings, many joined Gaisin in his powerful, yearning prayer.

I was back that night for the band’s concert, about as packed as services had been that morning. The crowd was very mixed-age,including older adults, younger singles and families with small children.

Like Nava Tehila at Chochmat HaLev, this was part concert and part sing-along, although, given Zusha’s heavy emphasis on wordless melodies, or nigguns, we didn’t need lyric sheets to join in. The musicians have a Hassidic hipster vibe, dressing in typical 20-somethings-in-Brooklyn style, with Gaisin and Goldschmiedt sporting impressively long beards and payes (sidecurls).

The musicians, who met in college at NYU, project an easygoing but magnetic vibe. They are funny, too — the highlight of the show was what I can only describe as “Reb Vader’s Niggun” (they’d been watching “way too much Star Wars,” they confessed), a surprisingly soulful rendition of John Williams’ instantly recognizable “Imperial March.” (See a video of this song below)

The music is impossible to categorize, but I’ve seen it called  “Jewish soul” or “world soul.” Those labels fit. The sound veers toward jazz at times, and Gaisin’s nigguns become scat, playing the role of the jazz trumpet in Zusha’s compositions. Other times it can ramp up to a kind of Gypsy-klezmer party music.

It is hard to talk about Zusha without mentioning the pure ecstasy in Gaisin’s face when he sings. He is radiant, his eyes often half-closed as he smiles. His head tilts up and back, and he lets loose with a niggun he will repeat many times — improvising, lingering or quivering on one nonsense syllable here, another there. I get the sense this is someone with mysterious access to a spiritual place I can’t quite reach. I was never in the presence of Shlomo Carlebach, but a comparison to him would not be out of order.

When I wasn’t singing along, it was because I was so in awe of the soaring heights the band is able to attain. If only I could get there with them. But others seemed able to — there were a handful of dancing free spirits in the back who looked as lost in the music as the band was.

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to david@jweekly.com.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.