Praying with the band at intimate chant and drum service

Once a month, Congregation Beth Israel Judea and Or Shalom Jewish Community join forces for a homey chant and drum service. They aren’t the only Bay Area congregations with such a service, but a recent installment of this one was my first.

Beth Israel Judea (Reform) and Or Shalom (the only Reconstructionist congregation in San Francisco) share a building on a small campus with Brandeis School, just south of San Francisco State University.

Each wall of the small space we met in felt like it was from a different room. We faced a wall with an ark. To the right, a wall of solid books. To the left, a fireplace. Chairs in semicircular rows faced the ark, while the five leaders of the service sat or stood facing us. Most of the 30 participants were middle-age or older, but there were a few younger adults who seemed to have come with family.

BIJ’s Rabbi Danny Gottlieb acted almost like an emcee, the leader among leaders. He was joined by two women on hand drums, one of whom wore around her ankle a set of small bells with a deep jangle that helped keep the time, and two vocalists. Gottlieb called them “the band.”

After a couple of tunes, I was starting to settle in — and then we got up and went out into the large foyer to stand in a big circle and light candles. It disrupted the flow in the middle of the service, but we were soon filing back in to retake our seats.

We did a two-part chant for Mah Gadlu by Rabbi Shefa Gold, dean of contemporary Jewish sacred chant music. A version of Dodi Li was done as a kirtan, a call-and-response style of devotional music from India. And the Shema involved chanting “Yah hu haElohim, Yah hi haElohim” (“God is God,” in masculine and feminine); the service packet identified it as a zikr, a Sufi style of chant.

The zikr came with a little choreography: We were invited to bow left, right and forward repeatedly throughout this chant. Some people (me, for example) were reluctant. Others went at it avidly, bowing back and forth with fervor. One guy was dancing too freely on his own to deal with the measured bowing.

The service’s concluding song, a prayer for peace, was a three-part arrangement of Lo Yisa Goy by Kay Eskenazi; the tune was new to me, and one of the musical highlights of the service.

The tunes were well chosen, though none went on as long as I would have liked. The benefit of chanting liturgical music is that it gives worshippers the chance to get lost in the loop — but first you need time to get into the groove. Every time I started to feel it, the chant was over and we were moving on to the next thing — but not before a few words from Gottlieb or a bit of band banter. (For example: Introducing Psalm 126, Shir Hama’a lot, “a song of ascents,” he noted that it was sung by ancient pilgrims as they ascended the steps to the Temple in Jerusalem.)

My minor gripes aside, the regulars seemed to love it. They sang along, they clapped, at times one or two swayed or danced a little. The band was polished and well rehearsed. The drums, of course, were the centerpieces of this chant and drum service. A large djembe (hourglass-shaped African drum) dominated the sound, creating a deep, steady heartbeat for the service. The second drummer augmented that base, alternating between the bright sound of a smaller Middle Eastern-style drum and the more delicate ornamentation of a frame drum.

The small, almost intimate room makes amplification unnecessary, but the band used microphones anyway. As the hand drummer at a synagogue elsewhere in the city, I understand the challenges of the physical setup. The band is more or less in a straight line facing the congregation, an arrangement that makes it difficult for the players to hear one another; hence the microphones. But I fear that the amplified volume doesn’t make enough room for the voices of everyone else.

As a student of how to lead a service and arrange a prayer space, I appreciated both the high and low points of this chant and drum service. How do you make sure the leaders can hear each other, while also creating space for others to join in full-throated? Where do you find the balance between achieving a real groove for each tune and finishing on time? How do you keep the momentum going throughout the service?

These kinds of concerns had been in the back of my mind for a while, but the Beth Israel Judea/Or Shalom chant and drum service clarified my questions and pushed them into the foreground. Different communities work through these issues in different ways. Seeing those variations, the unique questions each one raises — these help make all my Bay Area shul-hopping worthwhile.

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send 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.