If I hadn’t known what I was walking into, I would’ve done a double-take as soon as I saw it: a Conservative Friday night service led by guitar, mandolin, harmonica, bass, piano and a djembe. And we were singing the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.
This was the Americana Jam Band service at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco’s Richmond District. It was the fourth time they’d done it, led by musician/service leader Jonathan Bayer and Rabbi Aubrey Glazer.
Americana is having its day in Jewish liturgical music right now; there are several artists working in that space, with influences like bluegrass, Appalachian music, blues, etc. But this was not that.
For their Americana service, Bayer and Glazer took songs like “Franklin’s Tower” by the Grateful Dead and used it as a stand-in for Psalm 96, with a couple of lines of the psalm inserted like a chorus amid the song’s verses. They did the same with “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young for Psalm 97. And so forth.
Before the service, I asked one of the regulars how many people they usually get on a Friday night. “We usually make a minyan,” she told me. Friday night at a Conservative shul is usually a low-key, ill-attended affair. This Americana service brought out 50. The majority was on the older side, but there were also a couple of families with young kids. It was a good number of people for the space.
The pews in the small Beth Sholom chapel, a bright and warm space that I love, had been rearranged a little to make room for dancing. (No one danced.) An older gentleman with a walker shuffled in before the service and stood right where his preferred seat should have been. So committed was this man to his usual spot that someone had to bring him a chair so he could sit there. Sometimes you have to slightly inconvenience your regulars to get anyone else in the door.
In terms of musicianship, it was good. I happen to know Bayer pretty well (we are members of the same congregation, The Kitchen), and I felt like I was seeing him truly in his element. If he started his own shul, I suspect it would look like this every week. The rest of the ensemble (bass, piano, guitar and Glazer on djembe) worked well together.
Regardless of the level of musical skill, the choices of songs were a mixed bag. A mash-up of Shalom Aleichem, in which we welcome extra angels that join us over Shabbat, with “Play Me the Waltz of the Angels” by the Derailers worked well. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” by Dylan — “Whoo-ee! Ride me high / Tomorrow’s the day / My bride’s gonna come / Oh, oh, are we gonna fly / Down in the easy chair!” — went nicely with Lecha Dodi, in which we greet the Sabbath bride. At other times, I wasted a lot of my mental energy trying to figure out why a particular song had been chosen for the prayer it was paired with.
Glazer acknowledged their adherence to the difficult-to-define Americana genre was less than machmir. A previous Americana Jam Band Shabbat had fallen on the yahrtzeit of Lou Reed, which is how his song “Satellite of Love” became their version of Ahavat Olam. Is Lou Reed kosher Americana? “Americana is a cholent, so in a sense it’s all kosher,” Glazer wryly told the congregation.
The booklet Beth Sholom uses for the Americana Jam Band service has plenty of songs in it that we didn’t do — among them, “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez and “California” by Joni Mitchell. My ethnographer friend pointed out that, not only did we skip those two songs, but they were the only songs by female artists in the booklet.
“They’re replacing the words of one all-male canon [the siddur] with another all-male canon,” she said.
Though I enjoyed the service musically and had fun singing along with the songs I knew, it didn’t feel like prayer to me. (Yet — thank goodness — the Amidah was left alone to be the Amidah, and Barchu was still just Barchu.)
My sense of Jewish prayer is closely tied to knowing the words, the sense that I can automatically jump in without having to think about it. The occasional prayer I don’t know, or don’t know as well, feels different. So I suppose that for anyone in attendance who doesn’t know the traditional service well, this aspect of it felt no different. And for anyone who did know the words, for whom this is their lyrical canon, I’m sure it was elevating. But to me it was a barrier.
The service was like a symbolic sing-along journey through the themes and prayers of Shabbat … which I realize, now that I’m writing it out like that, isn’t far from my conception of Jewish prayer in general.
I think I’ll go again. I’m not the target audience for this, but I don’t like coming away from something unsure if I liked it.