Two recently released CDs, “Something of Mine” by Dorothy Richman and “Ayn Od” by Briah and Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks, have much in common. They both come out of Berkeley. They both feature deeply Jewish music with soaring female vocalists. They both have appeal for audiences who not only like Jewish music, but who appreciate new musical interpretations of Jewish liturgy.
But that’s where the stories diverge.
Richman, a rabbi who is doing a short-term residency at the JCC East Bay and leads Makor Or: Jewish Meditation Center, didn’t set out to record a CD. But a few years ago, while on sabbatical in Israel with her family, a fortuitous meeting took place. After she learned through a mutual friend that she was living near well-known Israeli musician and producer Eyal Luman, and with some time on her hands, she decided to take advantage of his expertise.
“He’s also a master mensch, and after a meeting, we just decided to go for it,” she said. “He was the one who helped me figure out what the sounds of the album would be.”
Most of the material was written in the past few years, but two tracks in particular, Psalm 27a and 27b, goes back to the mid-1990s, when Richman was living in Israel during her first year of rabbinical school. Think Hebrew gospel, and you’ll be close.
Those who have heard Richman sing aren’t likely to forget it.
“For much of my life, singing has been this thing I do on the side. I almost pull it out as a party trick,” she said. She can do a mean Janis Joplin cover, and she sang in plenty of secular venues in her youth.
However, “When I did sing secular music, even originals, in bars, I found that there was something missing. And as much as I enjoyed it, it wasn’t something that I felt on its own was meaningful enough.” When she sang as a prayer leader in her own style, it gave her a taste of “what it looks like if all of me shows up.”
She has been working on her musicianship in other ways as well. A year ago, she decided to challenge herself by committing to write one new song a week. When the project began, at the start of the Jewish new year 5778, she told herself, “I would create a song a week and it wouldn’t matter how good it was. Maybe it would have something to do with the Torah portion of the week, maybe it wouldn’t.”
She’ll be celebrating the end of her songwriting year, or “songcycle,” with a Sept. 26 event in the JCC East Bay sukkah.
While the CD just released by Schachter-Brooks with his band Briah also offers new musical interpretations of Jewish liturgy, “Ayn Od: Music for Shabbat” has a different backstory.
Schachter-Brooks was musical director of Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev for nearly 20 years, leading services on and off there. Two years ago he moved with his family to Tucson, Arizona, but he still returns to Berkeley every month and at the High Holidays to conduct services under the name Torah of Awakening.
Except for “Lecha Dodi,” all of the songs on the CD are original melodies written by Schachter-Brooks, blending Middle Eastern and Indian music, klezmer and Hasidic niggunim. He is joined by several musicians he met back in middle school in New York who remain friends to this day, as well as vocalists Bon Singer, who was a mainstay at Chochmat HaLev for many years, and Jeannette Ferber, who sings with Torah of Awakening and with Grateful Dead cover bands in the area.
“All of the songs come from the motivation to enliven Jewish practice for people, and make it accessible and transformative,” he said.
The music he composes and plays “helps people come into a deep experiential prayer space,” he says. “In my experience, in almost all other synagogues, the music tends to function more on a nostalgia basis, giving people something to latch onto, or something that’s fun and enjoyable but not necessarily transformative.”
Transformation was one goal when Chochmat HaLev founder Rabbi Avram Davis hired Schachter-Brooks to form the shul’s band almost 20 years ago. At the time, Schachter-Brooks aspired to create a Jewish version of the spirited, musical services that happen at Glide Memorial Church. While a full band with a drum kit and electric bass accompanying Shabbat services is not everyone’s cup of tea, for those who respond positively to the high-energy service, it’s hard to go back to a more traditional format after that.
Schachter-Brooks’ music gained quite a following for the two decades he was on the East Bay scene, which is one reason he returns to lead services through Torah of Awakening. He also leads free meditation sessions online and offers other spiritual guidance at torahofawakening.com.
“It is really important to me to continue to serve the community of folks that are nourished spiritually and Jewishly by the musical services that we’ve developed over the last 18 years,” he said. “Those services are the wide gate through which people can enter.”