Tiferet Bet Israel is fiddling around with some new ways to enhance the Shabbat experience — literally — with a banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass.
The Blue Bell synagogue will host what is purported to be the region’s first bluegrass Shabbat on Nov. 20, highlighted by the five-person Bluegrass Kabbalat Shabbat Experience.
Matt Check has been leading the ensemble for three years, performing at several synagogues in the Northeast Corridor. And he hasn’t quit his day job, either: He is also the director of Jewish education at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.
Jay Sitkin, a TBI congregant and self-proclaimed bluegrass aficionado, discovered Check’s music online and was so impressed that he bought six copies of it for himself, friends and family.
He then pitched the idea of hosting Check for a service to Cantor Elizabeth Shammash.
Shammash and Check hit it off — they were actually students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America at the same time, albeit in different programs — and Sitkin managed to raise the money to cover the appearance from donations from about a dozen members of the congregation.
Sitkin was originally attracted to bluegrass by the spirituality and messages of the music, as well as the genre’s lively style, rhythm and timing.
“That liveliness overlaid on top of a Friday night service makes it something special,” he added.
Congregants are accustomed to sitting in their seats during Shabbat services and following along to the cantor and rabbi, but this Shabbat experience promises a more kinetic experience.
“Anytime you can get people out of their standard comfort zone and out of their pew seats and moving around the synagogue, it becomes experiential,” Sitkin said. “By its very nature, [it] makes you want to tap your feet.”
Shammash is looking forward to providing her congregants with a new opportunity to experience Shabbat through music and spirituality. Instead of the usual 50 to 70 attendees, she’s hoping for a crowd of about 200.
The service will consist of about half original compositions and half standards as arranged by Check. Shammash will be joining Check on lead vocals but will “remain the cantor,” she laughed. “I’m doing what I do every week, just some of the tunes are a bit different and obviously the style is a bit different.”
The psalms will be set to Check’s bluegrass-style melodies, the better to “give us the spiritual and emotional palate by which to enter into Shabbat,” she said.
“I hope that they’ll have a really rich Shabbat experience and that musically, it will open their sensibilities up to new possibilities for what music can be in the synagogue,” she added.
Every Jewish denomination has some type of musical component, Check said, so his group is doing just that — only with bluegrass.
“Bluegrass as a genre really lends itself well to a lot of different musical traditions. I’m just bluegrass-ifying the Friday night service,” he joked. “It really is somewhere between a performance of bluegrass but also just a very prayerful and intentional service.”
Check abandoned all other forms of music for bluegrass when he discovered it in high school.
“The moment I heard it I had to play it,” he said. “Bluegrass for me is the most authentic music. I feel the most comfortable playing bluegrass than any other type of music.”
Check wrote the music to about half of the traditional Jewish liturgical songs, adding a bluegrass spin to prayers such as “Lecha Dodi,” “Barchu,” “Shema” and “Mi Chamocha.” People will also recognize the traditional Carlebach melodies during “Shiru L’Adonai”or the Jeff Klepper version of “Shalom Rav.”
“I feel as if when you know what you’re saying in the Hebrew in the liturgy, you’ll realize that in a lot of the biblical Hebrew, there is something very folk about it,” Check explained, illustrating that much of the biblical vocabulary revolves around the imagery of landscapes, metaphors and a relationship with God, which has a folk or country feeling to it and a natural connection for him.
The band performs every couple months, or whenever they book a gig. Check recalled his best performance was the first time they played at Park Avenue Synagogue in the Upper East Side.
He was very nervous. The crowd grew to 500, and two of the musicians didn’t show up until the last minute.
But then, Check recalls, they got to “Hashkiveinu,” where there’s usually a refrain the audience sings, following Check’s lead. The cantor asked everyone to keep singing that one line.
“All of a sudden, the entire sanctuary was singing a melody that I had written. It was really this moment where I was like, ‘everybody is singing something I wrote. Five hundred people, they’re praying to a melody I wrote.’ I’ve never experienced anything like it before,” Check said.
“I really want people to worship and bring in the Sabbath with the music that I’m most passionate about.”
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