by Mike Sarason
Having been raised as part of an art-loving, musically literate family, I feel lucky to have had what I consider a fairly strong cultural upbringing. Though I may not have realized it at the time, my parents were, to borrow the jazz terminology, hipping me to a lot of great stuff throughout my childhood. Only in recent years did I discover that running around the house singing The Meters’ “They All Ask’d For You” was perhaps not the norm for a Jewish kid growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early ‘90s.
Nor did I realize that the Audubon Zoo is actually a real place where I could find the monkeys, tigers and elephants who had been asking for me all along. Slowly though, I became aware that the wonderful music of artists like The Meters, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and countless others comes from a magical place called New Orleans. New Orleans is the place where everything these artists sang about is actually lived out each day. Not only that, but it’s a place where they eat fried doughnuts covered in mounds of powdered sugar (beignet) all the time. “What a wondrous city it must be,” I thought to myself!
Fast forwarding to the present day, I’ve just returned from the Crescent City and crossed a major item off of the bucket list: going to the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, or Jazz Fest for short. After years of having to decline my brother’s invitations to join him at Jazz Fest, the stars seemed to align this year and I knew I had to seize the opportunity to make the trip. What followed was a whirlwind of amazing music, beers, seafood, great friends, more music, more beers and, of course, beignet.
Instead of recounting my entire trip, however, I want to focus on one evening’s activity, specifically Friday night, erev Shabbat. It is no secret that New Orleans is a city of tradition, rich with pride and cultural heritage, much like Judaism in fact. The first Jazz Fest was held in 1970, and it has come to be one of the most anticipated yearly traditions in New Orleans, with an importance rivaled only by Mardi Gras. And a concurrent tradition has been established at Touro Synagogue in 1991: Jazz Fest Shabbat.
Judaism and New Orleanism (I’m trademarking that word) are two great traditions with plenty of noteworthy customs and an immeasurable impact on America as a country and mainstream culture as a whole…Why not combine the two, right?
From Touro Synagogue’s website, “For 21 years, Touro Synagogue has been celebrating that uniquely New Orleans institution, Jazz Fest, in its own special way—with a worship service that combines Judaism with America’s only indigenous art form: jazz.”
Having only found out about Jazz Fest Shabbat a few hours before I ended up going, I had no idea what to expect. I arrived with my brother and two other friends and was floored: the place was a mob scene. For our Cincinnati readers, picture an even older, just a little smaller, and more circular—as opposed to angular—version of Plum Street Temple packed full of people, and you’ll have a good idea of what Touro Synagogue looked like that night.
On the Bimah (the raised platform where the Rabbi leads the service) there stood the Touro Synagogue Choir, counting somewhere around 12 members among its ranks. I was surprised to see a full jazz band (the Panorama Jazz Band) at the foot of the Bimah, with upright bass, drums, clarinet, trombone, banjo, sousaphone and all the other Dixieland jazz instruments you might expect. A blast from the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn, signaled the beginning of the service and the over-capacity crowd quieted down in anticipation.
What followed was one of the most memorable Friday night services I have ever been to. As expected, the service was heavy on the music, with very little speaking or recitations of any kind in between. The choir and the band wove together to create interesting musical soundscapes that carefully blended the two musical traditions into one. Most of the melodies remained the same, but often with added colorful vocal arrangements by the choir and jazz harmonies and rhythms grafted on by the band. Some of these arrangements worked better than others; the schmaltzy, clarinet-led big band arrangement of “L’cha Dodi” sashayed as if it was meant to be played in that style, while the up-tempo, hard bop version of “Shema” didn’t seem to gel as well and was a bit out of place.
In the midst of getting lost in the music, though, I found myself conflicted over what I was actually experiencing. Was this a service or a performance? Rabbi Alexis Berk made sure to note in her introduction that it was the former and, as such, we should all join in song together and not clap at the end of each prayer. After all, clapping would only serve to strengthen the division between audience and performer and weaken the sense of a community joining together in worship.
But with all of the grandiose arrangements of these prayers, sometimes all I wanted to do was just sit back and watch. To further blur the line, the featured performer at this year’s Jazz Fest Shabbat was John Butte, a local celebrity in his own right whose career as a singer has focused mainly on jazz, gospel and R&B. Recently, he has seen his popularity rise as a result of his “Treme Song” being used as the theme song for the HBO show “Treme.” He performed a short set toward the end of the service, consisting mainly of songs that also toed the line between worship songs and pop songs, including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” “Wade in the Water,” Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and more, all of which were delivered beautifully. He ended his set with the “Treme Song” followed by “Hava Nagilah,” an obvious crowd favorite.
I was left feeling wonderfully excited, stimulated, entertained but also confused. What had I just been a part of? The service took two things that certainly have been combined in the past (the Ray Charles tune being particular evidence of that), but never so viscerally right in front of me. I wasn’t totally sure that what we had just done really fulfilled the mitzvah (commandment) of welcoming in Shabbat. But couldn’t I still just enjoy it for what it was? And if it gets close to 1,000 Jews packed into a synagogue and excited for Shabbat, shouldn’t that be enough?
In the end, that was more or less my conclusion. It certainly did feel very much like a performance to me, but with its many transcendent moments it also felt like a service. Perhaps with more time to dwell on it, I could delve deeper into the implications of the whole thing, but, alas, word limits and time constraints prevent me from doing so.
My suggestion? Book yourself a ticket to New Orleans for next year’s Jazz Fest, get down to Touro Synagogue and then come talk to me afterward. We can discuss it over café au lait and beignet at Café Du Monde. After all, what is discourse and fried food if not another clashing of Jewish and New Orleans tradition? See you there.