I grew up in a house where we listened to music a lot. All kinds of music. Live music. I took it for granted. My parents loved folk music. They would do Greek line dancing, had an opera subscription, they always went to the ballet, and they were five rows from the cantor at our shul because the cantor was where it was at.
So, I was spoiled growing up, hearing live music of all kinds. My first opera was Lohengrin at the age of five. My first concert was Cream and I had no idea what I was listening to. I was young and fell asleep in the crowd. I grew up knowing that live music had this kind of power – a spirited, committed way – that could change people.
I saw it at concerts and I saw it in the synagogue. When I was a young girl, my congregation brought Shlomo Carlebach. He arrived like a rock star, three-and-a-half hours late, in his limousine with his whole entourage. I wasn’t even 10 years old, but I could see 1,100 people – impatient, ornery, sweaty Floridians – were completely galvanized by this man, singing Ein Keloheinu like they never sang it in their lives.
Later in high school, I clearly remember sitting in shul during Yom Kippur, listening to the choir made up of performers from the Miami Opera, and it vibrated my chair. And again 1,100 curmudgeonly Jews – now fasting for the holiday – were moved and changed.
But I never saw it happen quite so clearly as my first live Aerosmith concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I had thought I would just pay for my ticket and sit and enjoy Aerosmith. I didn’t know before the show that I had to work for it, that I had to know all the words. There was an expectation of my participation, of my buying in. I felt just as empowered at Aerosmith as I did as a Jew in the pew.
I’ve seen cantors do crazy stuff – everything from Yiddish to Elvis to everything else. Rock and roll or chazzanus – music has the power to transform a whole group of people. From sweaty cantankerous folks into people who are just breathing together and agreeing on something for a moment. The vibe of that is so powerful.
There’s definitely a connection when Steven Tyler gives the microphone to the audience and drops out for eight bars… or more. He’s just standing there. Just standing and holding the microphone. You have to be very empowered to drop out and let the audience in. There’s so much trust in that, like a mutual activity. It’s not a performance; it’s an experience.
In other live settings, there is a give and take with the audience. At the ballet, we – the audience – cheer every lift and every leap and we are allowed to react in any way we want. In opera, we’re allowed to yell as much as we want after an aria. We can express ourselves and it affects the performance as much as a rock performance. It used to be the case – before current union rules – that an audience could stop a performance until the number was repeated. That was an encore.
People need encouragement now more than they might have a few years ago. There are many Jews who don’t know responses. I’m not sure that people are shy at rock concerts, but I know that Jews are shy in shul. And they’re shy because they don’t have the Hebrew in their mouths or the Aramaic of the Kaddish. Even the English [in the prayer book] can be a little flowery for the human mouth.
So, we need to encourage in every measure with whatever we’ve got and not lose sight of why we’re singing. What does Guns ‘n Roses or Aerosmith hope to achieve? Sure, they’re doing their gig. Do they hope to change the world? I have to believe that when songs are written – sacred songs, rock songs, hip hop, any song – that people want to change the world through their song. Whether I’m covering a Blondie song or a Moshe Ganchoff piece, it’s the same intent.
What do I hope to achieve? I want to change the world.
Faith Steinsnyder has served congregations from Maryland to Massachusetts, Long Island to Los Angeles, and is currently Cantor-in-Residence of Temple Israel, Tulsa, OK. Faith is heard on recording in the title role of Stephen Richards’ opera “The Ballad of Ruth”, and on Michael Isaacson’s “Made in America” and the upcoming “Ladorot Habaim-For the Generations to Come."
This is one of a series of posts exploring the intersection of rock and spirituality, leading up to the release of In Pursuit, an album of original Jewish hard rock. Sign up for the mailing list to learn more.