I grew up at GUCI, a URJ camp in Indiana. My mom was a Jewish educator and I started going there when I was four years old. That exposure to singing in the dining hall was probably my first exposure to live music and they were very powerful musical moments for me. When I think about it now, my vantage point as a four year old, the song leaders and kids were gigantic and the dining hall felt like the largest space in the world. Those were very powerful moments created through a large communal voice.
I was very influenced by my early musical experiences at camp. I started learning guitar at six years old and stayed at camp through high school and then five years on staff. But around age 12, I had a similar experience to many Jewish kids that age. I started telling myself, “Temple sucks, Judaism sucks, and Jewish music is super lame.” That was when [Green Day’s] Dookie came out and Kurt Cobain had just died. The music was grunge and emoting in a way that the one-four-five happy-clappy type Jewish folk music just really couldn’t accomplish. I still loved camp and song sessions, but I was finding a new kind of music for myself.
When I was around 17 years old, I went with my friend to a U2 concert after Beautiful Day came out. I remember leaving that concert feeling that it had been a spiritual experience, which really captured me because at that time I wasn’t really connected to spirituality. It was an unfamiliar feeling and it happened in such a secular way. It was a feeling of not just being connected, but something bigger was happening too; it felt like so much more than singing along and having fun. There was almost a narrative to their show, like they were taking the audience on a journey.
Today, as I travel around, I see more and more people who aren’t sure why they’re in synagogue (if they’re there at all). It’s becoming harder and harder to reach people in communities in a time when anyone can sit at home and stream a service, go to a concert, take a yoga class, or train for a marathon, which might all give you the same kind of spiritual experience. It feels like the appetite for spirituality is very high, however people are looking outside of their religions for that experience. Yet, there’s tremendous opportunity for us to respond to these changes, to create new things – whether creating new worship experiences or expanding what spiritual programs can look like.
When I’m writing music, my mission is to help people find meaning and make meaning through music. If we’re trying to find meaning, challenging people is a really important part. One generation’s kavannah (prayerful intention) is the next generation’s keva (fixed liturgy). There are settings of certain prayers that Reform Jews have become very accustomed to in the last forty years, songs that evoke a certain kind of emotion and provide comfort and familiarity. But when the songwriters wrote those settings back in the '70s, it was often received as controversial. They were writing their music to sound like Simon and Garfunkel or similar artists of the time. The folk music scene was all about the communal voice, which was missing in worship in that time. That era helped bring in a new generation of people, helped them to open their eyes and to connect. Where today, their music has become keva – comfortable and familiar -- it was once kavannah – challenging people to find meaning.
What will be the new music to bring another generation in, to open their eyes and connect?
Alan Goodis is a touring Jewish musician playing over 150 events a year. Born and raised in Toronto, Alan is a strong presence in the Reform Jewish movement to engage and empower Jewish youth and adults through music.
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.