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Georgetown Professor Jose Bowen rewrites the religious experience.

Even at its most countercultural, popular music has had its roots buried deep in the religious experience. Elvis Presley shook up American life borrowing melodies from gospel. Aretha Franklin took the music of her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church and gave Motown divine inspiration. Adam Sandler rhymed the Hebrew words “Hanukkah” and “yarmulke” and eternally altered the sound of American holiday music.

The sincerest form of flattery has worked in the other direction as well, says Jose Bowen, the Thomas E. Caestecker Chair in Music at the Department of Art, Music and Theatre at Georgetown University. The songs we sing in religious services didn’t come about strictly through divine intervention. Liturgical music, written by composers to evoke the visceral meaning of the text, has often mimicked popular secular music. For example, 16th-century composer Salamone Rossi wrote Jewish music that sounded like Italian madrigals, the pop songs of Rossi’s time.

Even in heavily ritualistic religions like Judaism and Catholicism, liturgical music has largely adapted to the times. “Interestingly, in Judaism, we’ve got text that we’ve kept for six, seven, sometimes 20 centuries…but the music has constantly been changing,” says Bowen.

Until now. Bowen argues that American Jewish music, by which he means liturgical music performed within Judaism’s Reform movement, has been largely stuck in a time warp. The instruments most commonly used in Reform services, the organ and acoustic guitar, hardly reflect pop music in the age of Kid Rock. “The Reform Jews in 1800 wanted to sound modern. The organ was the modern instrument in 1800,” explains Bowen. “It’s only now that it sounds dated. And the question is, well: Why do we hang on to the organ? OK, it was hip and modern then, but let’s get out the turntables and start scratchin’.”

Oy vay! In synagogue? That’s the same resistance naysayers had to Rossi in the 16th century, says Bowen.

Even Sandler’s acoustic accompaniment perfectly reflects American Jewish music’s sluggishness to change, according to Bowen’s logic. “If I was a guitar maker, I’d be putting Hebrew names on my guitars,” he jokes. “In terms of who buys acoustic guitars, come on—when was the last time you saw kids hanging out in their high schools with a 12-string acoustic? But if you go into synagogue, that’s what you see. You certainly don’t see it in urban America outside the synagogue—Tracy Chapman excepted.”

Bowen admits that he hasn’t gone so far as to schlep DJs and 33s to temple just yet. Instead, he’ll bring a five-piece band—clarinet, drums, violin, tuba, and piano—to Temple Sinai on Military Road NW this Friday night for an innovative klezmer Shabbat service. Bowen has also performed jazz Shabbat services at synagogues around the country. “Most popular music comes out of sacred origins,” argues Bowen. “So what’s wrong with taking it back into a sacred space?”

Bowen initially rebuffed the idea of juxtaposing the sounds of Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman, and the Klezmatics with religious prayer. “I was working at Stanford and going to the synagogue and somebody said, ‘Write us a jazz service,’” Bowen recalls. “And I said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’…I thought the idea was kind of nutty, too.”

At the time, Bowen had just completed his master’s degree in music composition and had embarked on a Ph.D. program at Stanford in musicology. But he was hardly sequestered in the ivory tower. He had also earned himself a reputation in Northern California nightclubs and elsewhere, performing jazz with greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and even the white-tuxedoed Liberace.

Bowen decided that the request was hardly as outlandish as he had first thought. After all, jazz and Jewish music have some commonalities. Both developed as hybrid styles of music through diasporas. Jazz, like Jewish music, relies on interpreting past compositions, which gives both great breadth and depth. And a sizable portion of jazz’s most celebrated musicians and composers—Artie Shaw, Goodman, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin—were Jewish.

On June 9, 1989, Bowen performed his first Friday night Shabbat jazz service at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. Bowen told the congregation, rabbi, and cantor to perform their regular Shabbat service. But when the rabbi recited the Barchu, the call to worship, Bowen added drums, piano, saxophone, and other instruments.

Although the text outside of the weekly Torah portion remains the same each Friday night or Saturday morning, Judaism stresses that prayer mustn’t amount simply to recitation. Jews should pray each week as if it’s the first time those words have ever crossed their lips, to relive the emotion of the text. Given that many American Reform Jews read but do not speak Hebrew, Bowen argues, music acts as a bridge to the text’s true meaning.

“The Jewish service takes you through these great highs and lows emotionally,” Bowen explains. “We have the prayer for peace, which is going to be calming, something slow….We have our V’ahavta, our love song to God. We have our piece about the joy in the parting of the Red Sea—it’s a dance piece I set as a salsa. It’s supposed to make you get off your duff and dance around.” That would represent an aerobic change of pace from most Shabbat services, where congregants largely sit or stand in place. “The idea is to get back to the original idea of the service as being an emotional journey and to try to connect with the words,” adds Bowen. “We’re trying to relive that experience—to make it as happy and joyous as if we were standing at the shore of the Red Sea with Moses.”

Bowen has performed his jazz service more than 50 times since its debut in 1989. The klezmer service, initially commissioned for Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J., has been performed 25 times since its composition in 1996.

Bowen believes that the aesthetic impact of his service has lasting reverberations. “The salsa band has gone home, but when you get to that place in the service the next week, hopefully people stand up and remember that there’s supposed to be something going on there more than just hmum, hmum, hmer,” he says.

So just what does Bowen mean when he refers to “Jewish music”? It depends on what Jewish community you’re talking about, he admits.

“The Jews in India sound very different than the Jews in Morocco or the Jews in China,” Bowen points out. “In all those communities, the music reflects the culture in which the people are living. So during the 12th century, when we were in Spain and speaking Arabic, we wrote a lot of poetry.” A few of the most poetic melodies in Shabbat services—Adon Olam and Yigdal—come from that period. Other melodies that are commonplace in Reform services, Bowen says, have been composed as recently as 1965.

When Bowen traveled to England, he realized how distinctive Jewish music really is. While he was attending synagogue and studying at the University of Southampton, the Brits wanted Bowen to perform music at their temple. Bowen the musicologist responded that he was unfamiliar with English-Jewish traditions. “That’s OK. Bring your banjo, let’s listen to some American Jewish music,” Bowen remembers his hosts’ replying. “Everyone assumed that American Jewish music would sound with the banjo and American [like] Gershwin and Irving Berlin.”

In fact, Bowen points out, American Jewish music is unique in that it doesn’t sound American. Most other Jewish music reflects regional vernaculars. But not American Jewish music, which sounds more German and Eastern European. “American Reform Judaism specifically chose to sound more Russian and more Eastern, because that was the immigrant population that was here,” says Bowen.

Bowen adds that the Holocaust also influenced American Jewish sound: “We wanted to institutionalize the memory of the Polish, that particular Eastern European Jew,” Bowen says. “The music has to sound Jewish.”

Bowen believes that adherence to Old World musical traditions, though, might cut off younger American Jews from the religious experience. “I think prayer should be relevant,” says Bowen. “We now have a generation that really doesn’t connect with the Russian-sounding thing.”

Bowen’s interest in American music was one of the reasons he came to Georgetown, where he heads a department that will specialize in American music. “Music is as much a course for your soul as theology is,” says Bowen. “I tell my students that in 20 or 30 years—no matter how well they do, no matter how successful they are—they’re going to lose a job, they’re going to have something not accepted, they’re going to be turned down for something. And before they jump off the Key Bridge, I want them to think, You know, there’s more to life than this rejection or disappointment. I want to listen to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony one more time. I want to listen to Frank Sinatra one more time.” CP

Jose Bowen will perform his klezmer service Friday, May 12, at 8: 15 p.m. at Temple Sinai, 3100 Military Road NW. For more information, call (202) 363-6394.