Packing the Park: A Call To Worship at the Jacksonville Jewish Center
I am a loyalist. Most of you know my loyalties to Boston sports teams, but alas there are other loyalties as well. Amidst the success of reality singing competitions like “The Voice”, “The Sing-off”, “X-factor,” I remain a devoted fan to the first lady of reality tv, American Idol. For those interested, I’m rooting for Jessica Sanchez (Update: She was saved last week- hurray!!)
Why the loyalty? Almost ten years ago, my sister and I auditioned for American Idol. Camping out for 3 days at NY’s Jacob Javitz Center parking lot in the late August heat became bearable only when those camping around us joined in a sing down. As seven or eight thousand contestants were sardined inside the Center for the first day of auditions, we sat there anxiously awaiting our numbers to be called for the judges. In that angst, the entire group broke out in jubilant song to the tune of “This little light of mine”- granted it’s a 1920s song that takes its inspiration from the New Testament. But imagine- 8,000 fairly decent voices as one. What power! What energy! Where else would you find such a large uninhibited group of singers chanting the same melody in the same place?
The answer lies at Fenway Park, celebrating her one hundredth anniversary this weekend. The jumbotron illuminates the words of the Neil Diamond classic “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of the 8th inning exchange at Fenway since owner John Henry purchased the team some ten years ago. Many on hand chant the entire melody at the top of their lungs, while others join in with “bum bum bum” or “so good so good so good” In all 39,928 spectators and hundreds of staff join in this fairly new ritual. To show I’m unbiased about how magical a major league ballpark can be, travel west to Arlington or Houston Texas to find more than 50,000 chanting the 1941 class “Deep in the Heart of Texas” during the 7th inning. On a given weekend, over a million people nationwide could be belting out the 7th inning standard “Take me out to the ballgame.”
Having experienced the sensation of Diamond’s “So Good So Good So good” just a few weeks ago at a Red Sox Spring training game at Jetblue Park, I wondered “Could this moment possibly be recreated within the realm of Judaism?” The simple answer is yes. It actually happened a few years back. 3000 years ago, the Israelites transitioned from slavery to freedom- and their first act as a people? Jubilant cheering- as if they had double eagled the 17th hole of the Masters, avoiding the water hazard en route to the Promised Land. Imagine the roar from the gallery when Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and led hundreds of thousands of Israelites in song.
Singing among the Israelite Nation and even today in Red Sox Nation. What about in synagogue? Can we reach that musical crescendo in a house of 435 packed chairs?
It’s a two part issue- to get more of the over 2000 individuals in this congregation to shul, and to get them singing. As you may imagine, I’d like to take a stab at the singing part first. Let’s see how difficult this second part really is.
The boss, Bruce “Horovitz” Springstein, delivered an inspiring keynote address last week at the annual tech and music festival SXSW. Springsteen quotes the legendary music columnist Lester Bangs upon learning of Elvis’ death. In 1977, Lester Bangs said “Elvis was probably the last thing we were all going to agree on, Public Enemy not counting. From here on in, you would have your heroes and I would have mine. The center of your world may be Iggy Pop, or Joni Mitchell or maybe Dylan. Mine might be KISS, or Pearl Jam, but we would never see eye-to-eye again and be brought together by one music again.”
Springsteen highlighted just a few of the musical genres that threaten to divide our musical preferences more and more:
two-tone, acid rock, alternative dance, alternative metal, alternative rock, art punk, art rock, avant-garde metal, black metal, black and death metal, Christian metal, heavy metal, funk metal, glam metal, medieval metal, indie metal, melodic death metal, melodic black metal, metalcore, hard core, electronic hard core, folk punk, folk rock, pop punk, Brit-pop, grunge, sad core, surf music, psychedelic rock, punk rock, hip-hop, rap rock, rap metal, Nintendo core, rock noir, shock rock, skate punk, noise core, noise pop, noise rock, pagan rock, paisley underground, indie pop, indie rock, heartland rock, roots rock, samba rock, screamo, emo, shoe-gazing stoner rock, swamp pop, synth pop, rock against communism, garage rock, blues rock, death and roll, lo-fi, jangle pop … folk music. Just add neo- and post- to everything I said, and mention them all again. Uh, oh, yeah, and rock ‘n’ roll.
So if we all had the same lyrical and musical sensibilities, would we all sing along in one song?
In an article in The Atlantic entitled “How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life: And why we should bring it back.” author Karen Loew states:
Adults in America don’t sing communally. Children routinely sing together in their schools and activities, and even infants have sing-alongs galore to attend. But past the age of majority, at grown-up commemorations, celebrations, and gatherings, this most essential human yawp of feeling—of marking, with a grace note, that we are together in this place at this time—usually goes missing. The reasons why are legion. We are insecure about our voices. We don’t know the words. We resent being forced into an activity together. We feel uncool. And since we’re out of practice as a society, the person who dares to begin a song risks having no one join her.”
The National Association for Music Education addressed this reality with its “Get America singing…Again!” campaign in the 1990s, which put forward 88 songs as a shared repertoire for Americans. Dr. Will Schmid, the former leader of the music educators’ association, created the folk song list along with Pete Seeger. Schmid states “Any singing is good singing. Anywhere we can find it. Those places become the new community centers.” Belting at baseball games is an example of something essential, Schmid said. “No one there is worried about whether they’re good enough.”
What makes people sing out at a song about Caroline Kennedy at a baseball game amidst total strangers but shy away from singing worldly messages of harmony and love in a crowd of their peers? Don’t they know that for all the powerful soloists out there, they pale in comparison to the strength of sheer numbers singing at the top of their lungs. For any singing is good singing. That should be the rule and not the exception in our service. We must all act as ambassadors of our national pastime and its cathedral, or rather, the synagogue. Even if we offered free peanuts and cracker jacks, we live in a world where many might chant ‘hey take me OUT of the sanctuary!” This morning, we find ourselves in the midst of the 7th day, nay the middle of the 7th inning of Pesach. And every Holiday or Shabbat is a 7th day stretch from a busy work week; a 7th inning stretch to chant “Come JOIN ME IN the sanctuary.”
Which FINALLY brings us back to issue #1- attendance- starting a rallying cry to come and worship at the house that WE built. This is all about our ballpark and the performance we put out there each service. Our ballpark, like Fenway, has a rich history- we can run gimmick after gimmick, promotion after promotion to get people into the park: Rabbi Olitzky bobblehead Shabbat, a Rabbi Lubliner led- rain-delay bibliodrama. Beneath the service, however, we need people to understand the product on the field. It is up to us to increase attendance. Statistics show a direct correlation between attendance and successful performance on the playing field. When we pray for a packed house, we are transcended to a different place, we pray like a different team. This is one of those cases where “more is better’, where quantity equals quality. The packed house can happen elsewhere as well. It can happen in our farm system, aka the chapel- when the sound reverberates off the walls when 40+ singers join in song. For if we never support our farm system, there won’t be players to play in the big leagues here.
Email, call a friend, or 20. Buddy up with another couple. Make post-game Shabbat lunch plans built around services. Say “God is pitching today- you gotta see this God pitch!” I’ll make sure that in between each inning of the service, we’ll select some oldie but goodie melodies interspersed amongst some contemporary ones, neatly displayed for your viewing pleasure in our siddur or transliterated booklets.
We can experience the “you had to be there” moments- amazing musical events like the crossing of the Reed Sea – to experience a game-winning hit- to cheer and sing together; one powerful voice. Did you like listening to and singing with Harmonia during Hallel? They’re doing a doubleheader with Hallel tomorrow! Or come next Shabbat, it’s just simply gameday- get your game face on, be a fan of Judaism, and express that love of our national pastime through communal song. People want to feel united; to share even for a moment, in words of peace, words of joy and praise, words of love. We have those words right here in our tefillot. The melodies follow a simple progression, enabling the text to speak those words of harmony and love.
Passover is the beginning of our redemption, leading us to the ultimate block party on Shavuot. Let us field those calls to worship, so all can bear witness to something transformative. Like Bar Kochba before us, let us light a signal fire to those near and far, letting them know how important this place and this experience is for us and can be for them. For this is Zman Cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom; a time to freely express ourselves as individuals with our own musical sensibilities, a time to realize the strong musical collective we were meant to be. Chag Sameach!