Basya Schechter Sings Heschel!

Been listening nonstop lately to Basya Schechter’s new album, “Songs of Wonder.” I’ve long been a big fan of her and her band Pharaoh’s Daughter – I particularly love the way she effortlessly synthesizes so many different kinds of world musical influences to create Jewish music that is both original yet somehow utterly authentic in its energy.

In her new solo effort she has set the Yiddish poems of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to music. If you didn’t know the venerable Jewish theologian/civil rights activist had written poetry, you’re probably not alone. As it turns out, Heschel wrote them when he was just 26 years old and still a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Berlin. They were published in a wonderful bilingual edition in 2007 – according to the Amazon review:

(This) is the intimate spiritual diary of a devout European Jew, loyal to the revelation at Sinai and afflicted with reverence for all human beings. These poems sound themes that will resonate throughout Heschel’s later popular writings: human holiness, a passion for truth, awe and wonder before nature, God’s quest for righteousness, solidarity with the downtrodden, and unwavering commitment to tikkun olam. In these poems, we also discover a young man’s acute loneliness, dismay at God’s distance, and dreams of spiritual and sensual intimacy with a woman.

For her album, Schechter assembled a posse of the best of the best musicians from the downtown NYC Jewish music scene and recorded ten songs that melded the young Heschel’s spiritual yearnings to her trademark eclectic Jewish sound. It’s a fabulous, mesmerizing album.

If you’re like me and you live outside subway distance of the Upper West Side/Lower East Side, just click above to see her performing “My Song.” (The music starts at about 1:07). And you should check out this very thorough piece on her by the Forward’s Alexander Gelfand.

For Elul: All Things Must Pass


For your Elul viewing/listening pleasure:

Here is a clip from the “Concert for George,” which was held in November 2002 on the first anniversary of George Harrison’s death. It was a star-studded affair organized by his family and arranged as a benefit for Harrison’s charitable foundation.

Among the many memorable moments in the concert was this performance of Harrison’s solo classic, “All Things Must Pass” sung by Paul McCartney. I find it quite moving to listen to the spiritual message of the song, doubly meaningful on this particular occasion. (Not to mention watching Harrison’s son Dhani – the spitting image of his father – playing backup guitar.)

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So, I must be on my way
And face another day

Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey

Alt-Country Theology: A Tutorial

Check out two very divergent takes on grief and loss by two wonderful alt-country singers: “The Duel,” by Allison Moorer and  “God is in the Roses” by Roseanne Cash (from her brilliant album “Black Cadillac,” one of my favorites.)

Both are profoundly personal reflections on God after the death of a loved one. I’m deeply moved by both, even if they express bereavement with radically different emotions and points of view.

I’d love to hear reactions.

“The Duel”
by Allison Moorer

In this cemetery mist
Stands a newborn atheist
Even if you do exist
You’re far from almighty
Flesh and blood’s a sissy fist
Death’s a gold glove pugilist
And everyday it’s hit or miss
That’s what I believe

I stared at my polished shoes
In front of your wooden pews
Prayed and prayed don’t let me lose
What my heart adores
Are miracles old-fashioned news
No healing hands were ever used
Faithfulness was my excuse
Tell me what was yours

I don’t know how many rounds
Are left in me ‘til I stay down
And there’s no telling where I’m bound
But one thing I’m sure of
The king of kings has lost his crown
It’s buried here in marble town
In the god forsaken ground
With my only love

“God is in the Roses”
by Rosanne Cash

God is in the roses
The petals and the thorns
Storms out on the oceans
The souls who will be born
And every drop of rain that falls
Falls for those who mourn
God is in the roses and the thorns

The sun is on the cemetery
Leaves are on the stones
There never was a place on earth
That felt so much like home
We’re falling like the velvet petals
We’re bleeding and we’re torn
But God is in the roses and the thorns

I love you like a brother
A father and a son
It may not last forever and ever
But it never will be done
My whole world fits inside the moment
I saw you be reborn
God is in the roses
And that day was filled with roses
God is in the roses and the thorns

Counting the Omer in Funkytown

Today is the thirty-seventh day of the Omer, which according to Jewish mystical symbolism corresponds to the Divine attribute of Gevurah (“Strength”) within Yesod (“Foundation.”)

Looking for spiritually alternative ways to count the Omer? Click above to watch/listen to the great John Zorn Ensemble perform “Gevruah,” then below for Zorn’s “Yesod,” as performed by the Crakow Klezmer Band.

As you listen, read this rendering of Psalm 24 by Stephen Mitchell:

The earth belongs to the Lord
     and everything on it is his.
For he founded it in empty space
     and breathed his own life-breath into it,
filling it with manifold creatures,
     each one precious in his sight.

Who is fit to hold power
     and worthy to act in God’s place?
Those with a passion for the truth,
     who are horrified by injustice,
who act with mercy to the poor
     and take up the cause of the helpless,
who have let go of selfish concerns
    and see whole earth as sacred,
refusing to exploit her creatures
     or to foul her waters and her lands.
Their strength is in their compassion;
     God’s light shines through their hearts.
Their children’s children will bless them,
    and the work of their hands will endure.

And/or this excerpt from James Dickey’s poem, “The Strength of the Fields:”

Dear Lord of all the fields
                                             what am I going to do?
                                      Street-lights, blue-force and frail
As the homes of men, tell me how to do it
    To withdraw    how to penetrate and find the source
      Of the power you always had
                                            light as a moth, and rising
       With the level and moonlit expansion
    Of the fields around, and the sleep of hoping men.
       You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved
       By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity
  Is close to the source that sleeping men
       Search for in their home-deep beds.
      We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered
   By moths, in blue home-town air.
          The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under
The pastures.    They look on and help.    Tell me, freight-train,
                            When there is no one else
   To hear. Tell me in a voice the sea
         Would have, if it had not a better one: as it lifts,
          Hundreds of miles away, its fumbling, deep-structured roar
               Like the profound, unstoppable craving
            Of nations for their wish.
                                                      Hunger, time and the moon:
         The moon lying on the brain
                                                    as on the excited sea    as on
          The strength of fields. Lord, let me shake
         With purpose.    Wild hope can always spring
         From tended strength.    Everything is in that.
            That and nothing but kindness.    More kindness, dear Lord
Of the renewing green.    That is where it all has to start:
         With the simplest things. More kindness will do nothing less
             Than save every sleeping one
             And night-walking one
         Of us.
                  My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.

The Torah of Steve Earle

The release of a new Steve Earle CD is always a pretty big deal for me – and I’m really loving his latest, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”

Amidst great tunes about the BP oil spill, NOLA after Katrina, and the hubris of Empire is a song Earle wrote for Joan Baez some years back called “God is God.” Give a listen: it’s about as humble and lovely a spiritual statement as you’ll ever hear sung by a radical leftist country singer:

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah I believe in God and God ain’t me

I’ve traveled around the world,
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less.
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God but God ain’t us

God of my little understanding. Don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all
I receive the blessings
And every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on Earth and maybe not
But I believe in God and God is God