Rabbi Rachel Adler: What is Tradition, and How Do We Learn From It?
Rabbi Burt Jacobson on Reb Zalman, davenology, and the Baal Shem Tov

Impromptu music at OHALAH2013

After lunch on Monday I go up to my room to rest for a short while, but within half an hour I'm back downstairs, knowing that I don't have the focus for the plenary session on ethics but wanting to be at least in communal space, if not actively engaging. (Conferences like this one are always a challenge for those of us who naturally fall somewhere between introvert and extrovert. I want to soak up time with my hevre, but I don't want to wind up overstimulated and cranky.)

The obvious place to go, for low-key hanging out instead of the kind of brain-engagement required by another conference session, is the area of the lobby with the fireplaces and the couches. (I remember playing there with 13-month-old Drew two years ago.) And when I get there, I find a wonderful surprise: a group of friends singing by the fire. So I sit down at the edge of the hearth and soak up the warmth of the fire and the warmth of their music, sometimes humming or singing along.

While I'm there they sing niggunim, secular songs ("Me and Bobby McGee"), Yiddish songs ("Shnirele Perele") extemporaneously rendered in English, lines from liturgy set to new melodies. More instrumentalists join the group. By the time I regretfully walk away -- wanting to stay, but also wanting to catch one of the sessions in the next slot -- there are two guitarists, three ukelele players, and one rabbi playing a keyboard harmonica.


The music is delicious and juicy. Rabbi Jack has a sweet presence and a sweet voice and a lot of Jewish Renewal history to give over. Rabbi Mark's mouth-harmonica solos are soulful, and when he offers an impromptu spoken-word riff which involves channeling Bob Zimmerman and wondering aloud whether he's going to wind up in somebody's blog post, my intention to write this here is crystallized! This little interlude is an unanticipated gift.


On my way out of the room I run into Rabbi Jan, the conference chair, and we agree that this is something we couldn't have planned for -- it had to just happen. Fortunately in this crowd, all you really need to do is give us space -- a few couches to sit on, perhaps a fire to gather around -- and a few moments we can steal from an otherwise overscheduled day, and we'll want to join our voices together, not only in planned liturgical prayer but also just in song, which is a kind of prayer all its own.