It’s the Christmas season, which fora Jewish rocker like Rick Recht means one thing: showtime.
Jewish community centers, synagogues, conventions — Recht lives in airports this time of year. The St. Louis guitarist is in high demand because he can rock out Jewish crowds with Hanukkah music at a time when the entire culture is saturated in Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber crooning about Christmas.
Recht, 41, is one of a tiny number of well-known musicians who make spiritual music a typical Jewish teen might realistically play. He’s well aware that his popularity around the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah, which starts Tuesday night, is tied in part to what many see as a dearth of powerful music in Jewish religious life. And it is a cause that is recently gaining more urgent attention.
“This is a time of year when Jews are hyper-aware of their identity,” he said. “And music is a sledgehammer. There is nothing more effective in terms of affecting identity . . . Judaism is competing in a world of products and ways to experience spirituality, and it’s important for Judaism to be repackaged in a way that’s meaningful, relevant and exciting.”
On a recent Sunday morning, Recht was on a stage at a Potomac Hebrew school, swarmed by hundreds of middle-schoolers as he let loose the folksy children’s Hanukkah song “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” but with an electric guitar, a backup drummer and tall blue concert lights.
His set ranged from a centuries-old Hebrew song about the Sabbath to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” with kids, grandparents and hipster dads in chunky glasses on their feet in the sunny room at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
American Jews are a diverse lot, and there are pockets with a vibrant culture of spiritual singing. That’s particularly true of the Orthodox Chasidic community and people who are active in the more liberal Reform movement. But in typical synagogues and for the huge unaffiliated population, the most familiar music is decades — or centuries — old and, leaders say, can’t compete with fast-changing secular music in quality.
But the scene at the Potomac synagogue is part of what some say is a community coming out of musical hibernation. Synagogues are hiring more cantors — the clergy who usually lead music — and boot camps are being created to train songleaders at schools and camps. The Reform movement, the largest in North American Judaism, recently started requiring cantors to learn guitar, considered a more participatory instrument than the organ, said Rabbi Aaron Panken, recent dean of the school that trains Reform clergy.
“There’s a massive movement to make music more accessible,” he said.
Recht is among those who last year launched Jewish Rock Radio, an online station that revs up in December with the hippest of Hanukkah. That includes “Miracle,” from Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu, and “Ocho Kandelikas,” a cover from indie Spanish-style rock band DeLeon.
Hanukkah, called “the festival of lights,” is not a major religious holiday for Jews. It commemorates a historic event, the rededication of the ancient temple more than two millennia ago, and today is most commonly marked with exchanging presents, lighting candles and making ritual foods, such as doughnuts or potato pancakes. The music tends to be lighter, with some of the best known songs being the tune Recht was playing about the dreidel, which is a top, or “I am a latke,” by the late folk music icon Debbie Friedman.
Leaders in the small field are studying the massive Christian music industry, which they call the model.
“You have to have an economic engine to let it grow and continue, otherwise it’s just a nice idea in your closet,” Recht said. “We don’t even have the beginning of an industry; we don’t have any of the spokes in the wheel.”
Watching Recht’s concert in Potomac was like watching an evangelical worship service. Hundreds of young people sang and prayed with their arms outstretched, hands waving from side to side as inspirational words ran down the screen about faith and promise. With 900 young people in its Hebrew school, Washington Hebrew is one of the country’s largest congregations.
Views vary about the challenges for Jewish spiritual music. Some note that the community is very small, so many skilled musicians may prefer the much larger secular music world. Others say the challenge is that most Jews are unaffiliated with institutions, making it harder to establish a regular singing community.
Also, Jewish music traditionally has not used instruments or electricity on the Sabbath, a ban linked to the mandate to not work, or change the form of things on the day of rest. A broken instrument could lead to a repair, and thus a change. The more progressive parts of Judaism have long used instruments in all worship.
Joey Weisenberg, considered a leading innovator in Jewish music, trains congregations during key times of the year such as Hanukkah — when congregants are paying attention — to literally stand closer together, instead of spreading out in half-empty pews.
For years, he says, American Jews have been “going through the motions.”
“At every service there is some singing,” he said. “But it’s never very convincing.”
In this era, he said, “The Jewish world is like a bunch of timber, all spaced out and waiting for more spark. It’s just starting to have tons and tons of new creativity.”