Bringing You Shir Ecstasy

shirecstacy

How one gospel lover is shaking up the Jewish community with her love for hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ music.

Teacher: Sharon Alexander

Class: Shir Ecstasy Jospel Choir

Location: Sharon leads workshops in the United States, Israel, and parts of Europe.

Class Description: Gospel—literally “good news”—is a powerful African American, spiritual, musical tradition designed to help people ascend together to an ecstatic state of k’vodo, or glory. The soulful melodies and rhythmic beats help people find joy, comfort, healing, and a sense of God’s personal love. We will sing, move, and be moved by Jospel—Jewish gospel—music as we learn to perform several hand-clapping, foot-stomping, multi-part pieces. You’ll learn how to apply the fundamentals of gospel technique to Jewish prayer in your own community. Expect to come away with an elevated heart and a singing soul!

How did you get into this field of Jewish gospel?

Well, actually, I’ve been collecting Jewish spiritual music for as long as I can remember—especially beautiful rounds. I was Jewishly educated at a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, and even back then I thought the music was the best thing about going to Hebrew School. In the 80s, during the time of the Soviet Refuseniks, I went over to Russia a few times to teach musicians all the best Jewish Renewal songs I had collected. Since they were all in my head, I figured the border guards couldn’t confiscate them. But it wasn’t until I was in massage school in Boulder and writing my master’s thesis on Concepts of Energy in the Healing Arts that I began to think about the biophysics of ecstasy, specifically. I put the idea away for years, waiting for someone to research and write about it. But no one ever did.

So what happened?

In the mid-90s, I was living in Israel and a friend took me to a charismatic Christian church in East Jerusalem. The minister was an American woman, Sister Ruth Heflin, and she had written a little book entitled Glory. The book was written in very Christian terminology and, to be honest, that intimidated me at first. But I realized she was giving over some very important information. I remember that I was so scared to explore what she was saying that I turned to my Hebrew-English dictionary and translated all her terms to Hebrew: anointing, victory, Holy Ghost, salvation, etc. The Hebrew translations turned out to be familiar and, therefore, comforting. It turned out that what she was giving the world was no less than the ecstatic recipe to take a religious service from what she labeled Praise, through Worship, to Glory. I suddenly realized that her recipe was a perfect fit for the Jewish service as well as the Christian. So I began to seriously examine the Jewish service structure and realized that the siddur must have actually been designed to take the congregation to an ecstatic state!

How did gospel music enter the picture?

Eventually I put together my love of spiritual music with the ecstatic goal and came to the conclusion that gospel music (which I was already attracted to) naturally held the best techniques for taking a congregation to that “glory” place. So that’s when I began to study the specific musical techniques and African shamanistic underpinnings of the form so that I could teach it. Around that time, I also made a personal decision to quit all secular choirs I was singing in because I had reached the point in my life where I wanted to sing only to God. Learning about gospel music has been a six-year journey so far. I began by teaching a little afternoon workshop at an Aleph Jewish Renewal Kallah. Now I conduct weeklong choirs around the world and intersperse lectures as I go. I decided that I had done so much original research at this point that I should really go for a PhD in the subject, so that’s what I’m presently doing—writing a dissertation, which I hope will turn into both a book for the general public and a manual for Jewish congregations. I also put together CD compilations of both Jewish gospel-type songs and actual Black gospel suitable for Jewish services.

What is it that you love about teaching Jewish gospel?

If I could find a good conductor and a good gospel pianist who were committed to bringing ecstasy back into the Jewish service, I would be delighted to simply be a singer in their choir. All I want to do is sing ecstatically to God.

What do you hope your students walk away with after attending your class?

The best is when participants come away with the experience of having entered an altered state together, tasted the joyful state of “one accord,” and entered into the “holy hush” together. The other thing I love is when I feel that students are taking away a set of techniques that will allow them to “gospelize” their favorite service songs. We try to spend some time playing with songs; whatever folks suggest on the spot. We change rhythms and find ways to energize and lift the songs.

How do you think that the class helps students connect to Judaism?

In 2005, Newsweek magazine devoted an entire issue to the popular search for the direct experience of God. There seems to be a great hunger for that. I now read the prayer book differently than I used to. When I approach the prayers with an open heart, the words make me cry. I see that our service has the potential to be moving, relevant, and even ecstatic.

What is the best part about teaching your course?

You know, one big surprise that I have noticed about gospel choir is the way the rhythmic excitement and joy of the music brings folks together in a community quite quickly. I especially notice how the men bond. I think they like the anchoring role they have in the ensemble, the physicality of the style, and also the fact that they don’t have to read music to participate. I have a dream to take gospel choir to groups who are doing peace work between Palestinians and Jews. I could imagine that gospel choir could be a neutral meeting point for these two groups and could help to create community.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching it?

Well, I’ll be honest. I’m not a gifted conductor. And rhythm is a problem for me. So I am aware of my weaknesses when I am presenting this style. The other difficulty that I used to have is getting up the courage to bring a “Christian” worship form to the Jewish community. But over the last few years, it seems like the idea has quite naturally become less of an issue.

What’s been one of your favorite/most memorable moments in teaching this class?

The largest choir group I’ve taught so far was in 2007 at the Kallah in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One hundred twenty-five people registered for the choir. And when we performed at the end of the week, we ROCKED the auditorium. You can find a YouTube video of that performance on my website, www.ShirEcstasy.com. We surprised the audience by hiding my (then) eleven-year-old daughter behind other singers and then bringing her out in the middle of a song to sing a solo she had composed herself. You should have heard the audience roar!

What question do you wish I’d ask, and how would you answer?

Why is gospel music an especially good style to bring into Jewish services?

There was a period in which young Americans visited the Far East, bringing back the esoteric secrets of the spiritual masters of India and China. These techniques have greatly influenced our Jewish spiritual practices. It seems to me that there are equally useful secrets cultivated on the African continent presently used in African American worship that we have overlooked in our spiritual search. I don’t know if it was because the Blacks in America descended from a slave culture so that their techniques were therefore unconsciously seen as “not as valuable,” or if the fact that they were being used in Christian services made them off-limits.

At any rate, the Africans are longtime masters of the use of rhythm and dance to reach ecstatic trance. The key is their use of counter rhythms; different parts each on a different rhythm. The more complex the rhythm, the more parts of the body have to get involved; the more movement is stimulated; the more the body is excited. Gospel music is particularly designed to lift the congregation together to God. I want to see those techniques integrated in Jewish services as well.

About the Author

author_sharonSharon Alexander
Sharon Alexander was raised with a Conservative Jewish education and spent the past 30 years at the forefront of Jewish Renewal as a community organizer, teacher, vocalist, and visionary. She is an American living in Basel, Switzerland. To learn more about her and her teaching, visit www.shirecstasy.com.

There are no comments yet, add one below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*


eight − = 3