With the start of the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend, Congregation Rodeph Sholom paid tribute to the civil rights leader by hosting the US premiere of the Israeli Gospel Choir, an unlikely ensemble devoted to the traditionally Christian genre.
The Shabbat service marked a gratifying milestone for choir founders Iris and Ofer Portugaly, a married couple who met while studying jazz — another largely African-American art form — at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
“Before I loved this music, I loved the way it was taught,” Iris Portugaly told The Times of Israel. “I had a hard time with classical. But . . . jazz teachers always encourage you to be yourself, and really keep on being creative.”
The Portugalys have relied on that sense of innovation since founding their homegrown gospel choir more than a decade ago, confronting unique challenges as they merged different musical styles and languages.
“To make it work, it’s not always an easy thing,” said Ofer Portugaly, a senior faculty member at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon. “The English language is much more easy to groove with . . . You really have to work hard to make [Hebrew] groove right.”
While the Israeli Gospel Choir is partly a performance vehicle for the Portugalys — Iris plays the drums and sings lead, while Ofer plays piano and conducts — the group features a band and a gathering of additional singers.
The effect can initially be something like an Israeli version of the White Stripes backed up by an assortment of caroling Jews, but the result is a hybrid of deep soul, sophisticated harmonies and rich vocal arrangements — some of it in Hebrew. The choir’s Friday performance included a partially translated version of the gospel classic “Oh, Happy Day,” as well as an all-English version of “Joyful, Joyful.”
Borrowing the music of other cultures is often a loaded issue, but the Rodeph Sholom concert was crafted with an awareness of those sensitivities, and was intended to honor the legacy of King, a leader revered by both Jews and African-Americans.
“It’s unbelievable to think that it’s 45 years since he was struck down,” said Rodeph Sholom Rabbi Robert N. Levine. “What we’re doing is a celebration of what he brought to the world and the vision he wants us to have.”
The gospel service is indeed part of a long, warm relationship between the congregation and parts of Manhattan’s African-American community — a tradition that includes a joint Passover seder with Harlem’s Memorial Baptist Church that stretches back decades.
The synagogue has also hosted repeat gospel performances by the Voices of Christ Ensemble, a mostly African-American “praise team” with a repertoire that includes “Oseh Shalom,” the Hebrew prayer for peace.
That group — described as “old friends” by Levine — returned for the King tribute, performing tunes including “In the Sanctuary” and “Healing.” Singer and actress Diana Solomon-Glover, who recently earned notice in a musical about the slave turned abolitionist Harriet Tubman, also sang.
Rodeph Sholom Cantor Rebecca Garfein and others joined her for a rendition of the gospel classic “This Little Light of Mine,” while Garfein turned in her own gospel take on “Oseh Shalom.”
To some, African-American gospel might seem like a turn away from Jewish ritual, but, as Garfein points out, music at Reform congregations like hers has often incorporated popular melodies.
“There’s a very rich tradition going back to [the beginning of the movement in] Germany, with big composers like Louis Lewandowski, who wrote for the great synagogue in Berlin using organ and choir,” she said.
“People like Salomon Sulzer from Vienna transformed [synagogue] music using a lot of the modern harmonies that you’d find in Mendelssohn and other things they were hearing at the time, compositions for the concert hall. Of course, now that’s considered the ‘traditional music.’ ”
Garfein, who played a key role in organizing Friday’s service, has a longstanding affection for gospel — as well as her own reasons for appreciating African-American history. The daughter of a Reform rabbi — as well as a cousin of Iris Portugaly — Garfein grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., not far from the border with the former slave states of Alabama and Geogia.
“I have strong memories of my dad taking me to [African Methodist Episcopal] Baptist Church, where he led an interfaith seder,” said Garfein, the synagogue’s first female cantor. “Civil rights was always important.”
African-Americans have themselves often seen a resemblance between their story and the slavery of the ancient Jews — a connection made explicit by “The Moses Project,” a gospel opera that Garfein brought to the synagogue during her first year as cantor.
“It was very successful,” she remembered. “There’s something about gospel music and the Jewish and black experience that is so special and unique.”
For the Portugalys, those parallels emerge in other ways, with Iris arguing that jazz and gospel’s flexibility are a natural match for Israelis. “We are improvisers in our souls,” she joked about her compatriots. “And this music — we need to improvise. We have a very hard time with strict rules.”
Her husband, meanwhile, describes his gospel group in a manner that owes a bit to King’s teachings.
“When you’re working with a big choir, it’s not just important being a great musician, but also being a great human being,” said Portugaly, an organizer of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. “You have to search for a group balance.”
Levine voiced similar sentiments about his congregation and its Israeli and American guests.
“I think our relationship is one of mutual affirmation of what God wants of us,” he said. “A part of that is joining our hearts and souls together in prayer and song.”
Still, can gospel music become a regular part of the Shabbat services in temples like Rodeph Sholom?
“Absolutely,” says Garfein. “There’s something about music in a gospel style — the congregation really responds to it.”
Rabbi Levine concurs. “It falls out of my soul,” he said. “One of the things we’ve learned from gospel is the expression of joy. You know, the clapping and the singing and just letting go of it! It’s hard for Jews sometimes — but we are really learning to let it go in relationship to God, and it feels great.”