Jewish Kirtan: The parampara


I thought this was fun, encouraging for me, and a sign of the changing times we live in. A rabbi who chants kirtan-style in Hebrew. I’d heard of Jewish people employing different styles of worship before, and I have also talked to young Jews who sometimes chant Sanskrit mantras at their meetings, but this was the first time I’d seen ‘Hebrew kirtan’ and noticed how much cultural borrowing has taken place.

Here is a Jewish rabbi who has taken to Indian-style kirtan to glorify God. He is sitting cross-legged, playing the harmonium, and wearing a rust-coloured Indian kurta. He’s leading a call-and-response kirtan with some of the participants obviously enjoying the chanting, and others already up and dancing.

The Jews are no strangers to singing and chanting, of course. The old tradition is to stand and rock back and forwards – called davening – while intoning verses from the scriptures. And when the ancient Jewish tradition threatened to become a little too dry and legalistic for its own survival, along came the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) who began a mystical movement in Russia, which focused on simple piety and ecstatic singing and dancing.

His movement – the Hasidim – gave new life and inspiration to Judaism and the tradition continued down to more recent times. One well-known and prominent leader of the Lubavitch branch of the Hasidim (branches are named after the town in Russia where prominent Jewish mystics lived) was the ‘Rebbe,’ Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) the seventh leader in the chain of teachers.

The Rebbe, in keeping with the traditions, used to lead his followers in nigun, or old melodies dedicated to God, but not containing the names of God. Have a look at this one here.

One of his students was the innovative reformer Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Salomi who, seeing the scattered and sometimes lifeless Jewish communities of 1960s America, took it upon himself to start a movement for bringing back people to the faith with creative singing, theatre and worship styles. The movement became known as Ruach-Havura and its members made many experiments in reaching out to God, including the use of Vedic mantras and meditation.

My wife went to school with the Rabbi’s daughter and has kept in touch over the years. I met the Rabbi a few years ago when he visited London.

Those who follow Michael Berg of the Kabbalah movement have been known to sing in kirtan fashion, but this call and response kirtan – accompanied by the harmonium – and along with dancing, is something new for me.

Certainly it will help to bring many Jews back to the Biblical vibrancy spoken of by King David when he urged the worshippers to praise the Lord God within the Ark of the Covenant with high and low sounding cymbals – and with dancing.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Jewish Kirtan: The parampara

  1. Sudakaran Sangaran

    Hare Krishna! Very nice fusion. Close resemblance to sankirtan. So they finally discover their roots. Haribol!

  2. Karanodakasayi Visnu Dasa

    Very nice. Bring on the Maha-mantra in the end!

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