Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Yom Kippur Groupies

When we moved to Israel nine years ago, we were met with all kinds of changes – schools, work, food. And as September approached, there was an additional question: where we would pray for High Holyday services?

When we lived in North America, this wasn’t such a big deal: there were only a few options in our community and, in any case, we were already members of lovely congregation.

In Israel, however – and in Jerusalem in particular – there are literally thousands of options, from the tiny to the toney. So on the High Holydays, we found ourselves shul-hopping for a few years before discovering a place so unique it has developed its own fan club.

Amiqa D’Bira – dubbed the “Leader Minyan” for brothers Avraham and Zelig Leader who founded it (it has nothing to do with the congregation being "leaders," so now you know) – the service is heavily inspired by the music and teachings of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

The minyan meets only for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and then once a month during the year on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hodesh – the beginning of the new month.

But that’s more than enough to keep our spiritual batteries fully charged.

Amiqa D’Bira is the kind of place you either love or hate. The growing number of “Carlebach” minyans around the world are famous for their spirited singing and dancing, but this one takes things to an extreme. Shabbat services start at 8:00 AM and rarely end before 2:30 or 3:00 PM.

An extended Kiddush with more than a little schnapps doesn’t hurt, either.

Those who who’ve never experienced the intimate, sweaty joy that this kind of over-the-top davening (praying) brings are quick to deride its “unholy” length, rolling their eyes judgmentally and commenting how they like their prayer short and to the point.

To each his own. We love it.

While the minyan is always a blast, it especially rocks on the High Holidays when Ebn Leader, son of founder Zelig, leads the services.

Ebn has developed a style that is all his own. A musician and Talmud scholar, he scores the service like a rock opera, bringing the music at times to crescendo, dipping down to melodic introspection, rocking out with an infectious beat, and finally soaring with a repeating wordless chorus on a par with the best of Genesis in its 1970s Peter Gabriel heyday.

Arms flailing, dancing at the bima, he mixes Israeli pop tunes, snatches of reggae, classic folk (Greensleeves is a favorite), Sefardi nigunim, the best of Carlebach of course, and urban rap (his hip hop adaptation of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” during last year’s Rosh Hashana services is missing only the scratching on an old ‘45).

There’s no need for a choir or organ; Ebn is a one man rhythm section, banging on the table, slamming two plastic chairs together, and generally leading the congregation in a vigorous workout of hand-clapping (think “boot camp”-style aerobics for the soul).

There are those who say Ebn is too over the top. That he is more self-aware than selfless. I say he is Yom Kippur’s first true rock star and we are his groupies.

We are awed when he enters the room, breathless with anticipation as his deep baritone belts out Kol Nidre, and high on life during the frenetic, arms-bonded dancing at the end of every Kaddish.

When I was growing up, I imagined that prayer must necessarily be composed of somber wailing and shuckling, and that Yom Kippur was the saddest day of the year. At Israel’s "Leader Minyan," I discovered how wrong I was.

Yom Kippur is the happiest, rockin-est, dancin-est holiday on the Jewish calendar. And I know a shul-full of pre, post, and wanna-be hippies who’ll gladly testify to that!

There's more on the growing number of Carlebach-inspired services in Israel in this Jerusalem Post article.

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