We met Rabbi Rob at the South Bend Chocolate Cafe on an unseasonably nice evening. We arrived about fifteen minutes early, but the Rabbi was already set up at a large table, drinking a coffee and eating a bagel. Before we began the interview, we made some small talk and the Rabbi bought us coffee, he was very generous and very insistent. We met on the day of Passover, before the holiday really began at sundown. Rabbi Rob told us he was heading to a Seder dinner after our interview.
We began our interview with questions mostly about the Rabbi himself: when did he decide to become a Rabbi, questions about Rabbinical School, questions about his life before and after that. We chose to transcribe the portion of our interview where we specifically talked about Jewish holy music. Rabbi Rob plays the bass and considers himself a career musician, even performing monthly in a group that includes a Saint Mary’s College professor. This was great for our purposes, as he was very knowledgeable in music and musical tradition, even talking about specific keys and melismas being traditional in various Jewish regions.
We asked the Rabbi about different traditions, including a questions regarding how universal prayers can be within Judaism. He responded, “no matter which tradition you grew up with, they seem to be cross pollinated, as it were. There’s a song that we sing toward the end of the service called “Alenu”. It’s just one of many that have criss-crossed. Or, the absolute mantra of Judaism, the Sh’ma. And I don’t care if you’re Sephardic or Ashkenazic, they’re the same. Now there are variations of that and variation in uses, but [the same], by and large.” Before this point, Rabbi Rob had explained to us that Sephardic Jews are people who participate in the type of Judaism that developed in Spain, while Ashkenazi Judaism was developed in Europe. He gave us context regarding immigration patterns and colonialism, and refers to the difference in worship here.
Overall, the Rabbi told us that, while new melodies and chants are introduced into many synagogues, the congregations typically prefer the traditional songs, as that is what they are used to, what they are comfortable with, and what they know. To a certain degree adaptation, specifically the inclusion of musical instruments, is specific to the type of Judaism being practiced.
“There are several other melodies that you will hear, for instance, in the Orthodox Synagogue up on High Street, and at the Reform Synagogue on Madison. They’re fairly consistent. There’s a lot of new liturgical music being written, but it’s hard to get it into the mix. I grew up a certain way. I learned some of this stuff when I was a little boy, and that was a long time ago. But, we’re all comfortable with what we know, you know, and so sometimes it’s a little hard to sneak a new melody in. Incidentally, there’s a lot of new melodies being written by women. There was one, she was not a cantor, she’s since died, Debbie Friedland. Very much in the vein of American folk music. For a while, particularly the 70s and 80s, a little into the 90s, the remnants of the, for lack of a better phrase, Hippie movement. You know, guitars. I have no problem with that. You don’t find musical instruments at all in the orthodox. Very seldom in conservative. It’s all over the place in reform.”
Our “hour long interview” with the Rabbi ended up lasting for about an hour and 45 minutes, as we enjoyed speaking with him, and he pressed us for more questions, excited. We touched on every topic we could think of. As an interviewee and as a person, Rabbi Rob was an excellent teacher, and gave us very interesting information as well as the appropriate context to help us really understand things we had no concept of before, such as the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Judaism, the influence of Middle Eastern music on Jewish music, and the general practices of Jewish communities.