Rabbi Shawn Zevit: an instrumental instrumentalist
Canadian-born Rabbi Shawn Zevit links the old
shtetl world of traditional
chazanut to an almost New Age approach to Jewish
spirituality through his pair of seemingly incongruous CDs,
Generations – Journeys Across the Ages.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit’s deep roots in music are evident in
Generations - Journeys across the Ages. The first disc of Generations is Kabbalat Shabbat - A Complete Friday Evening Spiritual Experience in Music - A Journey from Then to Now. The album commences almost as a relaxation tape, helping the listener to let go of his or her tensions of the week in order to enter the "holy eternal time" of Shabbat.
Listeners are invited to "reclaim and re-ensoul" themselves as they are led through an inspiring version of the Friday night service, set to a eclectic mixture of folk, indie rock, rhythm, blues, and traditional Jewish music. The music is extremely versatile, perfect for when you’re scramble around with your last-minute Friday preparations, or even when you want to unwind and uplift yourself with a pre-taste of Shabbat earlier in the week.
Also, watch out for egalitarian touches, such as the naming of the "Holy One Blessed be He" in Hebrew as the "Holy One Blessed She," a pun I find to be quite cute.
The second disc, Z'mirot Songs for the Shabbat - From Now to Then, contains old-fashioned chazanut pieces originally recorded with virtually no musical accompaniment in the 1990s.
The chazzan is Rabbi Zevit's late grandfather Aaron Zevit, who died in 2003. Rabbi Zevit digitally enhanced the original recording to preserve the chazanut tradition, as well as his own nostalgic memories. Rabbi Zevit feels that there are many unaffiliated Jews who may be brought back to their religious roots by memories of their own grandparents. It is for this reason that the CD cover contains old photographs of the Zevit family.
The musical Rabbi recently revealed to me how music was used in his household to stop arguments. He shared, "My grandfather loved to sing and often used music to settle family conflicts. If a disagreement arose, one of them would start singing. Others in the family would then have to stop arguing and join in to harmonize." Festival meals of his extended family were also accompanied by lots of singing.
Rabbi Zevit was born in 1959 in Winnipeg into a traditional family whose younger generations were becoming more relaxed in their religious practices. Two of his great grandfathers were rabbis and mohels. "My grandfather Aaron was never a professional chazzan,
but he did sometimes lead services in a Conservative synagogue which he joined because his children could not connect with the Yiddish-speaking rabbi of the Orthodox shul." His grandfather Aaron and his wife Rose emigrated to Israel in 1975.
Leaving home to study theatre, Shawn drifted away from his Judaism. But in 1983, just at the time when his grandparents returned from Israel and settled near him and his family in Toronto, Rabbi Zevit began to reconnect with his religious roots. He recalled, "My theatre company was performing Old Testament plays. That revived my spiritual connections and as a young adult, I joined my first synagogue, which was Conservative."
When his parents and sister left town for Calgary, Rabbi Zevit began joining his grandparents, Aunt and Uncle, and cousins every Friday night for dinner. He recalled, "They came to Toronto at the same time as I was reconnecting with Judaism. Over the course of the next 10 years I learned my grandfather's unique family melodies. We even sang together in occasional concerts."
It was during this time that Rabbi Zevit became involved the chavurah movement - an offshoot of Progressive Judaism which organized spiritually alternative styles of worship and Jewish study. Rabbi Zevit became attracted to Reconstructionist Judaism because of its egalitarian stance and its emphasis on God working through humans. Zevit believes that "People who find their home outside Judaism need access points which are spiritually enlivening."
Another access point for unaffiliated Jews upon which Rabbi Zevit concentrates on is the environmental emphasis of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world. He said, "Most Jews do not have daily practice. They need to find a place where they can touch base spiritually."
Zevit’s latest CDs, which will be followed next year by Volume II (Shabbat morning and festival services), reach out and touch both traditional and less traditional audiences.
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