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The Bluegrass Shabbat as a cradle for a renewal of faith

Jewgrass invites a new generation to see that traditional Jewish culture can create a high note when mixed with modern culture. Part 3 of “Jewgrass Blues at Park Avenue Synagogue”

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Photo provided by artist.

Photo provided by artist.

Having run music and service programs for young families and childre, Check joked with the cantor one day that he should run a Shabbat service in the style of bluegrass. At Park Avenue Synagogue, this type of innovation is taken seriously. Its rabbi is part of a wave of a new generation of rabbis that have taken the helm of the big East Side synagogues. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is known for floating trial balloons within Conservative Judaism about new ways of worship, reaching the new generation and handling intermarriage. He is editor of Jewish Theology in our time: a new generation explores the foundations and future of Jewish belief. Cantor Azi Schwartz is against any stifling straightjackets on Jewish liturgy. What better way to shake things up than bring in a little bluegrass. Check seemed ready to take on the task.

And so it was that seven years after returning to the States from the time of the original jam davan, the year of Jubilee for Bluegrass arrived. Check’s Bluegrass Kabbalat Shabbat was about to bloom.

Like the Jewish community, bluegrass players are tightly networked.  So, Check was able to pull together a band from the bluegrass musicians he had met playing gigs in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. The band consisted of a cantor, a banjo, a mandolin, an upright bass, a fiddle, and a guitar.

At the debut service, "the sound sucked but 500 people loved it." Check remembers the congregants approaching him afterwards to ask when the next performance would be.

Inspired by this success, Check decided to record the service for wider distribution. He set up an account with Indiegogo, a website that helps assemble funding for for the projects of independent music artists. He was astounded at how quickly support poured in. In less than a month he had raised $11,000. Most of the money was given by members of the synagogue and affiliated rabbis.

The recording began March 8 at Lunchbox Studios in Brooklyn and the album was released the beginning of April. The mp3 will be the first recording of the music used in the service because recording at Shabbat services is prohibited as a form of work.

Here is his Bluegrass Kabbalat Shabbat Suite (15 minutes):


Bluegrass as music for troubles

The music release of the Jewsgrass Shabbat music took place simultaneously with Check's opening night performance at a Friday Shabbat at the Park Slope Jewish Center on April 11. The young Jewish leader presented the likeness of a Bluegrass Rabbi with his navy yarmulke with gold trimmings matched to a black blazer and blue jeans. He stood poised for performance with his right hand ready to strum on his banjo and the other hand enfolded around its neck. Surrounded by stained glass windows and a wrap-around balcony, the band leader and his four mates rocked out about 80 people with Bluegrass versions of the Psalms (songs) of David.

Before he became King of Israel, David’s life was an adventure of facing down giants, running for his life and assembly a band of followers in the wilderness. Some of his charisma was undoubtedly related his ability to write songs that are full of life’s questions and fears. Some were directed to God Himself, asking, “Why do evil men prosper? Why have you forsaken me? How long will you hide your face?”

Rembrandt's David playing for a troubled King Saul

Rembrandt's David playing for a troubled King Saul

Some songs were directed inward at the psalmist’s own soul, instructing thoughtfulness about one’s doubts. Surely, his followers were entertained and moved by the full character of David’s rhetoric. After he became King, David published songs that helped to create a great cultural unity among the tribes of Israel. They would need it later when they were whisked away in a Conan-barbarian moment into exile by the conquering Babylonians.

Check has his own religious doubts. He muses, “But I have prayer inside of me, and music has always been my way of exploring that.” Perhaps like David, Jewgrass musicians can give strength and unity through singing reflections and answers about doubts and questions.

The musician has more limited goal right now. He hopes that Jewgrass will provide a ripple of unfamiliarity to familiar prayers so that listeners will give new ears to the meaning of what it means to be religious. The music and Jewish traditions fit in such a way that the tunes seem to reach upward to the High. “There’s something spiritual about bluegrass when the music is right and everyone’s playing together,” Check reflected after the performance.

If Joseph was the original Woody Guthrie, perhaps Check is the new Joshua, bringing down walls surrounding the temple with his inimitable musical blend. Jewgrass invites a new generation to see that traditional Jewish culture can create a high note when mixed with modern cultures.



Illustration: A Journey through NYC religions

Illustration: A Journey through NYC religions



  • Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club, 59 Kent Ave @ N.10th St., Williamsburg; Old Time Slow Jam 2nd & 4th Sundays, 6-8:30pm
  • Paddy Reilly's. 519 2 Ave, Manhattan (29 St) 212-686-1210; bluegrass, etc. jam 5-8pm; Sunday (see also Irish and general multi-day listings)
  • Superfine, 125 Front St. Brooklyn, 718-243-9005; Bluegrass Brunch 11AM-3PM

Mondays (NYC BG/OT):  ... [ to top of page]

Tuesdays (NYC BG/OT):  ... [ to top of page]

  •  Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, 513 Henry St (at Sackett St), Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn,  718-522-6292.  Old-time jam every other Tuesday 7:30 - 9:30, (On vacation for the Summer).  Next jams are March 18, April 1, April 15, etc.   Hosted by Alan Friend. Info:  alanfriend_music (at)  Sponsored by Folk Music Society of NY,
  •  Manhattan old-time jam, Globe Bar, 158 East 23rd St., (between 3rd Ave. & Lexington);  8pm until 11 or so. every other Tuesday.  Next jams are March 11th, March 25th, April 8th, etc.

Wednesdays (NYC BG/OT):  ... [ to top of page]

  • Randolph Beer (343 Broome St (Bowery & Elizabeth, 212-334-3706); Sheriff's Bluegrass Jam, 9:30 pm-1:30 am;
  • Jalopy, 315 Columbia St., Brooklyn; "Roots 'n Ruckus" night - old-time and blues; 718-395-3214;

Thursdays (NYC BG/OT):  ... [ to top of page]

Fridays (NYC BG/OT):  ... [ to top of page]

  • NYC Barn Dance, with David Harvey and Harry Bollick and friends: occasional dances at various locations. Beginners' contra & square dance instruction;  603-496-9567;
  • Clogging Classes:  (drop-ins are always welcome).  At Chelsea Studios, 151 W. 26 St; 7-9pm.  Info:

Saturdays (NYC BG/OT):  ... [ to top of page]

  • Jalopy,  - First Saturdays, 3-6pm - 315 Columbia St, Brooklyn, NY; 718-395-3214 - Info Harry Bolick
  • Randolph Beer, 343 Broome St, between the Bowery and Elizabeth St., Manhattan 212-334-3706; Bluegrass Brunch from 1:30 to 5:30 with Fresh Baked Bluegrass.
  • Sunny's. 253 Conover St (between Reed & Beard St) in Red Hook, Brooklyn, 9 PM in the back: band performance followed by Bluegrass and Misc, jam at 10 PM, 'til LATE.  718-625-8211;  see also general multi-day, below







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