Can a young Jew from the suburbs now working in Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan find God by following the poet laureate of the underclass Woody Guthrie?
That is what Mathew Check is trying to discover by mixing blue grass and folk tunes into the most sacred songs of Judaism. Can he get his urbane listeners in sync with the music of the hobos and the disharmonious lyrics of the bankrupted?
“Read the story of Joseph—it’s a journey from the lowest depths of a man’s life to the highest ups,” said Check. Joseph’s journey through slavery is like Guthrie’s experience of going from Dust Bowl hobo-troubadour to revered folk singer.
The brothers of Joseph were jealous of the favor that Joseph was receiving from their father. So, in a plot to get rid of Joseph while keeping their hands technically free from the blood of Joseph’s death, his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. They thought that they would never see Joseph again. Then, a drought hit the land, and they were forced to go to Egypt to beg for some food. And who was in charge of the food distribution?
The crushing rigors of slavery had forced Joseph into dreaming dreams and to insight-fully interpret them into wisdom for living in precarious times. Hearing of this wise man in prison, Pharaoh brought him to help with dreams that had disturbing overtones. After making some good sense from the dreams about the troubles ahead, Jospeh was put in charge of handling the emergency food supply system of Egypt. It was a historical turning point in the lessons of mercy when Joseph forgave and even honored his brothers.
During the American depression, the folk singer Guthrie brought encouragement to the sufferers and reminders to the rich that the harsh living conditions can produce beautiful music that turns the hearts to mercy. It is certainly a lesson for today.
Adapting popular songs to the bluegrass sound has most popularly been done in the “Pickin’ On…” series released by CMH Records, Inc. Various other similar bluegrass covers sprout like weeds on YouTube as a cultural meme of handcrafted arts in the time of economic uncertainty. Check differs from these covers by focusing on the sacred. He avoids any hint of parody in his music and strives to make the Jewish liturgy sound “as authentic as gospel” when sung in bluegrass in the synagogue.
Check took a moment of reflection on Joseph then came out with a lightening round of other similar turning points in the Hebrew scriptures (the Tanakh). He pointed out that Abraham left home for a strange land and ended up starting a new people; Ruth was widowed in a society that didn’t treat widows kindly but finds salvation after a visit to Naomi; and David escapes into the wilderness after his king repays David’s loyalty with fear and and an attempt to kill him. “These are all about the sojourn,” he said. Each journey has harshness and evil that is turned into some good.
Check, the 32-year-old Director of Young Family Education at the Park Avenue Synagogue, is going on a sojourn of his own that intertwines the creative and spiritual like Joseph. He calls his project, the Bluegrass Kabbalat Shabbat Experience.
The Experience reimagines Shabbat liturgy and Israeli folk tunes into a bluegrass service. Check raised $11,000 on the kickstarter website Indiegogo to produce a recording of the service, which was released online on the website Jewgrass.com. The recording also includes original compositions by Check.
Check has preserved the original words and order of the liturgy, but rewrote the tune to which it is sung. In his rendering, the singing of the scriptural Sh’ma Yisrael ("Here O'Israel"), a prayer that serves as the focal point for morning and evening worship, is transformed into a croon that could be comfortably nestled next to the song "Uncle John’s Band" on the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead.
The liturgical poem "Mi Khamokha" ("Who is like You?") with Joanie Leeds on the "Challah Challah" album recalls how God parted the Red Sea to create a passage for the Israelites, is sung as a gravelly, rolling, Charlie Daniels-esque ballad.
The Shabbat hymn "Hine Ma Tov," which commemorates the joyous occasion of coming together, is an upbeat toe-tapper worthy of Alison Krauss.
הִנֵּה מַה טוֹב
Hine mah tov
Behold how good
and how pleasing
שֶׁבֶת אָחִים גַּם יַחַד
shevet achim gam yachad
if brothers could sit together in unity
And ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ from Fiddler on the Roof makes a cameo as a smooth bluesy number reminiscent of Van Morrison’s “Moondance."
Next: "The banjo on the spiritual road," Part 2!
Purchase and download Matt Check's new album: The Bluegrass Kabbalat Shabbat Experience
Purchase and download Joanie Leeds' and Matt Check's Challah, Challah