New CD: Rabbi Kook Jazz Poetry

Israel's first chief rabbi's redemption poetry is turned into jazz performances by two rabbis on a new CD and in clubs.

Ben Bresky , | updated: 19:06

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook's writings on redemption and renewal are getting a jazz treatment on a new CD entitled Ha'Orot. Rabbi Kook was the Land of Israel's first Ashkenazi chief rabbi and started the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva in 1924. But Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein was mainly inspired by the poetry. Marmorstein, born in Israel and raised in Canada, has been translating the poems into English since the 1980's and searching for new forums to share them with the masses.

He finally found a partner in his endevor this past year when he met jazz musician Greg Wall. The saxophonist is known for his avant garde compositions with Hasidic New Wave, a group he formed with Frank London of the Grammy Award winning group the Klezmatics. Wall, who has recently also become a rabbi, enthusiastically composed the melodies for the full length CD. It was released this month with Wall's new band Later Prophets on Tzadik Records, a label run by the well-known musician John Zorn which specializes in Jewish jazz.

Rabbi Greg Wall, in baseball cap with his band the Later Prophets. In the black hat is Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein of Jerusalem holding a picture of Rabbi Kook. They display the photo at all their performances. 

The performance consists of Rabbi Itzchak reciting the poems, partly in Hebrew but mostly in English. Greg and his band back him up with punctuated rhythms and fast solos. Some of the tracks are jazzy renditions of melodies Rabbi Kook personally composed. The two rabbis have been performing the material both in Israel and in New York. They spoke with Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky about the new CD and their passion for the writings of the Jewish leader they never met.

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INR: So tell us what this project is all about.

Rabbi Itzhak: Ha'Orot - The Lights of Rav Kook is a music presentation with the extraordinary accompaniment of Greg's band. We're exploring and sharing Rav Kook's poetry. He wrote amazing poetry that's not very well known and the purpose of this project is to share with the nation of Israel this treasure of Torah that is Rav Kook's poetry.

Greg Wall: There's a deeper message that models the paradigm as a Torah scholar and artist. They are not mutually exclusive. Rav Kook is an inspirational character because he was so learned and he was able to transmit his knowledge to people at any level. But he has the reflective tendencies of an artist. It's a synthesis that you don't see too much of today.

Rabbi Itzchak: And he taught that our highest spiritual progress is in our higher creativity, which, as Greg said, he modeled.

INR: What are your performances like? You've done show in both New York and Israel.

Rabbi Itzchak: We did it in New York recently and got a standing ovation. That was a good sign. I have found that Rav Kook's words in Hebrew and translated into English, or any other language, really connect with people. They are touched on a soul level with what he's saying and our goal and challenge is to share it honestly.

The cover of Ha'Orot - The Lights of Rav Kook released on John Zorn's Tzadik Records.

INR: I like the track From a Distant World. Especially when it builds up at the end. What's that about?

Rabbi Itzchak: MeOlam Rachok, From a Distant World, is a picture of the perfect world, the world in its completion. In my understanding, it's really a description of Gan Eden and what life will be like in Gan Eden here in this world.

Greg Wall: We try to parallel that with the music. It's like an elevation of possibilities from when you go from one level to the other. You get clarity. More seems possible.

TECHIYA - Renewal by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook

To shake the dust
from the lands of our exile
That are cleaving
to our sickly hearts.

To understand the principle
that is everything,
The Torah, our destiny,
the power of the Divine.

To be concerned for the soul,
the soul of our people,
Turned over desolate,
in its exile from its home.

INR: So how did you think up this concept?

Rabbi Itzchak: Well, I'm a hasid and a musmach of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and Reb Shlomo taught that Torah and music are wound together and are to be shared together. That was my inspiration along the way. I've been learning Rav Kook's Torahs for quite some time. When I saw Greg play in Toronto at a festival, they were playing music from their first Later Prophets CD which was jazz based on the Taamim and on the Book of Ezekiel. I was so impressed with the music that I came up to Greg afterward and I showed him this little book of Rav Kook's poetry and I said "I'm looking for the music in this poetry. Do you want to help me?"

Greg Wall: And I said I'd be glad to. It was a new experience for me because although I was familiar with some of Rav Kook's writings, I was not familiar with this part and I was deeply moved. I also found it highly accessible as well. It's not so esoteric that it's got a limited appeal. I think it has a wide appeal and the message is a universal message. I was very eager to see what kinds of sounds would best complement the poetry. We've been pleased with the results so far.

INR: You led the jazz band Hasidic New Wave which released several albums in the late 1990s. And now you're known as Rabbi Greg Wall. Maybe you could tell about your background and how you became a rabbi.
Greg Wall: I found serious practice of Judaism later on in life. I come from a secular background. After moving to New York and being exposed to a serious Jewish community, I found something very attractive. My wife and I decided we wanted to educate our children with a Jewish background so that they could navigate their way through the Jewish world from a position of strength. I didn't want to be hypocritical so when I sent them to start learning , I started learning too. And I just kept learning. One hour a week became an hour a day and then a couple hours a day and then the next thing I knew I was learning for smicha [rabbinical ordination]. I've always enjoyed that part of my life. It's a nice balance to playing music. Being in the public and performing is a wonderful chance to share Torah with people. Since the Hasidic New Wave days I've started to write music more about my experience studying texts and that seems to be the main focus of my work today. Trying to balance those two interests and finding some artwork that represents the struggle and the synthesis.

The cover of Hasidic New Wave's 1998 album Psycho-Semitic. It features Greg Wall and Frank London of the Klezmatics doing jazz versions of klezmer songs.

INR: Rabbi Itzchak, you're living in Jerusalem now. What is your story and how did you end up doing poetry?

Rabbi Itzchak: I am the only child of Holocaust survivors so in that sense I have always been dealing with the questions of what life is about and what we are to do here. I was an early student of Rabbi Noach Weinberg zichron le bracha [founder of Aish HaTorah]. I began studying and teaching Torah and along the way in the early 1980s I started reading the writings of Rav Kook and I realized that here we have the gadol hador [the giant of the generation] for probably many generations. He's an extraordinary synthesis of Torah. And ever since, I've been wanting to share them with the world. That's what Greg and I are doing with this project.

Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein, left, recites the poetry of Rabbi Kook as Rabbi Greg Wall, right, plays the shofar.

INR: What are the concerts like? Who comes to them? Do people dance?

Rabbi Itzchak: With the extraodinary grooves that we are sometimes moving in, people have been moved to dance.

Greg Wall: Yes, but it's not really dance music. It's more of an opportunity for people to reflect and take some personal time to behold the work, although we feel that Rav Kook is present at the concerts and to make that obvious we take a big portrait of Rav Kook on stage so his beautiful face is illuminating the whole area. As the performance progresses, you can really feel Rav Kook there and hopefully during the course of the performance the people in audience, most of whom have been unfamiliar with his poetry, really feel like they've been invited into Rav Kook's living room. I think the idea of having Jewish music that is not meant for dancing or not meant for entertaining but meant for being a catalyst for reflection is a interesting experience. It's really thrilling to try and give people that opportunity to have that kind of musical experience with the help of Rav Kook's holy writings.

Greg Wall on saxophone. He earned rabbinical ordination in 2006.

Ben Bresky is the host of Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast, heard live on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio.