For the past eight years I’ve been writing creative erev Shabbat services in the hopes of putting more tushies in seats than we would have on an average erev Shabbat. I’ve written about 28 of them, and we’ve done about 20 so far.
We’ve davened to three Beatles’ Shabbatot and to the songs of Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkle, Broadway, and Motown, to name a few. You should know that it’s not one or two tefillot written to those songs, it’s the entire erev Shabbat service, from Shalom Aleichem through Adon Olam. Every one of those services brought between 150 and 250 people in our pews.
But the erev Shabbat on October 28 this year was the most incredible of them all. It was Peter, Paul & Mary Shabbat.
Incredible isn’t a strong enough adjective to describe the night. That’s because we had a special guest on our bimah.
“Please, sing along with me,” he said, and he started “100 Miles.” “Trust me,” I said, “they will all sing along with you,” and they did. Two hundred plus people, as one, at first softly, then their voices rising, sang with Peter and me, “If you miss the train I’m on…” And after one verse we went right into Shalom Aleichem:
“Shalom Aleichem” “If you miss the train I’m on”
“mal’achei hasharet” “you will know that I am gone”
“mal’achei” “You can hear the whistle blow”
“elyon” “a hundred miles”
“Mimelech” “a hundred miles, a hundred miles”
“malchei ham’lachim” “a hundred miles, a hundred miles”
“Hakadosh” “You can hear the whistle blow”
“baruch Hu” “a hundred miles, a hundred miles”
We went on with the service together, chanting our prayers to various Peter, Paul & Mary tunes. In the softest voice, Peter spoke of his life and the origins of the songs we sang that night to enhance our erev Shabbat service.
Instead of a drash that evening we had a Q&A, and of course the first question was “What is Puff the Magic Dragon about”? I laughed, because when he got into our car Shelly had a question for him, and before she could ask it he said, “No, Puff has nothing to do with drugs.” We both laughed.
I told her earlier that Puff really was a song about a little boy and a toy dragon.
Sitting on a chair in the center of our bimah, guitar in hand (Peter never goes anywhere without his guitar) he smiled and said that when he wrote Puff he didn’t have any of the data necessary to make it about drugs. On the other hand, he continued, had he written it a year or so later, it would have been a different story, because he had lots of data by then.
His answers were sweet and kind, and everything he did and said that night was with sweetness, and warmth. There was no pretense. Peter is the genuine article. He is the real deal.
If you believe that a synagogue is supposed to create a warm, spiritual community, and community is the operative word, you’re right. Congregation Beth Israel certainly strives for it, and Rabbi Debra Orenstein and I hope that we get our congregants there from time to time. That night they were in that zone. We were a community. One community, 200+ voices strong, yet soft. Together as one.
In the 20 years that I’ve been on the bimah at CBI, Peter, Paul & Mary Shabbat was the greatest night I’ve ever experienced. Many of the old-timers told me that it was the greatest night since our shul was founded.
I can’t begin to explain what was going through my body up on the bimah as we sang — no, chanted — each prayer, softly, beautifully, with one voice. The air in the shul was electric, and the spirituality lifted all of them as if they were floating above the pews.
For me, a folk singer since the late 1950s, sharing the pulpit with Peter Yarrow was incredible, but sharing that night with my congregation, their souls right on the bimah with us that night was beyond mystical, beyond magical, and beyond Woodstock (and I was there).
Peter wrote me a note at 3 a.m. that morning- I’ll just keep the highlights:
It was a joy to be with you and your congregation…. Thank you for the privilege of being with you, singing with you and meeting your open, embracing and so respectful and welcoming congregation.
Love to you,
Your dragon brother,
I can’t thank my congregation enough for allowing me the privilege of experiencing us that erev Shabbat. We were one, united in prayer, united in community, and united in love. It was a moment in time that I pray remain with them forever. It will certainly be with me for as long as I live.
Rabbi Lenny Mandel is the cantor at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson.