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Cantor Lenny Mandel

The Sabbath Queen, the Shechina, the female emanation of God, a vision of sublime, radiant beauty, is said to live with us from the time Shabbat begins until we say goodbye to her at Havdalah, when we mark its end.

Many people see this as metaphor; others might understand it as a more literal truth. Either way, that image is part of our Friday night liturgy. That is why we bow toward the door as we welcome the queen in.

So – how about putting Lecha Dodi, the song we sing as she enters our sanctuaries (define that as you will), to the Beatles’ song “Something”?

You know the song.

“Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover.

“Some in the way she woos me.

“I don’t want to leave her now/You know I believe and how.”

Okay, so it’s not exact. That last instrumental line in each verse as the Beatles sing it – dah dah dah dah DAH DAH! – needs words if Lecha Dodi is to work. But once you do that – it flows.

It’s a love song; something a lover sings to a beloved, and a Jew sings to the Shabbat haMalkah. On Friday night, Cantor Lenny Mandel will sing it along with his congregation during Kabbalat Shabbat at Congregation B’nai Israel. It will be Beatles Shabbat in Emerson.

Cantor Mandel is also a rabbi – we are choosing to call him Cantor Mandel here because it is both accurate and relevant to this story. He became a cantor almost accidentally – a result of his Orthodox upbringing, his love of Yiddishkeit, and his overwhelming musicality – he adores Broadway and has played Tevya, a role he cherishes, in theaters across the country. About six years ago, when his shul was between rabbis – Mark Kiel had retired and Debra Orenstein had not yet arrived – he decided to set an entire Shabbat service to the melodies of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Since then, at first alone and then with Rabbi Orenstein, he has set the music of Billy Joel, Simon (or, for the evening, Shimon) and Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and many other musicians, Jewish or not, to the words of the Friday night liturgy. He also has used themes – football and baseball, for example. In a match that perhaps was too easy, he used a song from “Spamalot” – “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” (if you don’t have any Jews).

Cantor Mandel has worked in the other direction, fitting the words to the music, as well. He has led Adon Olam Shabbatot – aka the Cantor’s Challenge. “You can name any song you want – it can be an oldie, rock and roll, folk, Broadway, anything – and I will sing Adon Olam to it,” he said.

As is well known in the Jewish world, “you can sing Adon Olam to anything,” he said. Why? “Oh, it’s the meter,” he said vaguely. But, he added, among the first melodies he was invited to sing were “Oklahoma” and “Gee Officer Krupke” from “West Side Story.” They worked, he said. Once he was stumped – someone sang “Adon Olam” to “Walk Like an Egyptian” – but he insists that the failure happened not because he did not recognize the tune but because the tune was sung unrecognizably.

There is a seriousness of purpose behind this, Rabbi Orenstein said. Not only do such “casual Shabbats,” as they are called, draw in people who otherwise tend to stay away, they also provides her with teaching opportunities. Often, Adon Olam, the very last song of the service, “is a sign that the Kiddush is coming,” she said. In fact, the hymn has a deep and beautiful meaning; Cantor Mandel’s singing it over and over gave people the chance to focus on the words.

This Friday will not be the first time that Cantor Mandel has led Beatles Shabbat. The first time, Ken Dashow, the WAXQ disk jockey who specializes in classic rock – and also a Stuyvesant High School classmate of Cantor Mandel’s – talked a bit about each Beatles song and its relationship to the prayer set to it. “It was intense,” Cantor Mandel said. People came to shul dressed “in jeans and tie dies, and they had their hair in headbands and do rags.

“I know that do rags were the wrong period,” he added quickly. “But we had kids there in shorts and tie-die shirts, asking questions.”

Take “Something,” for example. “The song is all about a woman. In Lecha Dodi, the first two and the last two stanzas are about the Sabbath Queen, about keeping Shabbat, and the ones in the middle are about redemption. That’s what the Shechina is all about.” The last two lines of “Something” are “Don’t want to leave her now/ You know I believe, and how.”

Next year, Cantor Mandel hopes for a casual Shabbat that he will call “Peter, Paul, and Lenny”; he hopes that Peter Yarrow, who is Jewish, will be able to join him on the bimah.

“Casual Shabbatot are a reflection of who Cantor Mandel is,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “His love of music and his sense of fun come through.

“I also think that the Shabbatot are effective because when ritual innovation is effective, it causes people to look at the liturgy anew, and to consider the juxtaposition between the familiar words and the familiar music. It leads to beautiful new ways of relating to it.”

She remembered other casual Shabbatot. “We always try to do something warm in the winter,” she said. “One year it was Beach Boys songs. The next year, it was about the Jews of Curacao.”

The two also have led Camp Shabbat. “It’s under the stars,” Rabbi Orenstein said. Because an outdoor service must be during the summer, when it almost always is warm enough, Shabbat starts late, and Rabbi Orenstein and Cantor Mandel take advantage of that by lighting a big fire in a firepit before dark, and then singing camp songs, the rousing ones and the dreamy ones, too. “My drash is about how Shabbat is like camp,” she said; iPhoneless, but in a good way. “For six weeks, they’ll go to a place with no iPhones, because it’s being in nature, with friends, developing relationships, being on your own organic time. That’s camp – and it’s also Shabbes.”

Sometimes Rabbi Orenstein and Cantor Mandel offer Shabbatot that focus on a theme but are not particularly casual – in fact, they often are emotionally intense. “The Shabbat before Thanksgiving is Gratitude Shabbat,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “We used the melody for ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple,’ and we used some contemporary music about gratitude.

“For five years, we have done Freedom Shabbat, on Martin Luther King day, to mark both King and Rabbi Heschel. (The yarzheit of the influential Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel usually falls right around MLK Day. “Lenny sets the words to Negro spirituals, and I have created a lot of readings, using mainly their words.”

She is even thinking about an Emerson Shabbat, as in Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist poet and essayist, “even though our town wasn’t named after him,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “We would invite the town council people, and consider what did Emerson teach us that we could apply to Shabbat.”

To go back to the words of the liturgy – Cantor Mandel has chosen to set the words of the Shema, the foundational prayer that binds Jews to God, to “The long and winding road that leads to your door/Will never disappear.

“I’ve seen that road before. It always leads me here. To your door!”

Information
What: Cantor Lenny Mandel and Rabbi Debra Orenstein present Beatles Shabbat

Where: At Congregation B’nai Israel,
53 Palisade Ave., Emerson

When: On Friday, May 8, at 7:30

For more information: Call the shul at (201) 265-2272 or email office@bisrael.com