A chant encounter with God

A chant encounter with God

How a Paramus teen grew into a rabbi in search of heaven's gate

“I think I remember you. You were the weird one.”

That, according to Rabbi Shefa Gold, was what one of the first people to “teach me that Judaism could be a path with passion, because he had such passion” said when she encountered him again at a conference years later.

If weird means intense, unusual, inner-directed to a fault (in a way that no doubt could be called willful by detractors), God-intoxicated, and supremely self-confident, then there is no doubt her teacher was right.

Sherri Katz grew up to be Rabbi Shefa Gold.

Gold, who now lives in New Mexico, is a well-known Renewal rabbi who practices meditation and chant, but her roots are deep in northern New Jersey.

Gold – who then was known as Sherri Katz – was born in Shanks Village in Rockland County, a town that was converted from barracks for war-bound soldiers to a prisoner of war camp, to a haven for newly returned GIs desperate for housing. When she was a month old, her family moved to Paramus. She’d encountered the teacher at Hebrew school at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus – his name is Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Gold’s father, Leon Katz, was a journalist who wrote press releases for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, chronicling the huge projects that characterized the postwar boom. “Whenever something was happening at a bridge or tunnel, we’d be woken up in the middle of the night. We’d know whenever anybody jumped off the George Washington Bridge,” she remembered. “He was a good writer – this was a way to write and support the family.” Her mother, Evelyn Katz, who died in January, was a schoolteacher. “She was innovative – she had one of the first open classrooms, and it was in a tough part of Hackensack,” her daughter said.

Gold “was always asking questions and never quite satisfied with the answers,” she said. “I think I always had a great love for God, although I didn’t always know how to talk about it, or who to talk about it with.” (She is striking in her ability to discuss God, with an unusual lack of self-consciousness.)

God-awareness fills her earliest memories. “I’d go with my friend Naomi to Van Saun Park or to the Ridgewood duck pond, and we would make up our own services, sitting there by the water,” she said. “Probably we were 7 or 8. We would find a little poem and read it – we started as soon as we could read – a poem about flowers, or about nature. I don’t think that we had the vocabulary to say ‘holy,’ but we’d find a place that would make us feel very special, that would make us want to whisper.”

She also went to junior congregation at shul, she said, “and I did learn the vocabulary, but it couldn’t compare to what I felt in nature. That was a big disconnect.” It also has fueled her rabbinate, which “has been about making a bridge between all these intense experiences of connection to God, to creation, to all of life – how do I connect these experiences to my life as a Jew?

“How do I receive my inheritance and allow it to match that intensity?”

Gold remembers always struggling to connect her sense of Jewishness to her sense of God. “When I was 14, I suddenly had a driving desire to go to Israel,” she said. “My parents didn’t have the money to send me on a program. So I called all of the local rabbis, and asked if they would donate money from their discretionary funds.

“I was really quite shy,” she continued, perhaps straining her listener’s credibility slightly. “But I was driven, and I did raise enough money.” She went to Israel.

“I wanted to go to the Wall, which had only recently been liberated, and wasn’t segregated. I remember wanting to bring a message to the Wall, because of this burning question in me, really wanting to make sense of the liturgy. I wanted to bring that question to Israel, to place it in a crack in the Wall.

“I did, and the next day I went back and found the actual piece of paper and brought it back home with me. I felt that God must have read it by now, and I wanted to hold it close to my heart.”

Later, back at home, Gold was dealing with high school. “I went to Paramus High School, and I really hated it,” she said. So she started another one.

“Thirteen kids from around Bergen County started our own free school,” she said. “Really, for me, it was survival. This was the most empowering moment of my life. We could really ask the questions – what did we want to learn and how did we want to learn it?”

What were her parents thinking? “They thought that they believed in me. They knew that I was self-motivated, so they didn’t worry about me,” she said. “They didn’t know exactly what to do with me, but they trusted me.”

The school opened with 13 students – “all the misfits in Bergen County” – and 30 teachers, all of whom were willing to teach without being paid for it. Classes met in people’s homes, in a boys’ club, and in various churches. It lasted for five years.

After high school (and an eventual GED), Gold, who also was singer/songwriter, played at many of the clubs flourishing in Greenwich Village.

“I remember the pinnacle of my success was at the Café Wha?” she said. “What I was really trying to do with my music was create sacred space. I felt how powerful music is in opening hearts.”

She couldn’t always be successful in that goal – after all, she was playing in bars, where people went to drink – “but there were moments when I felt that something magical had happened.

“I knew that the power of music would always be central to how I moved in the world.”

Next, Gold went to Ramapo College, where she studied philosophy and poetry; roamed Europe; lived on Ibiza (the artist’s haven in Spain) and eventually landed in California. “The Jewish part of me was underground, in a sense,” she said. “It wasn’t until I moved to Berkeley and really experienced what was called the Aquarian Minyan, infused by Shlomo and Reb Zalman, that I realized that being Jewish could be so fun and creative.” (Shlomo was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the late and still influential one-time-Lubavitch singer, songwriter, and storyteller; Reb Zalman is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the most influential figures in the Jewish Renewal movement.)

She studied at Goddard College, where she earned a masters in the philosophy of creativity. “If I wrote a song, I would want to find where the song began in me,” she said. “What was the seed moment?” The program was nonresidential, so once more she took to the road, with her guitar and a backpack full of books. Her travel took her throughout this country and to the Middle East.

She supported herself by busking, singing for money thrown into her open guitar case. “I’m very good at living on very little,” she said. “If I needed to get a job for a short time I did, and I learned from everyone I met.”

She married during her travels, and she and her husband toured the country performing a play about Martin Buber in synagogues. “I was sort of stepping into my rabbinic calling, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she reported.

In 1987, a near-fatal car accident in Florida upended her life. Her marriage ended, “and I was in a lot of physical and emotional pain,” she said. “I wasn’t able to do much of anything, but I had an experience of being held by God that really opened my heart. I really listened to the way God was calling me, and it felt like I was falling in love.

“I came back to California and, by the end of the year, I applied to rabbinical school.”

Gold took eight years to complete the program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. RRC seems an unlikely choice for her – generally, Reconstructionists tend not to talk about God in the constant and personal way that she does – but “it was the place, in 1988, that was most open to creativity,” she said. She had discovered New Mexico by then, “and every two years I would take one year off to come and live on a mountain and study spiritual practice.

“I took a year to study the practice of retreat. I did a series of retreats in the context of Native American vision quests, and Buddhist and Sufi spirituality, all the time holding in my heart the question of what it would mean to do within an authentic Jewish path.

“That’s when I discovered this path I’m on now. It’s called chanting.

“I decided to open the siddur. I wanted to bring to life words that were dead, so I brought everything I knew about spiritual practice, about breath, about rhythm, to bring these words to life.

“I noticed that I could take one phrase and fall in love with it and repeat that phrase over and over until its secrets were unlocked.

“When you chant, some phrases pop out and say ‘chant me,’ because there is something there that you are ready to receive. It was my job to look at the text in that way and allow it to be useful for me.

“I had certain criteria for my spiritual practice. Does it bring me to a place of more open-heartedness and less judgment? Then it is a good practice. There are some practices that separate me, or make me feel judgmental. That’s how I know it’s not the right path.”

Gold graduated from rabbinical school in 1996. “I’ve been building my rabbinate, which I knew from the beginning wasn’t going to be in one place, but all over the world,” she said. “Whenever I travel, I find people who are inspired by my vision of what it means to be Jewish, and I began to gather students who come to my retreats.”

She writes – she’s written “Torah Journeys” and “In the Fever of Love,” which intersperses verses from the Song of Songs with her own explications of them. She’s released CDs of her chanting, which she has continued to explore. She remarried – she and her husband, Rachmiel O’Regan, work and tour together. And “in 2004 I began a training program called Kol Zimrah, for cantors, rabbis, and lay leaders who want to explore this modality of chants together. I have found that chant is useful not just in davening, but also in text study, in healing, in ritual, and in creating community.”

She explained how her method works. “There is a phrase in Psalm 24, ‘Lift up your heads, oh you gates, lift them up.’ I don’t understand what it means. But I begin to chant it, and then it feels like God is chanting with me, or through me, and then it feels like God is saying, ‘Lift up your head, open your gate, Shefa, because you are the gate through which I want to come into the world.’ I know that what it means is that when I step out of Shabbat and into the week, I will become that firm and steady gate through which God’s presence can move into the world, so it means that I have to get out of the way.

“I have to become transparent and find that strength within me.

“The text comes to life and becomes a practice.”

Chanting is not like singing, she added. “Chant has an inner dimension to it. It’s a lot about kavannah” – intention – “and it also brings you to a doorway that leads you to silence.

“The silence after the chant is, as if not more, important than the chant itself. I think of the chant as building the mishkan” – the tabernacle that held God’s presence from the time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness until Solomon built the First Temple – “and the silence afterward is when we receive the divine presence into the mishkan. You become a new person. It is a transformative practice.”

This exploration of text and chant has become a new book, “The Magic of Hebrew Chant: Healing the Spirit, Transforming the Mind, Deepening Love.” Jewish Lights is publishing it this month.

Gold’s students often have monthly chanting groups, she said. Some are fairly local; one meets at B’nai Keshet in Montclair, one at Romemu on the Upper West Side, and another at the JCC in Manhattan.

Gold also still has many ties to this area. She has siblings in Fair Lawn and Park Ridge, as well as the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. “I’m the only one who flew the coop,” she said. But she still remembers that as frequently as she has felt God in her life, among the first times she did so were in Van Saun Park.

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