How does one get in the right frame of mind for the High Holy Days? For Shira Kline, bandleader and musical director for Lab/Shul’s High Holy Day service, the answer is obvious: music. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have such beautiful liturgy,” Kline said. “To not engage participants through music is to miss a huge opportunity.”
Kline speaks from years of experience; this will be the eighth year that Storahtelling, an avant-garde spiritual theater collective, hosts High Holy Day services, or “worship events,” as Storahtelling founder and spiritual leader of Lab/Shul Amichai Lau-Lavie likes to call them. “We focus on key moments in the liturgy,” Lau-Lavie said. “We might take a line or two out of the main prayers and chant it again and again.” Such repetition allows for accessibility to those unfamiliar with the song and enables the words to more easily enter the worshiper’s consciousness. (Lab/Shul is a project of Storahtelling.)
The musical arrangement for this year’s worship event loans from a bit of everything, including Jewish American cantorial music, tunes that have made their way into the pop culture canon, familiar Carlebach niggunim, and Persian and Israeli melodies. The instrumental line up for this year’s band features acoustic guitar, classical guitar, percussions, and violin. Neshama Carlebach will be lending her vocals, and Netanel Goldberg, a classical guitarist specializing in Middle Eastern music, will be sitting in.
Some parts of the worship event are sung, others are chanted, occasional “listening moments”—reflective instrumental breaks—crop up, and there are points in which the music takes the backseat to Lau-Lavie’s exposition of relevant ideas and choice passages from the mahzor, or High Holy Day prayer book.
Though the music is rehearsed and planned meticulously beforehand, there’s still plenty of room for improvisation once the worship event starts. Such improv is determined based on the participants’ interest, holding onto what the musicians determine to be the quintessential point of inspiration in each song. “We play off the audience,” Kline said. “The whole experience is shaped to be participatory from beginning to end.”
This year’s Lab/Shul High Holy Days worship event will take place in the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and will include, as in the past, musicians onstage. Storahtelling will host a musical Tashlich at Rockaway Beach on September 7 as part of the Honey Festival, a celebration of urban beekeeping.