Sweating gold, the sun had risen on the last morning of a long, hot summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where my wife serves on staff and our children go to camp. The campers were in the Hadar Ochel (Dining Room), preparing to say an impossible, unimaginable good-bye to friends. The staff guarded the doors, to keep the campers from fleeing. As the bus to Maryland pulled up in the drive, the show tune “Good Morning, Baltimore” blasted from the PA system. The cheeky anthem from “Hairspray” instantly reduced everyone to tears. Just a month after Tisha b’Av, when the campers had mourned the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, now regret and lamentation were surging like a river.
The tune was a floodgate, but also a bridge — a bridge to the life of home and family. The Zionist camp does everything in Hebrew, including announcements, classes and even the Broadway musicals that the campers put on every week. Camp was an eight-week-long Shabbat, and the song was a havdalah — a ritual separation — between two different states of being. And just as the song expresses a euphoric sense of confidence and new possibility, its playing at Ramah marked a triumphant homecoming for campers who had matured exponentially during their time at camp, and for whom the world is now full of possibilities.
For the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, cultures could be understood by examining their “hierophanies,” which he described as “irruptions of the sacred” into the everyday — unexpected moments of connection to the divine. But Judaism is often best understood by its opposite, by episodes, like the playing of “Good Morning, Baltimore,” in which our spiritual experiences are suddenly brought back down to earth; moments like these provide spiritual experiences with a popular, human (and not necessarily Jewish) framework by which we can understand and internalize them.
In my own religious life, these are the memories that stand out the most. I think about Saturday morning services at a synagogue on the Upper West Side that traditionally ended with congregants reciting poetry by e.e. cummings or Dylan Thomas, about a Yom Kippur service in Burbank, Calif., that included a fervent prayer, “May your team win the Super Bowl.”
These moments surprised me because they seemed so out of place; I saw religion and culture — especially pop culture — as antithetical to one another. And then I realized that, as historian David Biale argues in his magisterial “Cultures of the Jews,” religion is simply an aspect of human culture. (Christian megachurches have figured this out, blurring the boundaries between religious services and rock concerts.) Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun and its synthesizer-driven, Andrew Lloyd Webber-style music exemplify this philosophy: it caters to an audience equally at home in a shul and in a Broadway theater. And with “Soul Doctor” now on Broadway, one can hear chasidic, mystical tunes — combined with rock, soul and gospel — either at the Carlebach Shul or at Circle in the Square.
We have become so accustomed to seeing Judaism parodied in our popular culture, in the way that Woody Allen makes fun of chasidic Jews in “Annie Hall,” that we may not appreciate the brilliance of today’s Jewish filmmakers and composers for whom religion and culture are more complementary. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the Job-like protagonist of the Coen Brothers’ film, “A Serious Man,” discovers this when, in search of an answer to the question of why he is suffering, he consults three different rabbis, the most elderly and revered of whom draws his advice from a song by Jefferson Airplane. And the brilliant new album of parody songs by Rick Moranis, “My Mother’s Brisket,” contains a brilliant account of live-blogging a bris, in which the religious ritual — which, unlike the classic “shaky mohel” episode of Seinfeld, is mostly taken seriously — is over-shadowed by the attempt to record it and broadcast it on the Internet.
For the High Holy Days this year, I’ll be looking for ways to bring pop culture into my process of introspection and repentance. (Is anyone working on an album of shofar-blown pop songs?) I’ll wear my New Year’s tie, patterned with champagne bottles and popping corks, to Rosh HaShanah services. I’ll watch the Neil Diamond remake of “The Jazz Singer” and listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” to prepare for Yom Kippur. I’ll have an ear in both the synagogue and the world of secular music, and I’ll be somehow, I predict, hearing both in stereo.
Ted Merwin, who writes about theater for the paper, teaches at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.), where he directs the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life.