On a Monday night in late September, forty people gathered in a spacious, two-floor Chelsea Loft for the debut of the Maqam Project, a fusion of Judeao-Arabic music and reflective Jewish poetry. A maqam is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation. Spearheading the project was its musical director, Epichorus founder, and oudist Rabbi Zach Fredman, who was selected as one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” and serves as rabbi and music director of the New Shul in Greenwich Village. He was joined by a flutist, percussionist, and violin player. St. Louis-based writer and teacher Rabbi James Stone Goodman interspersed poetry pertaining to the parsha, or weekly Torah portion, across the Middle-Eastern melodies.
The word maqam is linguistically aligned with the Hebrew word makom, which means place. “One of the goals of the Maqam Project,” Rabbi Fredman said, “is to have each maqam that we use conjure a different place and color.” The Maqam Project follows in the footsteps of certain Syrian and Iraqi Jewish communities, who assign each week’s Torah reading a special maqam. In synagogue each week, these communities chant the week’s maqam, in essence giving each portion its own distinct identity.
Which is an idea Rabbi Fredman is trying to explore: how to balance each week’s Torah portion between the traditional Ashkenazi understanding and representation with the uniqueness of each portion’s maqam. Rabbi Goodman’s poetry fit nicely into this. Having vowed several years ago to write a poem each week for that week’s parsha, Rabbi Goodman has a backlog of parsha poems from which to choose. His choice for Breishit, the first parsha in the Torah, with its reference to the ourobouros, a sign of endlessness and ascending circles, was fitting for the holiday of Sukkot, when the Torah begins to be reread.
It’s Rabbi Fredman’s hope that the Maqam Project will extend into a weekly video series offering bits of wisdom and Jewish thought that mesh his maqam interpretations with Goodman’s words. The pair, along with other musicians, have already recorded videos of maqam-poems through the end of the book of Leviticus.
Elie Lichtschein is a NY-based writer currently pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing. He runs a monthly musical project called Celebrate Hallel.