Rabbi/musician answers to two callings
Ask Steven Blane whether he considers himself a rabbi who happens to be a musician, or a musician who happens to be a rabbi, and he’ll tell you, “I am a rabbi who is called to be a singer-songwriter. I don’t think one calling is higher than the other. I have a passion to write songs, and I have a passion to lead my services and to help whomever I can.
“If you took one half away from me, I would be half a person.”
He demonstrated both sides of his personality on Sept. 16 at a performance for residents of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, a nursing facility in Bergen County. Moving between guitar and piano and accompanied by bassist Kevin Hailey, he segued seamlessly from the Hebrew “Hinei Ma Tov U’manayim,” to Ben. E. King’s “Stand By Me,” to “Sabbath Prayer” from Fiddler on the Roof, to “My Yiddishe Mama.”
Blane’s musical choices are part of the journey that took this 59-year-old composer, guitarist, and piano player from an Orthodox yeshiva in Jersey City to performing jazz-oriented High Holy Day services at the Bitter End, a popular folk club in Greenwich Village.
On Yom Kippur last year, he announced that on the High Holy Days this year, he will offer live performances of the liturgy in that mecca of the Village folk music scene, which he considers “holy space” because “Bob Dylan played here and Joan Baez played here.”
Blane was born in Miami and raised in the Greenville area of Jersey City, “a part of town that is not known for the hipsters and millennials we know today.” He attended the Yeshiva of Hudson County and Rogosin Yeshiva High School, where, he confessed, “I wasn’t the best student,” but where he became “grounded in our traditions and the ebb and flow of the Jewish life cycle.”
As a child, music was his real passion. “When I was around 11 or 12, right before my bar mitzva, my grandmother took me to a talent show at a Knights of Columbus hall.” He won a trophy for his cover version of “Delilah,” the 1968 hit song by Tom Jones. “I got the bug for singing,” he said. “I always listened to Elvis Presley. I thought he was so cool. I modeled myself on Elvis, and I felt confident singing.”
At 15, Blane picked up a guitar for the first time and, he said he noticed, “the girls kinda liked it.” Not only did he dig back into the 1950s to learn doo-wop hits such as “In the Still of the Night” and “Teenager in Love,” he began writing his own compositions. “Back then I never even thought of jazz,” he said.
After graduating from New Jersey City University, he began pursuing his passion as a songwriter. “I sat around my apartment for years trying to write songs, smoking cigarettes, and smoking pot.”
“Then I met my wife, Carole. I told her I wanted to be a songwriter.” But after he and Carole had three daughters and moved to Bergen County, Blane said, he realized the responsibilities of parenthood.
“I had three kids. What did I want to do? I had left Judaism. I was eating shrimp and doing all kinds of stuff,” he said. So at age 30, he began studying to become a cantor with his mentor, Hazzan Noah Schall. In 1992 he served at Conservative synagogues in Biloxi, Miss., and in Buffalo and Peekskill, NY, then at the Reform Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah.
Ten years later he began studying with “a cool rabbi named Joseph Gelberman,” a founder and president of All Faiths Seminary International from 1999 until his death in 2010. Gelberman, said Blane, “had a vision to train rabbis to not be afraid to work with interfaith couples and do interfaith weddings. It was very provocative and challenging.”
Gelberman ordained Blane in 2001.
He became the rabbi at two Conservative synagogues in New Jersey, the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Community Center and the New Milford Jewish Center. “But Conservative Judaism wasn’t for me,” he said. “It was too traditional. I felt like I was dying. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because the dogma was very restrictive.
“They wanted me in, but I said, ‘Thank you. I can’t stay.’
“So what am I going to do?” he asked himself. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to build an on-line synagogue.’” He started by creating an Internet-based rabbinical school called the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, which operates from an office in a building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he also lives.
In six years he has ordained 112 rabbis. Another 20 are enrolled in his current class. “They log in, they get their courses, they get their readings, and that’s how I make my living,” he said. “What I teach is a full, solid two semesters rooted in our learning — our liturgy, our festivals, our holy days. It is everything you go through in four years at a seminary, but it’s fast.”
His students are an eclectic group that includes cantors, scholars, gays and lesbians, and people of color. “You just have to be Jewish,” he said.
Blane also uses the Internet to stream a Shabbat service every Friday night. He calls his congregation Sim Shalom (simshalom.com).
On the High Holy Days, at the Bitter End, he will be accompanied by a four-piece jazz combo — piano, bass, drums, and baritone saxophone — as he stands at a microphone to sing traditional liturgy in syncopated upbeat tempos. He encourages worshipers to tap their feet, snap their fingers, and photograph the proceedings with cellphones. “My services are for people who want to experience Judaism in an uplifting, innovative way and to feel good, to smile — even on Yom Kippur.”
To many rabbis, the notion of using instruments, microphones, and video equipment and syncopating traditional melodies with a jazz beat might be anathema. “I say this with a lot of love, but they don’t matter, especially to the kids. The truth is, what the rabbis practice has very little to do with what their congregants practice. They and their lay leaders don’t want to allow change because they are afraid. The only way to get past that is to steamroll over them or their synagogues will implode.” •