Art and music combine to send free spiritual message

By Michael Jacobs | mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

It was just mid-2013, amid its 20th anniversary celebration, when Davis Academy released its first CD of original music composed by Rabbi Micah Lapidus, but the time was right late last year to do it again.

“A Palace in Time,” consisting of 18 songs inspired by the Friday-night Shabbat service, was finished in time for Chanukah distribution to Davis families. While most of the 2,000 CDs have been handed out, the album is available for free download by anyone who might find pleasure or inspiration in folksy, rocking, slightly psychedelic, occasionally iconoclastic takes on Kabbalat Shabbat.

You can download a free copy at www.cdbaby.com/cd/thealfredadeledavisacade, although other sites, such as iTunes and Amazon, don’t allow free downloads.

“It’s not just ‘A Palace in Time’; it’s also a moment in time” because performances change and even some of the student singers’ voices have changed since they were in the studio, said Rabbi Lapidus, Davis’ director of Jewish and Hebrew studies, whose time to shine with the Davis community comes during the Shabbat service each Friday morning.

The title of the album is a reference to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book “The Sabbath” and reflects Rabbi Lapidus’ dream of producing music that will find a home in the weekly liturgy. Nothing would make him happier than one day to walk into a congregation with which he has no connection and hear his music.

Even though he views the album as a miniature rock opera, the rabbi doesn’t expect ever to hear it performed in one sitting in a synagogue setting because, at nearly 50 minutes, the album is as long as many Friday-night services. And the music is meant to represent only the opening, welcoming portion of service, culminating with the call to prayer.

The names of the tracks are familiar, from “Y’hei Sh’meh Raba” (the only track on which Rabbi Lapidus shares the writing credit, with album producer Will Robertson) to “L’cha Dodi” to “Bar’chu,” but the melodies are different.

The music often comes to him as a revelation, as happened when a walk through the narrow streets of Tzfat during a trip to Israel inspired his version of “L’cha Dodi,” Rabbi Lapidus said.

After his first CD with Davis, “Be a Blessing,” came out, he wasn’t planning to do a second one so soon, but he had to let the music out. He started with about 50 songs and winnowed them down to 18, “a good Jewish number” even if he didn’t intend to keep so many.

The creative enterprise then became a Davis community effort.

“Thank G-d for my lack of capacity to do it on my own,” the rabbi said.

He put out an open call for performers and wound up with the magic number of 18 Davis students and alumni on the CD. Four Davis faculty and staff members joined him in performing, including receptionist Janice Durden, who leads her church choir. Robertson and three others are credited as special guest performers.

Four members of the chorus from the Marist School, a Catholic school in Brookhaven that has an interfaith partnership with Davis, give an expanded meaning to the album’s second track, “Hineih Mah Tov.”

The music had to involve adults and professionals as well as students to avoid sounding like just another school project, Rabbi Lapidus said, but the art side of the project was all about student creativity.

Davis art teacher Rebecca Ganz worked with 18 seventh- and eighth-graders, conveniently matching the number of songs on the album, to produce the paintings in the CD liner notes.

“It was a great project,” said Ganz, who designed the cover. “We’ve done other music-related projects, but it’s very special when the music is from the school and the art is from the school.”

Ganz said she and the students talked about how music and art can influence each other and about the similarities between the psychedelic rock album covers of the 1960s and 1970s and ancient illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.

After hearing rough cuts of the music and learning from Rabbi Lapidus about his inspirations and the sometimes-hidden meanings of tracks, the students picked songs out of a hat and went to work.

The student artists had to incorporate the song title or lyrics in Hebrew, English or both but otherwise had freedom to express their creativity.

The result worked individually and as an overall expression of “A Palace in Time,” Ganz said. “Each piece was so unique but related to each other.”

That artistic connection reflects the synergy Rabbi Lapidus feels at Davis, which embraces his “irrepressible need to create Jewish music.”

“I always leave here with more energy than when I arrived,” he said.

Head of School Amy Shafron said the academy wants to encourage the creative development of its professional staff, and the CD is the school’s contribution to Jewish culture and community.

Rabbi Lapidus had a simpler way to sum up the school’s commitment to the arts: “We rock.”