Music Opens Up Jewish World of Prayer

Music Opens Up Jewish World of Prayer


Bram Bessoff
Bram Bessoff

Music enriches the soul, Jewish or not. I always believed this. Part of the reason I became a professional musician is because I experienced this myself.

I tried to take it one step further with Shabbat Rocks and then even more so with getting involved with the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival. But it wasn’t until this past Rosh Hashanah I saw it in full effect.

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I love my temple. Beth Tikvah is a great congregation, and services the first day of Rosh were excellent. They weren’t too long and were full of meaning and introspection; the choir and cantor brought life to the prayers and the sermon was succinct and impactful, discussing how to keep our youth engaged after B’nai Mitzvah – a feat that is getting harder each New Year.

But, the second day I was invited to play percussion for the alternative service at AA, led by Michael Levine and Bonnie Puckett of Sunmoon Pie.

It was a musical-based service held in the parking lot under an air conditioned tent. Steeped in Kirtan chanting, song leading and musical meditation, what I saw first-hand were people connecting on a deeper level than ever before.

I always look around during silent prayer ever since my days of attending Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass., a very large conservative congregation with 3,000 plus people for the High Holidays, and one of the very best cantors to ever grace this earth.

Cantor Morton Shames was world renown and his cantorial work was nothing short of Pavarati excellence – I was just too young to fully appreciate it.

Every temple I have attended, no matter how great the cantor, the choir or organist, silent prayer after the Amidah was always silent and most people would just stare blankly into space, sleep or start a soft conversation.


But at AA with the music playing during this meditation I peeked again and saw people fully engaged. Eyes closed and deep in thought, it was truly amazing. It kept happening throughout the service: people were in a deeper state of prayer, Judaism and self-reflection than I had ever seen before and the only difference was the addition of music.

I’m not sure how Jewish prayer and music became so segregated. I intend to research this some and dedicate an upcoming column on the subject, but it was obvious that adding music to the service clearly helped people connect this past Friday.

In fact, I was approached that night at The David Mayfield Parade show at Smith’s Olde Bar by someone who attended the service thanking me for how much they enjoyed the music and the addition of percussion to the service – that made my night.

Go see this band, their live show does not disappoint, catch some clips and photos on my facebook page @bramrocks.

Perhaps the Goyim have it right.

Christian music has dominated their religion for years and it seems Judaism is slowly catching up. Time magazine just published an article by Lily Rothman,  “Rock Hashana: 10 Stars of the New Jewish Music”, which discusses how Catholicism has used music to attract worshipers for decades and as of late, the rise of Jewish music in many different genres is creeping more into Jewish culture every day.

It seems we have Debbie Friedman and Jewish day camps to thank for this change in culture.

Rabbi Micah Greenstein, who is quoted in the article, said it best: “Music is the language of Prayer.” Perhaps it’s time to explore more than the typical genre or style accepted in most temples today.

You can see it already happening, synagogues with drum kits, blue jean and rock-n-roll Shabbat services, our alternative service this past Friday; prayer does not have to be set to choir and organ, it can be just as impactful – perhaps even greater – with guitars, drums and amplifiers.

Come experience first-hand what I’m talking about this Yom Kippur when I join Michael and Bonnie along with other local Jewish musicians on the scene at a special Kirtan at AA from 3-6 p.m. It’s free and open to all.

I brought the family last year, and it was the best way to pass those tough afternoon hours of your fast by filling the void with music and prayer. Bring instruments and join in the fun; everyone is encouraged to bang on or shake something – a Jewish version of the drum circle.

This was not the only thing I learned since the beginning of the New Year. Did you know NEXT, a division of Birthright Israel Foundation, will cover the cost of your next Shabbat meal? What a great way to get adults back into the swing of celebrating Shabbat with friends and family. You can learn more about this program at


I am now one degree of separation from the great Dr. Martin Luther King.

The first night of Rosh Hashanah brought out the most interesting story with friends, a family that has been living Jewish in the south for three generations. They immigrated from Poland and Russia via Ellis Island, then made their way south to Mississippi and finally Atlanta.

Sam Shonson owned the Edgewood Department Store at 452 Edgewood Ave. in downtown Atlanta, a store frequented by the King family for shoes and sundries in the mid 50s and has since burned down.

My dinner host, Franceen Tillem of the Shonson family, waited on Dr. King and his family on more than one occasion, and her uncle Marcus Danneman owned Danneman’s food store where MLK and his family did most of their food shopping.

Our conversations led to what life was like growing up Jewish in the south in the beginning of the civil rights movement. In school she saw her share of persecution but the community where they lived on Rock Springs Road was well assimilated with a strong Jewish Community.

Her childhood seemed quite familiar to the stories my mother and father told of growing up in Brooklyn and Hartford where they were raised in Yiddish-speaking households. Yiddish was used as the secret language to be spoken when the adults did not want the little ones to know what they were discussing.

I know very little of the Jewish history of Atlanta, but always knew there was a strong bond between the Jewish and black communities here. I was honored to perform with Soul Aviv at The Temple’s annual event where Ebeneezer Baptist Church attends in an exchange program between both congregations. I look forward to strengthening this bond even more with our efforts at AJMF.

About the writer

Follow Bram’s experiences on, off and backstage @bram_rocks. Interact with him at #InItForTheMoment and share thoughts, comments and ideas about this column.


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