In the Groove
by Rabbi David Zaslow
From the earliest days of sound recordings people noticed something poetic about the way the needle stayed inside the groove as the record went round and round. In the 1930’s jazz musicians coined the term “being in the groove” to describe the sensation they experienced as they played – when the music seemed to have a life of its own, and everyone felt they were part of something bigger than themselves. In the 1960’s hippies applied the metaphor of “feeling groovy” to the state of feeling like the world was harmonious and whole.
A few years ago I visited my daughter, Rachel, in her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment. On the first night she whisked me off to a local club called Barbes so we could get a seat for what she promised was going to be a great jazz jam. She told me that the guitarist was a young French virtuoso named Stephane Wrembel who played Django Reinhardt and gypsy-style music like no one else. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “like no one else? In Brooklyn? And what does my little girl know about great jazz anyway?” So I said, “OK, honey, whatever you want to do. It’s your Brooklyn now. I’m your guest!”
We arrived an hour early to secure a good seat and started drinking Brooklyn Lager. (They never had a micro-brewed beer when I lived there; the best you could do then was Schaeffer). May 8, 2005, at 9 PM: there I was on 9th Street on the corner of 6th Avenue, deep, deep in the old country where I grew up. The musicians arrived: Stephane, the young virtuoso; a female guitarist from Spain, maybe 20, whose last name was Cohen; another guitarist from London, a guy maybe In his mid-twenties; a bass player; and washboard master David Langlois. Washboard? Master? What was that homemade concoction of an instrument on his lap, anyway?
They started playing “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and within seconds (okay, two minutes) the groove was set. They followed with an unbelievable improvisation on “Bei Mier Bist Du Shayne.” Sometime during the first set I died and went straight to jazz heaven. And the music got better by the minute. (So did the beer). For three hours I experienced the jam of jams. I looked at Stephane and thought, “Who is this rebbe…this reincarnation of one of the great guitar tzadikkim? No one’s fingers move that fast without Divine intervention! And what about this percussionist who transforms finger tapping on metal and wood into exalted solos?” Gevaldt, they were good!
The next morning Rachel had to go to work at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. On the way she dropped me off at 770. 770 is not just a number – it’s an entire universe. 770 Eastern Parkway is the home of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. This was the very place where Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were ordained in 1947 – the same year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, and Israel was declared a nation. It was a good year by all measures. The basement of 770 has been transformed into a huge synagogue where davvenen and study go on around the clock. Arriving at 11 AM I thought I’d be one of a few latecomers. But, no this is 770! Around the clock this shul is filled with men and women coming to make a deep connection to the Divine. By the time I arrived, the shul was populated by lean and pale-faced yeshiva students whose average age was maybe eighteen. Everyone was dressed in black and white – what a metaphor! Was I the only one in color there? I had just walked into the nineteenth-century world of Jewish men deep in Eastern Europe. It was Brooklyn outside but Lubavitch, Russia inside.
I put on a borrowed tallit and t’fillin and within seconds I was deep in ecstatic prayer – rocking and swaying back and forth; my eyes flying through the pages of the siddur – and then satori struck! Zap! The groove I was in the evening before was the same as the groove I was in during davvenen. My body rocked the same way during my davennen as it had rocked during the Stephane Wrembel jazz jam. Ecstatic jazz and ecstatic prayer were part of some secret, hidden oneness that only I was blessed to behold that morning. If I called out to everyone, “Hey, holy brothers, there’s a bar up the street that has this incredible jazz every Sunday night…” they would have tossed me out of the shul. And if I had gone to the bar and told the Django fans that there was this great synagogue down the street where the praying is as good as jazz, they, too, would have tossed me out.
Right now, I don’t care who tosses me out of their bars and shuls. I am just thankful to G-d to have seen that there is only one groove – one groove and many paths: the groove of great jazz on Sunday night at Barbes; the groove of great davvenen at 770 Eastern Parkway; and the groove of being with my daughter in Brooklyn on a beautiful week in May.
If you have RealPlayer you can listen to a 3 hour concert of the guitarist
Rabbi David wrote about at