Interview with the bluegrass rabbi

Question: You lead Congregation Shomer Negiah, but you’re also an accomplished banjo and harmonica player. How did you get involved in music?

“From my parents. When she was a teenager, instead of a picture of Elvis, my mother had a photograph of Shlomo Carlebach on her wall. My grandmother once caught her looking at it and murmuring, ‘Oh Shlomo, you’re so dreamy!’ In the ’70s, my mother taught Klezmercise classes at the Jewish Community Center. She was klezmer when klezmer wasn’t cool. Her father, my grandfather, used to play clarinet at weddings, and my mother has 78 rpm recordings of her own grandfather’s klezmer band in Poland, before the War. ”

I sensed the band wasn’t available for recordings after the War. The rabbi didn’t talk anymore about it.

“My father was a Baptist kid from the Ozarks, an authentic white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. He met my mother at the university. He went to the Baptist church every Sunday morning, but he never took me and never even talked about his faith. That was his agreement with my mother when they married, that I would be raised totally Jewish. I guess it saved confusion. Still, I feel sorry that my father’s spirituality is almost completely blank in my life, a blank space. He taught me banjo but no gospel songs, and they divorced when I was twelve.”

Question: Where were you raised?

“University City Missouri, in St. Louis county. Our neighborhood used to be predominantly Jewish, but most of the synagogues have relocated south and west. Many of their members are now concentrated near North-and-South and Olive.

Question: Is that a Jewish retirement home?

“In a manner of speaking.”

Question: How did the congregation get its name?

“Red tape. Official incompetence. Me. It was all my fault. We were all set to call it Shomer Neginah, which is loosely translated as the laws of the stringed instruments. But I wrote the name wrong on the official application and after that, there was nothing we could do.”

Shomer Negiah means the laws of touching. Every orthodox Jewish single has to explain on a first date what that means.

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