Do you use the everyday to connect to the holy, or the holy to connect to the everyday?
The month of Elul and Yomim Noraim themselves center on reflection, on assessment, on commitment, on the essence of life and death itself.  Within ourselves as individuals and as a community.  As with many things in Judaism, music can be a key tool, with an entire liturgy devoted to this time in our year and in our lives.  But that liturgy and music often feels distant, at best.  Whether because of language or melody, what we hear at shul or around our holiday tables may allow us connection to those we are singing with, but not with the ultimate goal.
One direction is High Holiday Rocks by Irving Safdieh.  Safideh’s collection suggests that one way to overcome this obstacle is to bring modern rock song structures, instrumentation, and sensibilities to the traditional liturgy.  Can’t quite find your way in to the rabbinic texts?  Then set them to the melodies of Weezer and the Police, with the occasional Jack White guitar flourish.
For me, and I think for my boys, it’s finding the holy and spiritual in punk, hip-hop, and indie rock.  As the hosts of a recent episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered said, when good music connects, “It is like going to church.”  Or a shul. [pullquote]
Put another way, it doesn’t need to be liturgical to be holy.
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So here is our playlist for this year’s Chagim, to set the mood, accompany some key prayers/rituals, and then get you ready for the rest of the year:
Opening Reflection:  “Acid Rain” by Chance the Rapper.  Chance’s shows are also like going to church, with an enthralling mix of spiritual uplift and positive energy mixed in with the bitter and bloody realities of life in urban Chicago.  In addition to setting a quieter and more relaxed musical tone to get the season of reflection started, this tune includes two lines that should stay front of mind throughout your reflections: “Sometimes the truth don’t rhyme” and “I still be waiting for G-d to show his face.”  And humor always helps me to ease in to the season a bit, so that’s where some of his more playful nods to nostalgia like “I still miss my diagonal grilled cheeses/Back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus” can come in handy.
Shofar: “Ze Baseder Lefached” by Vaadat Charigim.  There are few moments throughout the Chagim that both unite the community and send everyone in a different direction like the Shofar.  It can connect us to our ancestors, pierce through the words of our prayers to a place we could not otherwise reach, or just serve as a distraction and slightly overextended standing time.  It is also a time when children will be brought in to the sanctuary, yet many will instantly be scared of its sounds and volumes.  This track by Israeli shoegaze band Vaadat Charigim provides a mellower sonic accompaniment to the notes of the Shofar, and the sentiment of the title – It is Okay to be Afraid — is one that can work for you as you reach out to a new place inside yourself, or to the child next to you covering their ears.
Avinu Malkenu:  “No Future, Pt. 1” by Titus Andronicus.  For a prayer as central as this one to the liturgy, and one that wrestles with our essential inadequacy, you need a song with many layers and themes.  No band today does that better than Titus Andronicus; witness their recent release of a 29-track, 93-minute rock opera.  But this song going back to their powerful debut finds singer Patrick Stickles ripping himself apart, using a slow and melodic build to a driving climax in searching for a reason to stay alive: “There is not a doctor/That can diagnose me/I am dying slowly/From Patrick Stickles Disease.”   Yet at the end, even if a tad bit ironic in the song, Patrick comes back to hope and belief: “God sent me a vision of the future.”
Hineni:  “You’re Damaged” by Waxahatchee.  Thematically, “No Future” could also work here, but this is such an intimate prayer, where the leader takes on their own failings and doubts as they lead the community, that it needs music and lyrics that are as incisive and arresting.  This heart-wrenching dirge comes at the end of an otherwise more upbeat album, at least sonically, making you stop in your tracks to commune with Katie Crutchfield’s pain as she tries to move forward.  It sounds at any time like the song – and singer – could explode with anger, but it remains restrained/constrained throughout, focused on a single progression.  That emotion and lyrics such as “And my words are ugly/And you can’t discern me/God’s buried under/Your damaged wonder/And no I cannot see into the future/No I cannot breathe underwater” will stay with you long after you hear them, like the words and feeling of Hineni itself.
Tashilch: “Chum” by Earl Sweatshirt.  There are myriad songs reflecting on sins that could accompany this ritual of casting off sins, via scape-bread, into a body of water.  But I choose this song both because of how uncommon it can be for an MC to reveal their sins and failings with concern and question, rather than boasting, and how poignant Earl can be when presenting his. [pullquote align=left]
Earl deals candidly with how many mistakes he’s made, and how lost he is overall, because he’s never really been shown a path to understanding who he really is:
[/pullquote] From being a 6-year old kid who can’t tell his father that he loves him to a smart and successful but still lost teenager.  And his lyrics highlight what we all search for throughout the Chagim, the ability to tap in to entiments like:  “Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks/From honor roll to cracking locks up off them bicycle racks/I’m indecisive, I’m scatterbrained, and I’m frightened, it’s evident.”  And after standing silently with your inner demons for some time, it helps to have a chance to smile with a line as clever as “His sins feeling as hard as Vince Carter’s knee cartilage is.”
Kol Nidre: “Waiting Room” by Fugazi.  It can’t be just any band that fits with the opening of the Yom Kippur evening service, or just any song that accompanies an effort to legally renounce a community’s sins.  So we have to go back to this 1988 post-punk classic, which was so bold with its use of funk overtones that it opened a new chapter in punk music.  And we need to have as our leader at this moment someone with unquestioned integrity and dedication, and there is no one in rock who fits that bill more than singer and guitarist Ian Mackaye, who has remained fiercely devoted to an independent and ethical approach to music since the early 1980s.  As he turned the page in his life to this new band, Mackaye sang “I don’t sit idly by/I’m planning a big surprise/I’m gonna fight for what I want to be/I won’t make the same mistakes/Because I know how much time that wastes/Function is the key.”  May it be true for all of us.
Ashamnu: “Same Love” by Macklemore.  Many are likely familiar with this track from the Grammy winner that became an anthem for the gay marriage movement.  I include it here not because of the importance of equal rights in a community that is healthy and inclusive, but because Macklemore himself is not gay.  His line, “I may not be the same/But that’s not important” is essential to the track, as well as this prayer.  In order for us to come together as a community, and ultimately to heal, each must take responsibility for the sins of the whole, regardless of whether we have committed them.  Macklemore’s example is even stronger because of how hard it pushes back on the almost entirely negative communal tone toward homosexuality set by hip-hop.
Neilah:  “I’m Not Part of Me” by the Cloud Nothings.  After days of self-reflection and shul, you need a good guitar lick and driving beat to get you back in to the world (and I could not bear to pick something from Kelis’ wonderful 2014 record, Food).  The Cloud Nothings specialize in those licks and beats, especially if you get a chance to see them live.  But you need a bit more than just guitars and drums; you need some direction.  This track, which closes the band’s last album, has that same intention – find your true self, then go out and take on the world.  The opening lyrics: “It starts right now/There’s a way I was before/But I can’t recall how I was those days anymore/I’m learning how to be here and nowhere else/How to focus on what I can do myself.”
Play that a few times at the end of this playlist, and you’ll be ready for 5776.
Shana Tovah.