Transcendent Song: A Quest to Discover the Mystical Secrets of Improvisational Music

Editor's note: This begins a series of posts profiling figures and chronicling examples of Jewish mystical experience that may or may not have resulted from unscripted and unexpected ecstatic musical endeavors.

The whole idea that there is a Jewish people is founded on a dream.

Jacob, running from his brother, dreams of a ladder that goes from the earth to the heavens. Angels ascend and descend the ladder, and God, above it all, vows to protect and strengthen him. That dream kept Jacob going for his whole life. Perhaps that dream has also kept the Jewish people going to this day.

I learned this from Raz Hartman, a rabbi and classically trained pianist from Jerusalem, who leads a community there called V'Ani Tefillah -- "and I am prayer" -- and has so far recorded two albums of spiritually driven music.

Not long ago, I set out to find if and where the spirit of Judaism and the energy of improvisational music converge, and going to hear Raz at an egalitarian yeshiva on the Upper West Side in the weeks leading up to Hanukkah was one part of that quest. He was scheduled to play a set of music at Yeshivat Hadar, but even before I arrive, I know it'll be more spontaneous collective prayer than choreographed performance.

"I want to tell you a secret," Raz says. "A lot of things in yiddishkeit are like this, but especially songs. There's this custom -- at least, Hasidic songs -- to sing the song over and over and over."

Raz came to New York City from Nachlaot, the maze-like Jerusalem neighborhood where V'Ani Tefillah is located and where I once spent a half a year living and exploring. It's easy to get lost in Nachlaot -- in thought, in song, in prayer, in alleyways. The neighborhood has an undeniable allure, and it attracts a bevy of characters. Nachlaot is a neighborhood of secrets. And Raz, whose name literally means "secret," knows quite a few of them. This is partly why I go to hear him sing -- why I go to sing with him. I want to learn the secret of song. I want to figure out why music has become so central to my own Jewish identity. I want to understand what it is I feel so connected to when I am "lost" in song. I sing, but now I want to know why.

"It took me a while to realize that there's something very deep about over and over and over," Raz says. "The truth is, when you sing niggunim you can just sing them or you can also have an intention. And we can have the intention of really, each time we go through it, trying to get a little deeper into ourselves, get a little deeper into being together, b'ezrat hashem."

His original melodies and adaptations of traditional prayers are generally simple, but when a room of openhearted seekers joins the chorus, that simplicity soars.

Raz brings down a teaching from his rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: In dreams, we transcend time. A dream may last for 10 minutes in reality, but the dream itself can cover years. As much as they're fantasy, as much as they're not real, Raz says between songs, dreams are very real. Dreams drive us. Sometimes, dreams drive us more than reality. We can even dream a dream into reality. So too with song: With the right intention, a simple melody can transcend itself, and the souls who sing can transcend time.

Judaism is my tradition, and improvisational music is my meditation. When the two combine, I often feel as though I am having a lucid dream. On this musical quest -- in this dream -- I've crossed paths with many other likeminded travelers: Greg Wall, the rabbi of acid jazz and his big band of horned mystics; Jake Marmer, an immigrant poet, who models his verse on ancient Jewish legal discourse; Yerachmiel Altizio, a freak for Hasidic funk; Rachel and Matti Ravitz-Brown, a religious Jewish couple who met and now daven through Sufi Islamic dikhr; and Joey Weisenberg and Sameer Gupta, a mandolin-tabla duo whose second musical date was also their first public presentation.

The whole idea that there is a Jewish people is founded on a dream. For me and for countless others, the force that sustains this dream is unrestricted song. Together, may we wake up, listen and speedily learn the tune.