Twenty years or so ago, I phoned R & B legend, Johnny Otis, to ask if it was okay for a Jewish kid to drop in at the Sunday church service he conducted inside his West Adams district mansion. He said, “Sure! After all, we got the same hero.” I’m sure he meant Jesus. I was thinking Ray Charles.
The actual draw for me was Etta James appearance in Johnny’s choir. Ketty Lester and Shuggie Otis, Johnny’s guitar-prodigy son performed too, but I was there to watch and feel Etta. And when she stepped out of the choir and stood five feet from me, she transformed Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful” into an acappella “God Is So Beautiful” that rocked every soul in the room.
I still nourish my spiritual connection, perhaps imperfectly, by presenting the Almighty with a daily list of wishes and grievances. On occasion, I’ll even drop into Sabbath services at my local temple. But Judaism 2.0 has made worship a whole new deal. Now, during the High Holidays, I can save the trip and tune into that temple’s video webcast or as it’s known on the website, the Sanctuary Cam.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was about to arrive. Elevating the importance of this holiest day would be the performance of my friend, Julie, in the role of guitar-strumming itinerant Cantor. I rushed to beat the sunset deadline for the start of the ritual fast by shoveling a fistful of wavy potato chips into my gullet. My sofa became hideous, one more sacrilege from which I’d have to avert my eyes, one more thing for which I’d have to atone. On the plus side, I didn’t have to wear pants.
I conjured up the Sanctuary Cam on my laptop. The voice that rose from Julie’s image was lush and lovely, but what moved me most was the effortlessness of her moonwalk. Why don’t cantors do that anymore? I have no doubt that Jews would return to the flock by the thousands if visual signs of devotion like James Brown-style knee drops were restored to the cantor’s repertoire.
When the service ended, I decompressed by working my way through my Netflix queue, this time watching a movie called “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.” It was thoroughly mind-blowing, the rare Holocaust themed movie that understates it all and maybe because of that, hits with more emotional power.
That night, I dreamt feverishly. Vivid images of the temple’s website flashed against the inside of my skull. Rather than a view of the chapel, the sanctuary cam showed a promotional video for the temple. A dozen Nazi soldiers from “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas” did a skillfully choreographed motorcycle dance to the music of Regina Spector. I swear.