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Rabbi Patti Smith Ushers In 5778

I’m not much of a shul-goer, but the High Priestess of Song got me thinking and feeling my way into Rosh Hashanah

Sara Sherbill
September 20, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I understand that not everyone appreciates Patti Smith’s music, and some might call it an acquired taste, but for those of us to whom it speaks on a primal level, there is nothing like it. I have spent so many hours watching old videos of her on Youtube it is embarrassing. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when she began to sing Barbara Streisand’s “Papa Can Your Hear Me?”—yes, from Yentl.

“I often get to perform in houses of worship,” she said earlier in the evening, standing before a packed audience at Washington, D.C.’s historic Sixth and I synagogue earlier this week, just two days before the Jewish New Year. “But I don’t have too many opportunities to be in a synagogue.”

Ostensibly, she was here to read from her new book, Devotion (Why I Write), out from Yale University Press this month. But Smith, unsurprisingly, proved indifferent to the conventions of a typical author reading, veering early and often into the territory of the sacred and sublime. Sitting beneath the meticulously restored synagogue’s domed heavens, a golden hexagram shining down upon us, Smith’s presence on the bima—in front of the Holy Ark, no less!—did not feel incidental.

As for myself, I hadn’t stepped foot in a synagogue in years. But on this night, two nights before Rosh Hashanah, I found myself sitting rapt in the wooden pews awaiting Smith’s arrival. As soon as she walked into the room, the air electrified. The crowd instinctively rose to its feet, cheering, as she took her place on stage, her guitar waiting expectantly next to her.

The rebbe had arrived. And she had something for everyone.

She alternated between words and song, between reading from her book and playing guitar. In those, and in her conversational explanations, and in her fumbling around for the right chord, the right book, the right passage, she radiated a humanity that was humble, benevolent, and always brutally honest. Forgetting the chords while trying to play a particular song, she quipped, “I know this may seem to you like something embarrassing. But I embarrass myself so often, this is nothing.” She played a song for Sam Shepard, the playwright and actor with whom she had once been romantically involved. “Farewell, Sam,” she concluded, waving and looking off into the distance, and in her voice you could hear both the sadness and her refusal to give in to it.

She covered a lot of ground. Before one excerpt she digressed to chide a critic who’d dismissed a line she wrote about eating blueberries for breakfast as pretentious. “When I was a kid I worked in the fields picking blueberries for seven cents a basket,” she said. “Believe me, blueberries are the least hipster-ish fruit.” She spoke about William Blake and about motherhood, about waking up every morning for sixteen years at 5 a.m. to get three hours of writing in before the rest of her family woke up. “I wasn’t publishing at the time,” she said. “I was just doing the work.”

* * *

“Papa can you hear me…?”

If you would have told me that Patti Smith covers Streisand, I would have said, that’s impossible, that makes no sense. If Streisand’s voice is, as we all know, “like butter,” Smith’s is like a dark lager. It is difficult to describe the mind-altering effects of hearing Streisand’s well-worn power ballad turned into something far more spare and haunting. I was crying. The woman to my left was crying. The man to my right was crying. The woman in front of me was crying. The man two rows ahead of me was crying.

Suddenly I was thinking about the coming days of repentance, the days that always seem to catch me ill-prepared, unready to face the enormity of the task. I was also thinking about my relationship with my own father, and all the things I wished I could say to him if only I could find the words.

Why did Patti Smith choose to sing this particular song on this particular evening? I don’t know—I couldn’t find any evidence online that she’d ever sung it publicly before. But I couldn’t help thinking about how much it reminded me of Aveinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, our King,” the prayer we recite every Rosh Hashanah, in what is perhaps the holy day’s most well-known melody. In this prayer, we call out to God not as a judge or creator but as a father.

As Smith sang, “Papa, please forgive me/Try to understand me/Don’t you know I have no choice?” I thought of the words of the Rosh Hashanah Prayer: “Our Father, our King, forgive and pardon all our inequities… Our Father, our King, erase through Your abundant compassion all records of our guilt.”

For her last song, she asked her audience/congregation to join her, as she led all of us in a rendition of “Fools Rush in.” She beamed from ear to ear as she led us through the chorus over and over—“but I can’t help falling in love with you”—words that could just as easily serve to describe the audience/congregation’s feelings in that moment. The night was more like a revival meeting or a rebbe’s tisch if your rebbe happened to be a punk icon, funny in a self-deprecating way with a deep resonant voice and wildly eclectic musical tastes who admonishes you with a single-minded intensity, over and over, that the most important thing is to not care what anyone else thinks.

And how did our rebbe close out the evening? By reading from the last page of her aptly titled Devotion:

“What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists.”

Listening to Patti Smith read these words, I thought: This is how one prepares for the holiest days of the year.

Sara Sherbill is a freelance editor and writer based in Jerusalem.