Judaism and Rock Meld in Rabbi’s First Album About ‘First Book’

Rabbi Saul Grife has never made any bones about the fact that he loves the music of the Grateful Dead, as well as other groups from the classic rock era, especially Santana, Cream and Jethro Tull. Grife said that he finds inspiration in their fusion of diverse musical influences, sheer energy and, yes, their countercultural ethos.

The religious leader of Beth Tikvah-B'nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Erdenheim, has even taught classes comparing Grateful Dead lyrics to Jewish thought, particularly the teachings of Jewish mysticism and the Chasidic masters.

Over the years, he's also learned to play some guitar, though nothing too fancy. One of the first songs he ever wrote was a tune to mark the occasion of his oldest daughter's baby-naming ceremony (she's now 20 years old).

But as his 50th birthday loomed — he hit the milestone in October — Grife decided that it was about time to do something more with music and combine his two loves: Judaism and rock. More than anything, he was curious about just what exactly he had to say.

As it turns out, it was quite a lot.

The result is a new collection of songs in a self-distributed and self-financed CD called "Tales From the First Book."

Just for the record, the songs expound upon the book of Genesis, and have nothing to do with a certain British progressive rock band that launched the careers of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins.

"I wanted to take the energy and passion of my connection to classic rock — it's the soundtrack to peoples lives — and I wanted to connect it to Judaism," said Grife, several hours before his CD-release party and performance held last month at the synagogue.

Billed as a rock opera, the album juxtaposes spacy instrumentals, some straight keyboard-infused rock, folk elements and even a number in the vein of old-time blues.

The songs were recorded over the course of a month in the fall at Range Records, a studio in Ardmore. To help turn his dream into reality, the rabbi — who acknowledged that he doesn't know how to read music — hired several professional musicians and back-up vocalists. His wife Linda, restaurant manager at Max & David's, the new upscale kosher eatery in Elkins Park, is also credited as a background vocalist.

"The record investigates the first book in a very interpretive and Midrashic way. I hope to teach the book of Genesis through the lyrics," explained the rabbi.

Grife noted that he actually was not particularly influenced by some of the best-known rock operas like The Who's "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" or Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Instead, he looked for inspiration in several concept albums put out by Jethro Tull, compositions that don't try to tell stories as much as explore related themes.

Grife also explained that, in songs like "Flood Water Blues," "Strangers in the Desert" and "I Will Be There, Too," he followed in the Chasidic tradition of defending biblical characters like Noah or Lot's wife, who he said were often criticized or denigrated in classical rabbinic writings.

Grife, who is currently on sabbatical for several months, said that the group of musicians he's gathered for the CD is planning to play a number of concert dates in the spring and summer, though a local date has not yet been set.

He hopes to make more albums, but noted that the next one wouldn't be based on Exodus.

At the CD-release party and acoustic performance at the synagogue, an amplifier blared the sounds from "Tales" throughout the building as congregants of all ages munched on kosher hot dogs and pretzels, and waited in a long line to have CDs and posters displaying the album's artwork autographed by their rabbi.

Before most of the band had arrived, Roselle and Jerry Maerker — both in their 80s — took their seats, way in the back of the sanctuary, as far from the speakers as possible.

"We like classical, and some jazz," said Roselle Maerker, admitting that their presence was about supporting their rabbi, not their love of loud music.

Grife, autographing away, seemed to enjoy all the attention.

Earlier, in a more reflective moment, Grife explained that he's following his own path "and trying to help congregants figure out their own path. That's half the formula. The other half is figuring out how we can all get along."