Rav Kook Meets Jazz
by Matt Ponak
It was a cold wintry day during Hannukah of 2007 when I first met Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein. While I was visiting a professor in the Canadian Rocky Mountains with a few other people, Itzchak was passing through the area. He led us in lighting the Hannukah candles, took out his guitar, and we all came together in jubilant song and prayer. As we relaxed into the moment and tuned in to Marmorstein’s Kabbalistic teachings on Hannukah, he took out a book of poems. He began to read this poetry, written by Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, and I felt the entire room become alive with joy. Everyone was deeply moved by the words Itzchak read and accompanied with ecstatic movements. After working us all into a spiritual frenzy, Marmorstein announced that he was on his way to New York to record an avant-garde jazz album with Greg Wall’s Later Prophets featuring the poetry he had just read.
This was nearly four years ago. Earlier this month I caught up with Marmorstein via Skype from his Jerusalem home to talk about the progress he had since made. The album that eventually came from Itzchak’s collaboration with Greg Wall’s Later Prophets was called Ha’Orot – The Lights of Rav Kook, on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records. Since the album’s release in 2009, says Marmorstein, “we’ve had two tours in Israel and another in the States and we’re hopefully getting a grant for another tour.” Marmorstein said that in more recent live performances, “lyrics are projected along with images of Rav Kook. It’s very psychedelic. It’s a whole show.”
Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein was born in Israel but was living in Canada when I met him. Now in his fifties, he first became interested in Rav Kook in 1981 when he had a mystical experience while reading Rav Kook’s writings at Winnipeg beach. Marmorstein made the decision to set Rav Kook’s poetry to jazz music after years of experimentation with different genres. When he saw Greg Wall’s Later Prophets perform their Tzadik Records jazz album based on the trope of Ezekiel, he approached Wall with the idea to incorporate his music with Rav Kook’s poetry. Marmorstein asserts that Rav Kook’s teachings were meant to be shared universally, and so the album is for people of all ages and backgrounds. Marmorstein says his full-time endeavor is to “disseminate the lights of Rav Kook in all their forms.” He is currently working with a world-wide educational project with Wall called Mercaz HaRayah, The Centre For Jewish Arts and Literacy, which he explains as “learning, translating and teaching Rav Kook’s wondrous writings.”
But who was Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and what were his teachings? Marmorstein elaborates on his experiences with Rav Kook’s teachings in this Tikkun Magazine article and says that Rav Kook’s teachings can be summarized by the following five principles: (1) Everything is holy; (2) Everything is alive; (3) Everything is one; (4) Everything is good; and (5) Everything is rising, evolving, and elevating. These teachings may be difficult to comprehend without a deeper understanding of Rav Kook’s work, but the Ha’Orot project does a great job of communicating some of these loftier concepts.
The poem Renewal, featured on the album, begins with these words:
Give me, give me
rays of light,
Too much for me, too much
these pits of darkness.
Give me the gift
of purity of thought,
Enough for me, enough
these prisons of confusion.
Another poem from the album, and a personal favorite, called The Whispers of Existence, includes these lines:
All existence whispers its secret to me:
I have life, take please take. . .
And from the splendor of the Carmel and the Sharon,
An abundance of cosmic secrets
Will be heard by the ear of a living people.
And from Eden, song and the beauty of life
Will be filled with holy light,
And all existence will murmur to him:
My precious, behold I am permitted to you.
After receiving Marmorstein’s album in 2009, I have listened to it start to finish at least 200 times. The CD’s beautiful instrumentation adds to and brings out the richness of the poetry. Marmorstein is also currently offering weekly classes on Thursday afternoons at the House of Rav Kook in Jerusalem. When I asked him what message he wanted to share through this project he told me, “The message we want to communicate is that there is this extraordinary sage and that there is this extraordinary musical project that people can bring to their campuses and Hillels.” The music is available on the band’s MySpace page which also includes links to order the album online.