Holy Inspiration: musical rabbi Joe Black is back

Rabbi Joe Black’s sermons at Temple Emanuel in Denver regularly include music. Ordained in 1987, Black has served as the congregation’s chief rabbi for thirteen years. But his first trip to Denver was as a musician twenty years ago, when he performed at Swallow Hill Music. He’s a professional musician who’s been releasing original material for forty years, and his artistry and faith often intersect, including on his latest releases — pray with our feet and Wire and wood.

“I am who I am. I am a rabbi. I am a spiritual person. I am grounded in text and tradition, so a lot of my music, consciously or unconsciously, comes from my experience as a person of faith. But I’m also a songwriter. For the last three or four years, I’ve really focused on the craft of songwriting,” Black says as he prepares for the big holidays.

Released on September 1 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the two albums are Black’s first official releases in eighteen years. He explains that pray with our feet is aimed more at the Jewish community, while Wire and wood is an American folk album that he says includes everything from “country songs that cry in your beer” to “rockers.” Product of pray with our feet will benefit Temple Emanuel, while a percentage of Wire and wood Proceeds will go to support Planned Parenthood of the Rockies, an organization Black calls “essential.”

“I think we need to protect reproductive rights in every way possible,” he says.

But you don’t have to belong to or even know about the Jewish faith to enjoy Black’s music.

“[Praying With Our Feet] can certainly be used in a variety of contexts, both liturgical and otherwise, while Wire and wood, it’s more about me, as Joe Black the songwriter. “My guitar never sounded so good” is a country rocker; it’s a fun song. But this song actually came at a time when I was touring a lot many years ago. In fact, I was playing in a synagogue and I asked to borrow someone’s guitar. I plugged it in and the person was like, ‘Whoa, my guitar has never sounded so good.’ I thought that would be a good title for a country song. He wrote it in about two minutes,” he recalls.

This is how most of Black’s song ideas come to him. For example, “Road Side Shrine”, from Wire and woodwas inspired by a retreat in northern New Mexico decades ago.

“It’s a song I wrote maybe twenty years ago. … This was an experience I had while going to a retreat at a camp in northern New Mexico. I saw this shrine by the side of the road. I pulled over on the side of the road and had this epiphany,” he says.

Some songs, like “My Father Has Hazel Eyes” (Wire and wood) and “The salty taste of tears” (pray with our feet), are deeply personal, with Black reflecting on the lives of his father and mother, respectively.

“I put them on two different albums because ‘The Salty Taste of Tears’ is really about my mother as a refugee from Germany who fled in 1938 and barely got out. There’s a line – ‘She was a refugee with glass in her shoes” – which refers to the Night of Broken Glass… November 9, 1938, which marked the start of the Final Solution. She and her parents got out, but I have no other relatives on my mother’s side, because they were all killed in the Holocaust. That’s why I put that on the Jewish album,” he explains.

“My Father Has Hazel Eyes” is about his father suffering from dementia. “Both [the songs] are very personal, and people have shared with me that they’ve really touched home, because we’re all connected to the sense of loss and the sense of generativity and generational trauma that is human reality,” Black says. “It’s not just about being Jewish. This is the story of a child who lost his parents.

The inspiration behind pray with our feet is also something Black thinks everyone can relate to. The title refers to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s walk with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

“He marched on a Saturday morning, when traditionally rabbis and Jews should pray in the synagogue because it is the Sabbath. Someone asked him, ‘Dr. Heschel, why aren’t you in the synagogue praying? It’s a Saturday morning. He said, ‘When I walk with Dr King, I pray with my feet.'”

Although finding the time to write and record new music has been a challenge given his current role and duties, Black’s passion for the art form is evident. He recently took songwriting lessons through Planet Bluegrass in Lyon and is delighted to present his new material at a concert in Swallow Hill on November 19th. This “gift” from God “helped and enhanced my ability to connect with people on many levels.” he explains.

“I have always been pulled in several directions. When I was in college, I took a year off to see if I wanted to be a musician. …I made a conscious decision that this was not the life I wanted to lead.

“I love music, it’s part of me,” he adds. “But my music is very much part of my rabbinism. I’m not a singing rabbi, per se. I’m a rabbi who happens to have the ability to write, sing, and perform, but my music is more informed by my rabbinic than my rabbinic is only informed by my music.

Rabbi Joe Black will be at Swallow Hill Music, 71 East Yale Avenue, on Saturday, November 19, with a full band and special guests. pray with our feet and Wire and wood are available on major streaming platforms.