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An Interview with Rabbi Josh Katzan

By Andy Bender

What kind of religious upbringing did you have?

I was raised by a Humanistic-Jewish atheist/communistic/ethical-capitalist father, who himself was raised in an orthodox home both in Europe and then here in America. Although there was no commanding God as far as he was concerned, we had a richly Jewish home and belonged to Beth Jacob (Modern Orthodox synagogue) where I was Bar Mitzvah but where we virtually never went aside from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

By the time I got to college in 1984, I was drifting from the Jewish religion of my childhood toward the spiritual orientations of Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. In my sophomore year, I realized I needed to explore “adult” Judaism to determine whether it was for me or not. I started reading books, taking classes on campus and at Hillel, and wearing a kippah all the time.

Spending my junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem grounded me as a Zionist. I became intoxicated with Jewish ideas and the depth and texture of rabbinic interpretation. But even after studying at a yeshivah in Israel for a few years after college, I never wanted to be a rabbi.

Was there a particular moment when you decided to become a rabbi?

After yeshivah, I came home to L.A. and taught at the newly founded Milken Community High School, helping to develop their Judaic studies programming. I was motivated to share some of the spiritual brilliance of Judaism with teens, in a way I had never received at that age.

About seven years into my teaching career at Milken, I had two odd experiences speaking with school parents. In both cases, we were having deep conversations about modern Jewish spiritual challenges, but once they learned I didn’t bear the title “rabbi,” they simply stopped, turned, and walked away.

To have a fruitful career as a Jewish educator, it seemed the best path was to acknowledge what may have been obvious to everyone but me: It was time to go to rabbinical school.

What do you like best about being a rabbi?

I love being a rabbi. Engaging with, teaching, and helping people traverse the more meaningful and important moments of life is a privilege and honor beyond expression.

My two favorite moments as a rabbi tend to be bringing people to the Mikvah for a conversion (the stories they share about why they chose to join the Jewish family are so inspiring) and doing funerals.

Yes, funerals. I love sincerity, and there are few moments in life when people are as real as when confronting death. Aside from the privilege of being invited to be a resource for guidance, comfort and support, it feels like sitting at the feet of wisdom listening to the stories of the life, history, accomplishments, struggles, challenges, and lessons learned by a loved one who has passed.

Yours is a remarkable story of coming “home” to the synagogue that your great-grandparents helped found and where your parents were married. Can you tell us more about your family connection to the shul?

I grew up with pictures of my parents’ wedding at Mishkon, but unfortunately, I didn’t become aware of the family connection until later in life, as for a long time I didn’t have much connection with my mother’s side of my family, and that is my Mishkon side.

It took going halfway around the world to make my parents’ wedding pictures real to me. While studying in Israel during rabbinical school, a group of us were on a bus to a hiking trip when I mentioned that my great-grandparents helped found one of the earliest congregations in L.A., way out in Venice.

That’s when I heard a voice behind me say, “Wait, my great-grandparents founded a congregation in Venice!” He had the same last name as my mother’s side of the family (Kaplan), but since it was spelled differently (Caplan) we had never made the connection. In that moment we both sang out, “Cousin!!” All at once, I realized not only that I had a relative in my rabbinical school class but also that my roots at Mishkon were real.

I’m still not over how awesome it is to be reconnected with this place.

Your previous congregation in New York City was called Habonim, which means “the builders.” And the Mishkon was the most significant building project in the Torah. What do you make of this?

It is indeed a meaningful coincidence, because both names capture what I find to be among the most important principles of Jewish spirituality, the notion that spiritual work is about building, cultivating, and refining self and community into a thing of beauty and significance.

You are a very gifted guitarist, as anybody who's heard you play can tell. Were you always musical?

I did not grow up with music in my family at all. I felt I had no talent and used to say I only played the “ear-drums.”

But one day after school in 1980, when I was 14, I was at my cousin’s house listening to the album Back in Black by AC/DC, cover to cover, on headphones. There was a groove that I found infectious, and when the guitar solo kicked in, it simply exploded in my body; I got chills from head to toe. That blues guitar penetrated that deeply into my soul, and it ravished me.

My own playing didn’t really begin until freshman year in college at Cal State Northridge, when I accidentally discovered a beginning classical guitar class. After two solid weeks of attempting to play, I couldn’t seem to get my fingers to the right positions on the fretboard, and my frustration steadily grew.

I erupted with rage, looked away from the guitar and pounded out of the instrument three different chords without looking—and each one rang out perfectly! Once again, I had a whole-body chill.

Echoes of the euphoria of that moment are palpable for me virtually every time I pick up the instrument. I listen and practice every day. Like all musicians, I am suffering during this pandemic from not being able to make music with other people—but I have taken full advantage of many, many hours of practice and playing.

In many religions, music is more than accompaniment to prayer; it is central to the practice. In Japan, for example, some devout Buddhists play the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) to control their breath and center themselves spiritually, or people use drums or gongs to guide rhythmic chanting. Can you think of parallels in the Jewish tradition, and what role does music play in your religious life?

I love this question. In my personal life, music is like taking a walk in nature. It instantly grounds me, and I feel connected to a reality that transcends thinking.

In contemporary Jewish life, the most developed instrument in spiritual practice is the voice. Singing—around the Shabbat table, in shul with choirs or participants, at summer camp, Chassidic nigunim, etc.—is familiar in virtually all Jewish communities.

But I am convinced that drums were, once upon a time, the central instrument. Anyone who has participated in shows with intense rhythm—like a Santana concert or the drum circle on Venice Beach—knows that there is most definitely something hypnotic/transformational/spiritual happening. The rabbis of the Talmud understood drumming was so intense for Jews that, in order to prevent their building one on Shabbat (an overt breaking of Shabbat), they prohibited even the clapping of hands and slapping of thighs. When you’re that connected to the intensity of a drum, clapping hands just won’t cut it.

I feel blessed that there are a bunch of Mishkonite musicians, and I can’t wait to get some jam sessions together; that is a kind of spiritual community unto itself. If I get my way, we’ll be getting plenty of sand in our shoes from all the musical gatherings I’d love to have on the beach!

You have earned a certificate in Jewish meditation. What is Jewish meditation, and what plans are you contemplating toward bringing meditative practices to Mishkon?

“Meditation” is mostly a generic name for a category of practices and exercises, most of which deal with how and where we direct our attention: attending to the breath, observing thoughts, repeating a word or phrase over and over, etc.

A question we contemplated a lot when I studied with Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man was “What makes a meditation practice ‘Jewish?’”

My best response is that it’s the context of the meditation itself, and perhaps the identity of the practitioner, feeling personally connected to references from our tradition. Taking a word or phrase from our liturgy, for example, can subtly bring with it meaningful associations. And it is a very Jewish approach to include meditation in preparation for either prayer or study.

At Mishkon, I am teaching a course on Jewish meditation, where we learn the practice, process the experience, sit together, and then do a little contemplative study.

You are an enthusiastic traveler. Do you have a favorite travel story?

I spent about a month in Nepal in 2000, just before my rabbinical school studies in Israel. When asked, “Why Nepal?”, I joked, “I wanted to go to a country where I had to speak Hebrew!” It turned out not to be a joke, as I spent more time speaking Hebrew with Israelis in that month than I did in five years living in Jerusalem.

I had assumed that so many young Israelis traveled throughout Asia to study meditation, yoga, or Buddhism, but one evening an Israeli man I’d befriended said wryly that it was “because the drugs are cheap.” He could see how shocked I was by this response, so he explained the need to let off steam after suffering the stress of being in the army. 

That conversation inspired me to try to find a way to communicate Jewish spirituality as a relevant path to making meaning in life, especially when life gets hard and complex. Jewish spirituality has to be able to offer a substantially better (and healthier) option than drugs as a response to stress.

What plans are you considering for Mishkon interacting with the wider L.A. Jewish (or non-Jewish) community?

Judaism demands that we work to cultivate better and deeper selves through engagement with community: at Mishkon, in the broader Jewish community, and most definitely in the community in which we live.

I would love to bring back a popular motif from the mid-1980s, “celebrating difference,” although perhaps today we would swap the word “uniqueness” for “difference.” We can all benefit and feel enriched by encountering other people’s customs, thoughts, ideas, and spiritual concepts. I have seen just how much people who were unfamiliar with Jewish customs and spirituality are blown away by how rich, deep, flavorful, and fun traditional Jewish expression is. Why hide that? And why not enjoy other communities in all their uniqueness?

I hope to welcome busloads of students, tourists, and neighbors from around the city, to experience how rich, deep, funky, and interesting Judaism can be in Venice.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782