In the beginning were Hebrew letters


A Jewish midrash says that the Torah is written with “black fire on white fire.” The “black fire” refers to the letters of the Torah scroll, each of which must be completely surrounded by white parchment, the “white fire.”

In another sense, the black letters represent p’shat, the literal meaning of the Scriptures, and the white letters stand for d’rash, the interpretation or reading between the lines; p’shat is a metaphor for the intellect, and d’rash connotes the ineffable, those things beyond human understanding.

Perhaps an analogy can be made between the black and white of the Torah scroll, and the black notes and white paper of a musical score. Local pianist and composer Joe Vass has been involved in “Jewish learning” for many years. Through study and meditation, he came to realize that in the English language, letters are used to spell words; but in the Hebrew alphabet, “the letters themselves have a lot of significance on their own.”

The musician from Maplewood – who created and directed the stage shows The Soul of Gershwin and Mishegass! – has gone in a new direction with Alef-Bet: Music of Hebrew Letters, which will have its world premiere 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 at the St. Paul JCC.


Joe Vass: There will be a story told through this music of these letters. (Photo: Jeffrey Richman)
Joe Vass: There will be a story told through this music of these letters. (Photo: Jeffrey Richman)

During a conversation with the Jewish World last week, Vass talked about his new show, which is sponsored by the letters alef, bet, gimel and daled, figuratively speaking. The talented musician has been delighting audiences here and across the country for many years with his spirited and polished music steeped in the Jewish tradition. He was the guiding light of the Minnesota Klezmer Band, which became the ensemble known as Klezmerica.

Regarding his new show, Vass points out that Hebrew letters represent “spiritual states or emotions.” They also have numeric equivalents, which give rise to the mystical study of letters known as gematria. (The Coen brothers touch on gematria in their new film, A Serious Man, in the rabbi’s whimsical story of “the goy’s teeth.”)

Vass adds that the shapes of the various Hebrew letters “signify things.” And the letters are also words; “for example, alef is an ox, and bet is a house, and so on down the line.”

What the composer came to realize is that the various attributes of the Hebrew letters are “the things that you could make music out of.” In another aspect of his new work, Vass reflected on the varieties of Jewish music, from different periods and geographic areas, and what has been passed down through millennia of Jewish tradition. Inspired by his studies of the Jewish sources, Vass decided to “reinvent Jewish music,” or create “music that is rooted in these letters.”

Alef-Bet will be “sort of a theatrical presentation,” according to Vass, with narration and a 10-piece ensemble. “We’ve put together a really great group of musicians, some of the very best musicians in the Twin Cities.” The band includes members of Klezmerica and other players.

“There will be a story told through this music of these letters,” Vass explains.

The power of Hebrew letters can be found in the incantation, abracadabra, Vass cites as an example. The Hebrew phrase, which has come into the popular argot, means, “I will create as I speak.” Vass adds, “It goes back to the Kabbalists, who would recite letters to create things. It came from the study of the Hebrew letters hundreds of years ago, and the idea that somehow they are related to creation.”

A visual component will enhance Vass’ music and the story. Artwork by letterpress artist Robyn Stoller Awend will be projected on a screen. Awend’s exhibit, Alef Bet, is on display in the St. Paul JCC’s Gallery Walk through Oct. 28.

Based on Vass’ past creative efforts, Alef-Bet promises to be an entertaining evening of eclectic, high-quality swinging music, with a Jewish component that should leave listeners with something profound to think about.

“God created the world through letters, according to our tradition,” says Vass, who has provided a new soundtrack for these components of creation.


“Alef-Bet: Music of Hebrew Letters will be presented 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 at the St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. Tickets are $10 for JCC members, $15 for the public. For information and tickets, call 651-698-0751.