Local performers make music fit around observance

Jerry Wicentowski’s love lies with bluegrass music.

When he was a teenager, he had some experience playing classical guitar. Folk music grew popular during his early adolescence, and “boy, you could win a lot of attention from people by playing chords and singing songs,” Wicentowski said.

Today, Wicentowski plays guitar and sings in bluegrass bands locally, regionally and nationally with groups like Jerry and the Wiseman Institute, Unrelated Brothers and The New Pioneers. Although he says performing is a good time, his passion also poses a problem. As someone who identifies as a modern Orthodox Jew, Wicentowski said he must balance his desire to perform with his faith.

In his youth, Wicentowski said his appreciation for bluegrass music could be considered a form of rebellion. Bluegrass has ties to gospel music, he said, and observant Jews at that time were not likely to be interested.

“There was a certain amount of tension in our home because of that interest,” he said.

Today, Wicentowski said his faith and his music collide on the performance circuit. Prime performance opportunities are during the sabbath, and Wicentowski does not accept those engagements. In keeping with the traditional Jewish practice of observing Shabbat as a day of rest, Wicentowski abstains from certain behaviors, including creative activities, from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

“It includes some rabbinical interpretations and additional restrictions — getting into a car, turning on the ignition and going to a bluegrass festival or playing through a sound system,” he said. “One could say that those things are really not very much in keeping with how we usually mark Shabbat.”

Wicentowski said he has also found ways to combine his interests. For example, he said he also gets himself in front of Jewish organizations to offer entertainment, because they follow the same schedule.

In addition, he said he looks to ignite interest in some aspects of the music with an audience of observant Jews. About 20 years ago, Wicentowski said, he began to combine traditional Jewish lyrics sung during Shabbat with bluegrass melodies.

“Those melodies do something to me emotionally,” he said. “Why not fit them to a lyric that does something to me emotionally and religiously?”

Wicentowski’s experience is similar to that of Andy Statman, a friend and fellow musician who was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship in 2012 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Also an observant Jew, Statman said he has had to balance his music with his religious practices.

He said people work within his parameters if they want him to perform. For instance, Statman said the fellowship recipient typically performs on a Friday night, but his performance was moved to a Thursday.

“Things can be done but usually aren’t expected,” he said. “I just say, ‘I’m sorry, can’t do it.’ If you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”

Like Statman, Wicentowski said when it comes to a conflict between his faith and his music, he always knows the answer because of his commitment to his observance.

“It’s just a given,” Wicentowski said.