My religious experience with Natalie Cole

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The late singer, Natalie Cole

Credit: Everett Collection, via Shutterstock

The late singer, Natalie Cole

The late singer, Natalie Cole

The late singer, Natalie Cole

I already miss Natalie Cole. She was a great singer.

She was also one of my greatest religious teachers.

How did that happen?

If you’re like me, you can’t get the song “Unforgettable” out of your head.

Natalie’s late father, Nat King Cole, recorded that song in 1951. Natalie Cole re-recorded the song. She took her father’s recording, and she recorded her own vocal track on top of it. Sometimes she interwove her own singing with her father’s. Sometimes she harmonized with him. Sometimes, they just sang the same notes — just forty years apart.

What does this have to do with religion?

I am thinking about what it means for religious people — of any flavor — to engage in communal worship.

  • Some worshipers lip synch with the tradition. I have inherited a liturgy, and I pray it. My ancestors did it, so that is good enough for me.

But when you just do it without thinking…..

The ancient prophets railed against doing that. Isaiah went ballistic over those who simply went through the motions, turning the sacred obligations into “human commandments, done by rote.” Hasidism tried to fix this, infusing an ancient tradition with new meaning.

  • Sometimes, you do Karaoke. Someone is playing the melody, but you are doing the singing. Translation: you actually do have a living relationship with the past. It is no longer tradition for its own sake. You are a partner in its re-creation.
  • Sometimes, you improvise. You have the basic themes, but you make up new words and go in new directions.

Perhaps this is what the Psalmist had in mind, as well, when he (she?) said that we should “sing a new song to the Lord.” I would like to think that it was not totally new. Maybe it was an improvisation on themes that were already there.

Reform Judaism, and other modern Judaisms, has often improvised on the themes, and created new ways of approaching them. They write new prayerbooks, taking the themes of ancient prayers and re-write them, infusing them with new life and meaning,

Sometimes, praying is like lip synching. Sometimes, it is karaoke. And sometimes, it is improvisation. All good worship contains some elements of each of these. Too much of any one of these, however, is probably not a good idea.

But, thanks to Natalie Cole, I have a different way of understanding worship.

  • You can pray like Natalie. Remember how Natalie Cole took her father’s recording of “Unforgettable” and put her own voice into it?

Ideally, that is what worship can be.

It is like hearing your parents or your grandparents’ words — even their voices.

And then, you go into the recording studio of the spirit (your church or synagogue). The generations sing to and with each other.

We Jews know this. Take the Yiddish term for prayer — davven.

It contains the word av, which means parent. To pray is to let your parents sing along with you and pray with you.

So, this weekend, whatever your religious tradition — do it Natalie’s way. Hear your ancestors’ voices, and sing along — but add something new.

May this little lesson in worship be yet another way that Natalie Cole will be “unforgettable.”