Growing up in Framingham, Massachusetts, Greg Wall had “a smattering of cultural Judaism.” After his bar mitzvah in a reform synagogue, he says, “I was out of there. It did nothing for me.”
Music, though, did a lot for Greg. Moving from Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, Hendrix, Tull and Sly to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, the teenager found his passion.
He played keyboard and sax. After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Greg moved to New York. He would seek his fortune as a jazz musician.
Through “a bizarre turn of events,” he landed gigs in Hasidic Brooklyn. “My mother always said Orthodox Jews were crazy,” Greg says. “She was right. I loved it.”
He played Hasidic weddings “to support my jazz habit.” Gradually, he grew more devout. Eventually, he married an observant Jew.
Still, he says, “I thought we’d just celebrate the Sabbath.” Though Greg no longer played on Friday and Saturday nights, he began recording and touring. He played Carnegie Hall, The Knitting Factory and Joe’s Pub in New York, plus venues from Montreal to Europe.
On trains and planes, he read about Judaism. The more he studied, the more he was drawn in.
Wanting their kids to have the religious education they’d missed, Greg and his wife enrolled them in a Jewish day school. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, he enrolled himself.
“The next thing I knew, I was a rabbi,” Greg says. (I’m sure he left out a few details.)
In 2009 — 3 years after ordination — a friend called. “Have I got a shul for you!” he said, more or less. Greg had no intention of being a congregational rabbi, but when he heard it was in the East Village, he was hooked.
Over the next 3 years, Greg added arts to the synagogue’s schedule. Music 4 nights a week was preceded by classes in theology and other Jewish subjects.
Greg enjoyed his new job. His family didn’t. They couldn’t afford to live nearby, so his wife and kids were stuck in New Jersey.
Last year, a congregant who’d grown up here told Greg that Beit Chaverim needed a rabbi. Greg had heard Westport was “an artsy place. The NFL was not the main topic of discussion” (apparently it was in his Jersey town).
Greg was hired. A few members of the search committee knew his recordings. He’d already proven he could be an excellent rabbi as well as a performing musician, so that was not an issue.
He began his new gig at the Orthodox synagogue on Post Road West last August. He was delighted to find how “nice and genuine” Westporters are — congregants and others — and what active, varied lives they lead.
Greg sees many parallels between Judaism and jazz. Both come from an “inherited tradition.” Both demand plenty of practice.
And, Greg says, both Judaism and jazz “require you to think out of the box. Jazz needs originality and creativity. Judaism tells us to constantly reinvent ourselves. ‘Sing a new song to God,’ we’re told.”
Greg toured Europe last summer. Last week, he played Town Hall in New York. But he loves playing close to home.
You can’t get much closer than the Spotted Horse.
Now he’s booked 3 more performances: the next 2 Sundays (April 6 and 13, 12:30-3:30 p.m.) and Thursday, April 10 (8-11 p.m.).
Being a jazz musician/rabbi in a swinging restaurant is out of the ordinary. So are some of the comments Greg hears.
“People sometimes confide in me between sets,” he says. “That’s fine. I’m always on duty.”
He’s returned to the Spotted Horse a few times — not to play sax, but to lead Talmud classes.
“That’s a lot of fun,” he says. “The food is good too!”
And kosher. Though only when Rabbi Greg Wall performs there.