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“Kirtan in the Yurt” 

Singing – and chanting – a Joyful Song in Woodbridge

By Stacey Dresner

Richard and Shelley Gans sit outside their yurt in Woodbridge.

WOODBRIDGE – Richard Gans believes music is a “bridge” to spirituality.

“To be active, to sing and to be joyous; it’s in our faith. You know, ‘Sing Joyfully’… ‘Burst out in song,’” he quotes. “Expressive Judaism, I guess, is something that I yearn for myself.”

It was that yearning that helped the Woodbridge resident create “Kirtan in the Yurt,” a musical experience that combines the call-and-response chanting of traditional Hindu kirtan music with Hebrew chanting, and raises its voice in a yurt in Gans’ own backyard.

Gans’ yurt – a structure based on the traditional, portable shelters used by Mongolian herders for thousands of years – is 500 or 900 square feet and 30 feet in diameter. The cylindrical structure is constructed of wooden lattice walls and polypropylene insulation and covered in canvas. The ceiling is a dome, which opens and closes. Inside the multi-purpose yurt is a small kitchen with a sink, toaster oven and hot plate, a work area, and sofa bed. A fireplace and air conditioning allow for year-round use. There is even an ark that holds a Torah scroll.

“It’s in the round. It’s an ohel [tent in Hebrew]. It feels inclusive. It has an opening – the ocular to the sky. It’s temporary but it’s permanent. It doesn’t have walls, per se. It’s a bit nomadic. It seems like Abraham’s tent in a way; it has that type of feeling,” he explains.

To Gans, what goes on inside the yurt is more important than the unique structure itself.

Besides kirtan, Gans and his crew of musicians also hold holiday celebrations in the yurt – including a Chanukah celebration last December and a Passover Freedom concert that drew 40 people from the community last year. 

Gans also rents out the yurt to a variety of groups for a variety of purposes. Sometimes there is yoga in the yurt, and writers retreats and church group events as well. On the weekends, the yurt is also available as an AirBNB.

Gans decided to build the yurt during a difficult time in his life that included the loss of both his mother and sister in a short period of time. His two grown daughters were also both leaving the nest.

“I walked out in the woods one day and I said [to my wife] ‘Shelley, I want to build a yurt,’ and I put a stake in the ground. She didn’t say no. She said, ‘Ok, but the yurt should be here,’ and she picked up the stake and put it in another spot – the right place.”

Here was at the highest point of their wooded backyard. Shelley Gans says the cost of the yurt was around $30,000, between clearing the land and buying and installing the yurt.

“When he told me he wanted to build a yurt, I thought, as far as midlife crises go, he could have done worse things, you know?” Shelley says. “It was cheaper than a sports car and a boat. And it was going to enhance our lives. I knew at that time he needed to heal… Sometimes when life is sort of setting you up with destruction, you say, Ok, what I need to do is build. ‘A time to build,’ like it says in Ecclesiastes. It was a time to build and then it was a time to retreat and to figure out what the next step was.” 

Shelley Gans is well known in the local Jewish community. She worked at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven for 18 years. She left the JCC two years ago.

“I was a community builder at the JCC and now we are building community in the yurt,” she says.

Richard and Shelley Gans are partners in this meditative musical endeavor. Richard makes the music and Shelley tends to the business end of the enterprise. She markets Kirtan in the Yurt and acts as gracious hostess, greeting chanters when they arrive, helping to seat them and making a warm cup of tea for anyone who needs it.

“Shelley is the ultimate ‘balabusta,’” says chanter Sarah Blum of Woodbridge. “She is amazing. Richard does his music and Shelley is right there.”

 

A SPIRITUAL RETREAT

After the yurt was built, it “became a spiritual refuge for me at a time in my life when I needed to retreat,” Richard Gans said. “For almost two years no one came. I was really pretty much in my spiritual retreat. It was a meditative time. I was kind of incubating and meditating.” The space became a studio for Gans, an artist, filmmaker and musician. 

“I always had the idea to open it up to become a place where people could gather and have community and have spiritual musical experiences,” he says.

For many years, when his daughters Aliza and Sarah were children, they played in a family band at synagogues on Friday nights and at The Towers, a senior adult residence in New Haven.

It was around that time that he began to seek a different kind of musical spirituality.

“I felt a deadness in prayer in synagogue, not a joyous spirituality, but kind of a subdued, passive almost boredom,” he says. “I caught on to Shlomo Carlebach. He was my inspiration for this music – simple music that is accessible.”

Richard Gans, far left, and The Shemantra Band, from left, vocalist Rachel Lovins, Flute player Peter Hadley, and violinist Nissen Weisman.

Gans was first introduced to kirtan music when he heard the music of Krishna Das at a yoga retreat. Krishna Das was born Jeffrey Kagel, a Jew from Long Island who has become a famous kirtan musician. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2013.

“I heard this music and it was people singing, and call and response. And it was just so beautiful and so spiritual,” says Gans who began going to Krishma Das concerts and workshops. “I decided, well, this is it. Something that not only creates community but brings liturgy and spirituality alive and meaningful and meditational.”

All that was well and good, but Gans also sought a Jewish context for his chanting. 

“I said I’m not going to chant in Sanskrit and to deities. So I began overlaying Hebrew prayers, initially overlaying Hebrew prayers onto Krisha Das tunes and then eventually started composing original chants,” he said.

A keyboard player most of his life, he bought a harmonium – “a drone instrument or wind-driven keyboard of sorts” – and learned to play.

As the story goes, they built the yurt and people started coming.

At first, Shelley says, “all of our Brooklyn hipster cousins wanted to stay in the yurt. My daughter Sara is at Brown and we hosted a Brown Hillel retreat – 20 kids and everybody wanted to be in the yurt.”

Above all, however, the yurt became the place for Richard to make his music.

“We committed to doing any every week practice, to hold the kirtan every week. If we were going to build something we wanted it to be not a hit or miss kind of thing. We wanted people to know every Thursday night we hold a kirtan and it would also be a way of developing and growing into my craft, my practice. And a way of debuting new compositions, playing with new artists, kind of like a workshop of sorts,” he says.

Four or five people – mostly friends – began showing up for those early Kirtan in the Yurt sessions. The number of attendees grew from word of mouth. Shelley began a Facebook page and started an email list to send announcements to Gan’s kirtan admirers.

Now nearly every Thursday, Gans chants and plays his harmonium, accompanied by his core musicians – vocalist Rachel Lovins, Nissen Weisman on the violin, and Peter Hadley on the flute. He calls them “The Shemantra Band.” Various other musician friends show up from time to time.

On one evening in late June, Shelley stands outside the yurt welcoming a fairly large crowd of 27 people who enter the darkened space, some settling on small sofas and seat cushions; others resting on woven blankets on the floor.

While a kaleidoscope of colorful designs is projected on the tapestries behind Gans, he gets the music started by quietly singing the world “Shalom,” or shal-ohm – emphasis on the “ohm.” Lovins lends her voice in soulful harmonies and Nissen both chants and adds some melodious string accompaniment.

The crowd repeats the chants, some with eyes closed, some swaying back and forth. All of the chants are in Hebrew (with a few lines of popular songs thrown in every now and then). Knowledge of Hebrew is not necessary. Everyone gets a sheet with chant lyrics: “Av Harachaman”; “Shiru Ladonai Shir Chadash;” and “Kadosh Kadosh” are a few of the short Hebrew phrases Gans and his band reverently chant and the crowd repeats. 

Sarah Blum has attended Kirtan in the Yurt since the beginning. Over the years she has studied yoga and meditation.

“I consider it part of my self-care,” she says. “I have a very demanding job as a chaplain in a hospital so when I get there it is a time for me to be able to let go of the day, to be able to be present, it’s a time when I can become aware of my own thoughts and feelings and it releases and revitalizes…It’s very rejuvenating for me and also a way of being in community.” 

Julie Robbins of Westville is also a Kirtan in the Yurt regular.

“It’s a place where I feel replenished from daily life,” Robbins says. “I walk in and there is a sense of community; there is a sense of acceptance. And then there’s this connection that happens, between us, and something greater than us. When the chanting happens the vibration of the sound is something that you are hearing, thinking about but also feeling in your body. So it’s the embodiment of a practice.”

As a massage therapist, Robbins says, she is often concerned with the “downregulation” of the nervous system, or the way our bodies are able to calm us down when we are very stressed.

“I experience going to the yurt as healing in that way because I feel like it downregulates my nervous system. And that is a spiritual experience for me,” she says.

Robbins says she and her family attend Beth El Keser Israel (BEKI) in New Haven, “but for me this fills a need in my Jewish practice that I don’t get anywhere else.”

Gans also saw holes in his Jewish life that needed filling.

“I always had an idea that music and spirituality should not be separate,” he says. “I think as a people, we are spiritually bankrupt and we are going through a time where people are all looking for a way to access and connect to God. We don’t have the tools. We weren’t shown the tools, and our experience, oftentimes, in synagogue were not accessible. I feel like if we are going to survive and going to grow and to attract enthusiasm and real intention, kavanah, we need to find creative musical ways to bring us back.”

Not all of the Kirtan in the Yurt regulars are Jewish.

“It’s not just for Jews,” Gans says. “A lot of people gravitate to it and the fact that it is in Hebrew is very exciting for them to be able to chant and learn a little bit of Hebrew. It’s inclusive. I always want to bring them into the experience. It has no boundaries.”

Richard Gans, center, plays his harmonium while chanting kirtan in the yurt with violinist Nissen Weisman, left, and vocalist, Rachel Lovins.

Especially when it comes to his chanters’ ability to sing.

“The great barrier is the people’s relationship with their own voice and their willingness to sing and express their vibration through their voice,” he explains. “This is a practice that doesn’t need or ask for good voices. We all have a voice. In community, we are a sea, an ocean together. You lose your self-consciousness and you are able to just close your eyes and connect with your vibration and the vibration of everybody around you.”

Everyone in the yurt can connect with the beautiful voice of Rachel Lovins.

Gans met Lovins many years ago during an improvisational music session at the New Haven JCC. Lovins, who is now chair of the department of medicine at Middlesex Hospital, was attending Yale Medical School at the time.

“I was heartbroken! [I said] ‘Why are you going to become a doctor? [Singing] is your calling!’ She actually didn’t like that very much.” 

“I was like, ‘Ok, see ya,’” Lovins recalls of that first meeting.

The two didn’t really see each other over the next 20 years but, Gans says, “as I got further into this music, immediately Rachel came to mind as a person that I could sing with. I asked her if she would consider it and she said she’d give it a try, but no commitment. Her voice is so soulful and wonderful and a perfect complement. She’s hooked, I think.”

Over the years Lovins says she had been working on her personal growth, getting into meditation and mindfulness.

“I was familiar with kirtan and had a really positive feeling about it. So when he told me he was doing it in Hebrew, I wasn’t 100 percent sure but I was definitely interested,” she recalls.

And Gans was right; she is hooked.

“Honestly, it’s blissful. It’s only good things. It’s community. When you chant you really are taken out of yourself,” Lovins explains. “You can’t really be involved in singing and at the same time be perseverating over something that is not useful in your life, so I think it makes you present. And then if I’m really present and I’m doing it well and I’m listening to other people sing and I’m listening to Nissen on the violin and I’m listening to Richard’s beautiful voice and not being self-conscious, it’s really blissful.”

Lovins grew up going to shul; her father Rabbi Alan Lovins, is now a psychologist. Several years ago, she and her father served as cantors, singing at BEKI. In the past she has sung Kol Nidre at BEKI.

“I feel very Jewish. I don’t feel like traditional synagogue works for me very well. This is a really nice way for me to feel involved with my Jewish community and my Judaism in a way that is more comfortable,” she says.

Gans has put out “Shemantra,” a CD of Kirtan music, and he, Lovins and his other co-musicians have another one coming out this summer.

On June 27, when they held their first Kirtan in the Yurt since returning from a hiatus spent in Italy, they were pleased with the large crowd.

“I never know when we go into a Thursday night what’s going to happen,” Shelley Gans says. “I’m always surprised a bit, but was happily surprised that night.”

No matter how many people show up, Gans says he is still going to be there, in his yurt, playing his harmonium and chanting his Hebrew Shemantras.

“This is it,” he says. “I have dropped everything else. This is my path and my way of bringing out spirituality into the world and I have committed myself to this.”

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