This month we meet cantorial soloist, theatrical entertainer,
and rabbinic student Charlene Clinkman Brooks!
Charlene, you have been enrolled in Hebrew Seminary’s rabbinic program for a little more than a year now. As a cantorial soloist at Congregation Bene Shalom (CBS), were this years’ High Holidays any different for you given all that you have learned at seminary?
I’ve always loved to share my passion during services by singing the liturgy and writing songs that reflect Rabbi’s sermons, but this year was different. People seem to look at me now not only as the cantorial soloist but as a rabbinic student. This gives me tacit permission not to hold back. People have responded well to me throughout the years, but this year there was a different intensity and connection to my involvement.
My enhanced understanding of Hebrew and Jewish history has brought me such joy and appreciation for our services. I feel even more grateful for the opportunity to participate and I feel deeply the blessing and responsibility I have. I want every prayer to have meaning even if people don’t understand all the Hebrew. I hope I am able to convey the intention and the passion of the liturgy. I believe Judaism can be a very passionate religion, and I think people appreciate that through the singing of liturgy.
Rabbi Goldhamer was unable to be at Yom Kippur services this year and people commented that there were three of his students on the bimah this year – Rabbi Shari Chen, Sari Daybook and myself. I believe we rose to the occasion and we all felt his inspiration encouraging us to reach further into our soul than we ever have before. The congregants were very receptive to us.
This year you sang a song that brought tears to your eyes and we all felt your connection to the lyrics. Can you tell us about that experience?
I sang “Feels like Home.” It has deep meaning for me because this temple is my home and this rabbi is my teacher. The song touches me because I’ve raised my family here at CBS. I’ve grown as a human being here; I’ve come from a secular background and now am a student in the seminary. This temple has changed my life and yes, I’m emotional about it being my home
You are a part of CBS’s Kabbalah services and I sense that you have a real commitment and connection to these practices. Can you tell us about your experience studying Kabbalah with Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer and how these meditations have touched your life?
Kabbalah is a spiritual, intellectual, and emotional journey. I have always appreciated its importance, but it means something more to me now. I intellectually understood the meditations, but as I’ve learned to teach them and incorporate them into my life they have become far more meaningful. The practice of Kabbalistic meditation is not an easy journey or a quick fix. In healing meditation Rabbi urges us to feel the Sephirot’s vibrations and that takes practice. The first time I had an overwhelming experience with vibrations was as we were praying on my leg after surgery. I was surrounded by our two rabbis, and people I care about. I felt the vibrations so strongly it actually made me cry. There was no denying the power and its effect.
Using the meditations that Rabbi Goldhamer teaches with congregants and friends I’ve seen them reap the benefits right before my eyes. In my own daily life I call upon the chants and the meditations that I feel will help me at different times. I’ve come to rely on them. It’s wonderful knowing that there is something available like this to focus and center me.
At difficult moments I will do the Shema chant in my head. I do the Shiviti chant to give me strength. I also do the Modeh Ani every morning to start my day with gratefulness. You can find these meditations and chants here: http://beneshalom.org/sounds-of-shabbat/
Tell us about your career performing as a singer in the Chicagoland area.
I’ve been performing for 35 years. I started in clubs singing with trios, then with bands and orchestras in a variety of different formats. Then I began doing my own theatrical shows and I’m still doing that.
I’ve had experiences from the humorous to the magnificent. I traveled for years with The WGN noon show at state fairs all over the Midwest. I’ve performed before audiences in the thousands and on a stages located by the pigpens at the Illinois State Fair, sometimes w/in the same week. It’s a very interesting life.
20 years ago I started singing at Congregation Bene Shalom. I joined with my family as a congregant 22 years ago and a couple of years later became the cantorial soloist. Coming from a secular background, I got my Jewish education at CBS. I continue to learn through leading the services and now through classes at the seminary.
You often include personal and historical references to your Jewish background as part of your stage persona. Tell us about that choice.
I always have a point in my theatrical shows where I include a message. I find the right moment and it works because they’ve been entertained, and laughed, and shared in some joy. When I take it to a place where it’s very real, very important to me. People are willing to hear it, it makes me very happy. For example, I remind the audience to enjoy today. You never know what’s going to happen. I tell that to myself and my husband all time.
We worry so about the micro-moments and lose sight of the big picture. You can’t put off moments with your family until it’s convenient for everybody. Grab those moments.
My shows are so very different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. I think what makes them unique is that I come to them with all my experiences, even if they are not always visible in the shows. When you sing at the temple you are not just singing, you are singing liturgy with all its meanings. When I do theatrical singing, I always try to convey the meaning behind these songs as well as just having fun.
Do you have a vision or goal for how your life might unfold once you are ordained as a Rabbi?
There are so many possibilities, although I will say that I want to work with the Rabbi doing healing. I love working with the congregants. And, I will always sing. I find singing the liturgy is a wonderful way for me to share it. As a rabbi, I hope to work with people in all their simchas as well as funerals. I have an investment in helping people with funerals. My parents’ family perished in the Holocaust and none of them had a funeral and this has bothered me my entire life. So helping families rejoice in their loved ones life and show respect to their lost loved ones and their families is one way I can give back.