scorecardresearch Skip to main content

I skipped synagogue for a Grace Jones concert and felt the power of Rosh Hashana

How a guilty pleasure turned into a spiritual connection.

Grace Jones performing in Stuttgart, Germany, this summer.Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images for Mastercard

My arms break out in goosebumps as Grace Jones takes the stage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in September 2022. A towering Philip Treacey fedora and 6-inch platform heels accentuate the former supermodel’s statuesque physique. Ordinarily, I would be at my synagogue on this first night of Rosh Hashana, but the opportunity to see the septuagenarian superstar may not come again. Seizing this chance strikes me as a spectacular way to celebrate Creation.

Snarling the lyrics to “Nightclubbing,” Jones languidly descends a staircase that forms the backdrop of her set. A Studio 54 fixture during the excesses of the 1980s, she performs an icily robotic rendition that’s an insider’s account of how debauchery can turn tedious.


It’s the perfect setup for her original composition “This Is.” Jones removes her sunglasses, serious as a heart attack: “This is my voice / My weapon of choice,” she proclaims. I gaze up at her 13-foot tall visage projected onto screens beside the stage. White slashes accentuate her magnificent cheekbones, her almond eyes twinkle under knife-sharp brows, and her plum-stained lips pose essential questions: “Are you going into the light? / Are you freeing your fear today?”

The song has particular resonance for me on this start of Judaism’s Days of Awe — 10 days of reflection, repentance, and renewal, a time when Jews measure the mundane reality of our daily lives against the urgent purpose of our ideals.

Along with the skunky waft of cannabis from a few rows over drifts the memory of my husband’s reproach when I suggested that he accompany me to this concert. “I’ll be at temple observing the holiday, and I hope you’ll join me,” he said tersely. At this very minute, just a short drive down the hill, services at Temple Israel of Hollywood are underway. I picture my husband inside the sanctuary, adjusting his tallis, davening as he chants from the Mahzor. What part of the service are they up to, I wonder.


A kaleidoscope of lights and images flash onstage as passages from the prayer books dance before my eyes. I recall the pivotal verse from the V’ahavta: You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. What do those words even mean? How is it possible to love God with such ardor? Does anybody really love God like that? I scan the faces of Jones’s devotees, those nearby enough for me to make them out in the crowd.

A man proceeds regally down the walkway wearing a glittering black gown, a towering blonde bouffant piled atop his head. We lock eyes, and he gestures approvingly at my rhinestone-studded catsuit, wise to my homage to the “Queen of the Gay Discos” — but what he thinks about God I couldn’t venture to guess. If Moses himself were here to witness the spectacle of this show, would he chastise us all for worshipping a false prophet?

Jacob was given the name Israel after he wrestled with God. We Jews are Israel’s descendants, God-wrestlers all. I myself am a champion God-wrestler. I torment myself with questions such as whether God exists and if so, why bad things happen to good people — especially the ones I love — and whether God cares or might even be the cause of those bad things. Tomorrow and for the next 10 days and through the coming year I’ll stew over such unanswerable questions. Tonight, I will flaunt my sparkly catsuit and bask in the miracle of my one precious life by dancing under the stars among thousands of strangers.


Grace Jones is a God-wrestler too. To perform her origin story, “Williams Blood,” she disappears briefly behind a screen and reemerges sporting a straw church crown and a hoopskirt of epic proportions covering the thong-back corset bodysuit she’s worn throughout the show. “You can’t save me / You can’t save a wretch like me,” she begins. Tender, confessional, vulnerable, Jones sings of freeing herself from a stultifying upbringing.

I can’t claim to be one of the Grace Jones fanatics here who know every lyric and lick by heart. My admiration for her has more to do with her biography, her fearlessness, and the independence that propelled her from a Pentecostal upbringing in Jamaica under her stepfather’s regime of beatings and the Bible to the Paris catwalks for Yves St. Laurent and Kenzo and the covers of Elle and Vogue. “In a room full of doves / I’m waitin’ for the angels / Spreading my wings / So I can fly.”

If I listen carefully, one of my favorite meditations in my synagogue’s holiday prayer book echoes beneath Jones’s ballad. “Each of us is capable of an unimagined greatness. Each of us is a treasure house of vital potential.” Jones unearthed her own possibilities by embracing the part of her that others tried to extinguish. She built herself from the inside out, rejecting the judgments and opinions of others. It’s the work I intend to undertake in the year to come, to be “more like a Jones” in this regard. In spite of imagined rebukes from my husband, our rabbi, and even Moses himself, my choice to be here marks the first test of my resolve.


At the final crescendo, Jones flips her song’s start on its head, breaking into “Amazing Grace.” Her voice soars, transforming the Hollywood Bowl into a sacred space. When the song comes back around to the chorus, the grande dame of the disco sashays over to her two backup singers and relinquishes her microphone. The first one takes over the refrain. Loud cheers go up from the audience out of appreciation for the singer’s powerful voice and surprise at Jones’s un-diva-like graciousness. After the first singer has basked in her solo, Jones takes the microphone to pass it to the other singer, planting a kiss atop the first woman’s head as she does. Jones smiles behind the pair, her palms outstretched behind their heads as if in benediction. The prima donna I expected is nowhere to be seen.

Now Jones gestures for the audience to join in. Together with 17,500 people, I lift my voice in praise of a higher power. Klieg lights arc in the night sky above us as we sing. Amazing grace / How sweet the sound. All these strangers singing in unison makes me think of the unity of all things. Sh’mah Yisrael. The Eternal One is our God. The Eternal One alone. If there is a God, it is in this oneness.


Mara A. Cohen is a writer in Los Angeles.