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From Sha Na Na to biblical studies
Leader of group is distinguished scholar todayBy David Briggs, Associated Press religion writer
The biblical scholar's hair is receding and his face doesn't reflect the hard life of rock 'n' roll etched into the profiles of many aging rockers.
But a veteran of Woodstock he is. Alan Cooper, a distinguished professor of biblical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was once on the Woodstock stage singing "At the Hop" as a lead singer with Sha Na Na.
Cooper has never told any of his students, yet from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he used to teach, to the seminary here they all seem to know of his brief career on stage.
In the politically charged '60s, Sha Na Na was one group that reminded people how much fun rock 'n' roll could be. In his classroom, Cooper's past enables him to shed the ivory tower stereotype of a professor who has no life outside the classroom and share his love of the study of the Bible.
"Students are always focusing more on the instructor than the content. ... The teacher is the text who is being studied by the student," Cooper says. "I don't know how you can make the Bible dull."
Cooper was a freshman at Columbia University when Sha Na Na began as a student singing group. They began playing their own folk and pop music, using oldies as filler, but they quickly noticed how audiences reacted enthusiastically to the songs from the '50s.
They found work in a New York club, added some choreography and gold lame suits, and it wasn't long before they struck a popular chord as a counterpoint to the more serious political performers of the '60s.
For a couple of glorious years, Cooper enjoyed the rise to fame. He sings the lead in "At the Hop" in the "Woodstock" movie, and made appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "The Merv Griffin Show."
Then he got out, forgoing the wealth and fame of a hit singing group to go back to school to make the study of the Bible his profession.
"I was a college kid who got sucked up in the Sha Na Na thing, had a wonderful time, then got on with my life," he says.
Cooper received his doctorate from Yale University, then taught at McMaster University in Ontario before joining the faculty of Hebrew Union College in 1986. He came to the Jewish Theological Seminary last year.
Sha Na Na is still performing. Those who stuck with the group, Cooper notes, can afford to be men of leisure. After he left the group, Sha Na Na had its own television show and the group still does some concerts.
Except when it's time to pay the mortgage, Cooper has no regrets about his decision to become a professor.
"The pleasure I take from it is incalculable," he says. "I love the interaction with teachers and students. I love the subject matter of my area of study."
The Bible is different from any other text, Cooper says.
"It's the cornerstone of our culture," he says. "It presents us with the vision of the possibility of a good and just society that in no way has lost its value."
Knowledge of the Bible is constantly changing with new archaeological finds and advances in literary and other forms of critical studies of the text, Cooper says.
However, this does not diminish the experience of the ancient Israelite culture "that heard the voice of God" and expressed their understanding in the text, he says.
Today, the Bible continues to mediate to readers an "authentic experience" with the divine, Cooper says.
"The experience of the divine, to know what God wants for the world, what God wants for me, is important to me," he says.
Photos by The Associated Press
1. Sha Na Na, the goofy group that delighted '60s audiences with '50 tunes, included college student Alan Cooper, in the sunglasses looking skyward 2. Dr. Cooper today is a professor of biblical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.