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Neo-Hasidic Jewish Soul Music in the Religious Zionist Community

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Written by:
Yair Peled, Oz Almog

Translated by: Donna Bossin


Contemporary Jewish music was first played in Israel at music festivals catering specifically to the religious Zionist community. By the mid-1990s, this style of music began to cross cultural lines and to appeal to music lovers outside the community of religious Zionists. Even prior to the heyday of this musical genre, young religious Zionists, in particular those of the knitted kippot (skullcaps) variety, enjoyed a mixed musical diet that included popular Israeli music targeting the general public, as well as classical Hasidic music. Among the most popular Hasidic musicians were Avraham Fried, Mordecai ben David, and the Pirchei Miami Boys Choir.

Both the hesder yeshiva programs for young men that combine advanced Talmudic studies with IDF military service and the ulpana academies for religious young women resonated with the hit songs of the young Shlomo Artzi. Indeed, religious Zionist youth, like their secular counterparts, listened to the songs of popular groups such as Kaveret and Mashina, attended live performances, bought every record or cassette tape of their favorite singer they could get their hands on and in general exhibited the behavior typical of young fans and admirers everywhere.

Over the years, religious Zionist society came to the realization that the time had come to provide its own original response to the songs coming out of the secular popular music industry. This awareness was fueled by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s Hasidic soul tunes, music which made everyone want to get up and dance. Indeed, the music of Carlebach—who was known as the Dancing Rabbi—took synagogues, yeshivas and Sabbath tables by storm and inspired many musicians who had returned to their religious Jewish roots to "convert" their music rather than to abandon it altogether.

The religious journalist Jackie Levy believes Rabbi Carlebach is the founding father of contemporary Jewish music. According to Levy, when you put Carlebach’s music together with his appearance and hairstyle, you get the Jewish version of the flower children of the 1960s in America, for Carlebach’s Judaism appears to derive more from spiritualism than from Jewish law, Jewish learning or contemporary politics. Alternative Jewish music has taken up Carlebach’s mantle and has carried it to the distant hilltops of Judea and Samaria, where it now flourishes alongside the meditations of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Among the settlers in the outposts and among the habkukim - an acronym used to describe the disciples of Chabad, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and Rabbi Kook - in the more established settlements, the legacy of Carlebach and of the 1960s blends together with the rebellious spirit of the young religious Zionists and the hilltop youth, a name used to refer to nationalist youth groups influenced by religious Zionist ideals. With the exception of free love and pacifism, the hilltop youth have a great deal in common with the flower children: they are turned off by the establishment and by their parents’ materialist and bourgeois values, they shy away from bookishness, and they embrace nature, spiritualism and freedom.

Some people believe Rabbi Carlebach’s influence extended beyond music, claiming the Dancing Rabbi’s legacy transcended his tunes and melodies to include, among other things, books inspired by his teachings. In effect, Carlebach inspired the development of a traditional Jewish way of life in Israel and abroad that eventually became known in the literature as hasdalut (religious Zionist Hasidism) and more informally and commonly as habkuk.

In contrast, there are those who claim that Adi Ran is the founder of the neo-spiritual genre in Jewish music. Ran, who was born in 1961, was the first secular musician to become a hozer betshuva and adopt a Jewish religious repertoire in his music. (A hozer betshuva is someone who has rejected secularism and adopted a religious lifestyle.) Ran’s debut “Jewish” album, HaAharon SheBaAm (The Last One), released in 1998, includes personal texts about Judaism and about his feelings as a hozer betshuva.

At the same time, another hozer betshuva singer, Yosef Karduner, began to gain popularity as an entertainer at weddings and other occasions in the religious Zionist community. Karduner composed music for Shir LaMaalot (A Song of Ascents - Psalms 121). The song, a hit among religious Zionists, encouraged other religious musicians to compose music and sing songs based upon biblical verses. One example is Aharon Razel’s album Hasneh Boer (The Burning Bush). Until then, the field had been dominated by the melodies Rabbi Carlebach had made famous.

Adi Ran and Yosef Karduner were followed by hilltop singers from settlements in Judea and Samaria, such as Sinai Tor and Shivi Keller and later Udi Davidi, who gave the genre new momentum. Concurrently, Rabbi Carlebach’s style also gained renewed esteem, thanks to artists such as Aryeh Naftali, Aharon Razel and the Reva LeSheva band.

Original Jewish music: not just a passing fancy

In recent years, an innovative form of “secular” New Age music gradually developed in a variety of genres—folk, rock, jazz, reggae and others—with words from biblical sources or personal texts about drawing closer to God. This music set the stage for the wave of creativity leading to what is now known as “original Jewish music.”

Incidentally, in 2008 this genre was more popular in religious Zionist circles than was classical Hasidic music. Composers and artists identified with the religious Zionist camp slowly began pushing Hasidic music stars such as Avraham Fried and Mordecai ben David out of the limelight and positioning themselves to set the musical tone for the religious Zionist public. In a discussion marking the end of the Jewish Music Year 5768, the board of Tevat Hanigunin (webcast for Jewish music) assembled a panel of experts to discuss the status of Hasidic and alternative music in the community.

A music broadcaster on Arutz 7 (a media network identified with religious Zionism) sees a relationship between the musical taste and the political leanings of most of the artists popular in the settlements and of their freaky fans, many of whom live on the hilltops of Samaria. He states that “the music is monotonic, with a simple melody, a guitar in two chords, a darbuka, not too terribly complicated. The idea is to make do with what you have—a few goats, a loaf of bread—to pick hyssop in the hills, to dress simply. The truth burning within them is much more extreme than the truth for someone who lives in Tel Aviv and listens to Tel Aviv pop. Not by chance is this the music of the hilltop youth.”

While this analysis is somewhat logical from a sociological perspective, there are those who would disagree with it, particularly when it comes to music. They believe simplicity is not necessarily synonymous with a lack of depth or sophistication. In fact, a simple melody can often turn out to be a great piece of music. One example is African-American blues music, which is also to a large extent monotonic.

The hozer betshuva musicians and musical composers, together with other artists from Samaria and other regions in Israel, consider themselves to be no less than religious missionaries who use music to reach the very hearts and souls of Jews everywhere. Quite a few of these composers insist they have no need for a muse to be creative. They are guided by divine inspiration, and it is the hand of God that brings forth the words and the melody.

To a certain extent, these musicians see themselves as successors of the Levite tribe. The Levites were responsible for the religious rituals in the Temple, including the songs and the musical instruments. Every day a choir of at least a dozen Levites stood atop a platform in the Temple and sang a special song for the sacrifice and hymns to the Creator of the Universe. Others played instruments, including the harp, flutes, stringed instruments, trumpets and cymbals. A young woman resident of the Jewish settlement in Hebron described this very nicely in an interview for the Haaretz newspaper: “We, the religious faithful, have one goal in life—to draw close to the Creator of the Universe. There are many ways to do this, and for us music is the way. It is more like praying than singing.”

One of the basic tenets of Hasidism is to serve the Creator out of joy, for "the Divine Presence does not rest [upon man] through gloom . . ." (Tractate Shabbat 30b). This tenet led to the development of the tisch tradition. The word tisch means table, and the term has come to designate a gathering of Hasidim around their rebbe that includes singing, dancing and a great deal of joy. The religious Zionist community has begun to draw closer to the principles of Hasidism, but they lack a Hasidic court where believers can communicate with the Creator by singing and dancing to the point of losing control of their senses. Hence, Jewish soul music appeared at precisely the right time to fill this need.

This widening trend, which has gained sweeping rabbinical support, has attracted broad segments of the religious Zionist public, primarily among the younger generation. Today Jewish soul music is considered to be a legitimate cultural, religious and spiritual outlet, with fans idolizing the artists (depending, of course, on the extent of their religious devotion and the content of their songs), rushing to attend performances and purchasing the latest disks of these new music idols.

It is worthy of note that the secular public does not stay away when the artists of this new genre perform. Aharon Razel, who together with his brother Yonatan is one of the leading artists in this genre, noted that “many secular people from Tel Aviv are in our audiences.” This encounter between religious and secular Jews has created a new reality, according to Yonatan. “The religious composers have developed a professional and polished style. Their music has become mainstream, while secular music has begun to be infused with elements of spirituality and the search for Jewish identity. The secular world is searching for itself in the religious world, and the religious world is influenced by the secular world. It’s like a whirlpool in the middle of the ocean.”

Anyone who still naively believes that this is the passing fancy of a handful of crazies trying to create a new musical trend should pay a visit to any music store specializing in Jewish Hasidic music, where the shelves are crowded with an impressive number of disks by religious singers, composers and musicians. These disks can also be heard on Jewish music stations on the radio and on Internet webcasts.

In 2008, top Israeli music performers began to notice that the Bible and the familiar prayers of their childhood could serve as an inexhaustible source of lyrics, and they began releasing albums based on the Jewish sources. They claimed this “tradition offensive” was not coordinated and that each was unaware of what the others were doing. Most of them point to the cultural and artistic shallowness that has taken over Israeli society and has paved the way for a return to biblical sources and Jewish tradition.

Jewish soul music performed by secular artists

The list of artists and composers who have begun to draw from the inexhaustible well of original Jewish music is growing. It includes many of Israel’s most renowned singing stars: David D’Or, Ariel Zilber, Meir Banai, Ehud Banai, Shlomo Gronich, Shuli Rand, Ovadia Hamama, and Erez Lev Ari. A clip of David D'or

Trendsetters in the new Jewish music genre

Pioneering artists

New religious singers and composers seem to pop up on the Jewish music scene every other day. Though they may not yet be familiar to the general public and their music is not played in the “secular” media, their songs are still in great demand, and they are widely admired in their own camp. Following are some of the stars among them:

Yosef Karduner: Karduner, a hozer betshuva singer and composer born in 1969, is known as the sweet singer of Breslov. His music is marked by its melodic simplicity and its many repetitions, thus to a certain extent following in the tradition of Rabbi Carlebach. At the same time, his music has assimilated diverse influences, ranging from rock ‘n roll to jazz and Latin American music.

Adi Ran: Born in 1961, this singer and composer began his career as an angry secular Jew. In the mid-1990s he became religious and joined the Breslov Hasidim. He performs rock and Hasidic music. Adi Ran - website

Aharon Razel: Razel was born in the United States in 1974 and is one of the founders of this new music genre. His parents immigrated to Israel in the 1980s as secular Jews, became religious, and set up a family music ensemble known as the Razel Family Ensemble, with Aharon as keyboardist. Aharon often performs at concerts in memory of Rabbi Carlebach. Aharon Razel - website

Sinai Tor: Tor is a singer, composer and songwriter of Jewish soul rock. A member of the famous Tor family from Kiryat Arba, Sinai began his career in the settlement of Bat Ayin, where he recorded his debut album, Darashti Kirvatcha (I asked you to draw close). Many consider this album to be a milestone in the Jewish music revival. A clip of Sinai Tor

Yehuda Glantz: Glantz is unique on the Jewish music scene. He was born in Argentina and by age five had already been discovered as a musical whiz kid. He immigrated to Israel in 1979. Glantz plays 14 different musical instruments, and he is the only Jewish music star to perform Hasidic South American music. Yehuda Glantz - website

Yitzchak Fuchs: Fuchs, a singer and composer, has been on the Jewish music scene since the 1980s and is considered one of the founders. A clip of Yitzchak Fuchs

Gabriel Chason: In 1994, long before anyone had even thought about alternative Jewish music, Chason had already recorded his debut album, Ma’aseh Etsba’otav (Made by His Hands). His newest album, Hechal Hagevanim Hamishtanim (Chamber of the Changing Colors), was released in 2008. This exceptional album comprises four unusually long instrumental segments, each representing a different world according to the Zohar (the most important book of the Kabbalah): Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action. Chason’s advice to his colleagues: “Don’t play from the notes, play from the soul.” A clip of Gabriel Chason

Udi Davidi: A singer-songwriter, was born in 1978 and now lives in the settlement of Maon in the Judean hills, where he raises sheep and writes songs. His hit songs, Tachsov Tov Yehiyeh Tov (Think Positive, Things Will be Good) and Azeh Tov Hashem (God is Good), have won unprecedented popularity, and his performances draw standing-room-only crowds. During Hanukkah 2008 he appeared in the musical production of Hershele in Chelm (a “kosher” and educational alternative to the secular Hanukkah extravaganzas), for which he wrote the title song. 
Udi Davidi - website ; A clip of Udi Davidi

Shivi Keller: Keller is a singer and songwriter whose work combines song and prayer. His third album, Ani Nahar (I Am a River), released in 2007, includes six songs with lyrics directly from Jewish holy sources and four written by him and inspired by the sources. He borrowed the name of his album from a statement by Rabbi Nachman of Uman: "I am a river who purifies all stains.”

Yonatan Razel: A year and a half older than his brother Aharon, also acquired his love for music at home. In an interview he stated: “We grew up with two religions, music and Judaism.” Ynet Jewish World surfers voted Yonatan vocalist of the year and selected his song Zion as song of the year.

Aryeh Naftali: A leading song writer in the Carlebach style. He was born in 1961 in San Francisco, and at age 20 immigrated to Israel on his own. He studied education and began drawing closer to religion, while at the same time developing his love for music. By 2008 he had produced five albums, which he describes as “alternative Jewish music that is not religious.”

Reva LeSheva Band: This five-member band is led by soloist Yehudah Katz, a resident of Moshav Meor Modi’in. Located in the Ben Shemen area and formerly called Mevo Modi'in, this moshav was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his followers. The band’s repertoire consists of original songs along with new renditions of Carlebach’s songs, and their primary messages include loving the Creator and aspiring for inner peace and world peace. The band’s most well-known song is Ahavat Yisrael Banishama (The Love of Israel in the Soul). Reva LeSheva - webpage on the RNY / Tight Rope Productions website

Madregot Band: This band was founded towards the end of the 1990s by two hozer betshuva musicians, Hod Dayan and Ilan Damari, who is known for his high and distinctive singing voice. Though their music is far from mainstream, they have received good reviews, and some of their songs have even been played on Galei Zahal, the military radio station, among them Shirat Ha’asavim (Song of the Weeds) and Shefel Ru’ach (The Ebbing Wind). A clip of Madregot Band 

The Vach Family: This religious Zionist family has many children, all of whom are endowed with remarkable vocal talents. The family lives in the settlement of Eli in the Binyamin Regional Council. Golan Vach, one of the children, composes the songs for the group.

The Moshav Band: This band is among the best in the new Jewish music genre. The quintet’s six albums helped them establish their preeminent position as leaders in creating original and special renditions of Rabbi Carlebach’s songs. Their original works in both English and Hebrew have made their mark on the Jewish music renaissance. After achieving great success in the United States, they moved to Los Angeles, traveling from there to perform around the world: in Canada, Australia, South Africa, Europe, South America and of course in Israel. A clip of Moshav Band

Other artists

Tal HaLevi: Tal began his career as a sound technician and owner of the Gaia recording studio in the north of Israel, where top Israeli stars recorded their songs. After becoming religious, he founded the Ori’ya recording studio, where he recorded his debut album Halleluyah in 2008. The album’s varied content includes reggae beat, rock, Mediterranean music and music from around the world. Most of the texts are taken from Jewish sources, while others are inspired from within. A clip of Tal Halevi

Netanel Hershtik: The youngest son of world famous cantor Naftali Hershtik, was discovered as a musical talent at an early age. When he was only eight years old, he appeared with his father at concerts in the United States and Europe. In Israel he has performed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra, and the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir.

Nadav Bachar: Originally a secular singer and guitarist, Bachar was a member of the Parva Chama (Hot Fur) progressive rock band. After becoming a hozer betshuva, he joined the Hasidic rock band A Groyse Metzia (A Real Find), most of whose members, like him, are newly religious.

Naftali Abramson: Abramson, a young singer and songwriter, was born in the United States in 1983. His works are influenced by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and by a mixture of American rock and Celtic music. For his second album, he recorded a duet with Ehud Banai.

Yood Power Rock Trio: This exceptional rock and blues trio has taken Jewish rock to new heights. The trio writes and performs original music influenced by the Kabbalah and by Hasidism, together with stirring renditions of such classic rock artists as Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Bob Dylan.

Aharit Hayamim Band: This band, whose name means End of Days, plays an eclectic mixture of rhythms and styles: reggae, rock, punk, international, Middle Eastern, Hasidic and Black music. The band’s members come from all corners of the globe: Yehuda Leuchter, the band’s lead singer, hails from New York, father and son Shmuel and Moshe Caro were born on Reunion Island near Madagascar, Avraham Shurin is from Marseilles, France and Raphael Barkatz grew up in Jerusalem. In 2008, the band launched a countrywide tour of street performances, going from city to city and from northern to southern Israel.

A Groyse Metzia: This ensemble of seven musicians and singers merges the contemporary music of gypsy punk, reggae, jungle and rock with Hasidic and Kabbalah melodies.

Blue Fringe: Blue Fringe is one of America's favorite Jewish rock bands. Its four members—Dov Rosenblatt, Avi Hoffman, Danny Zwillenberg and Hayyim Danzig—live in New York and study at Yeshiva University. Their diverse musical style mixes pop, rock, punk and R&B.

Para Aduma: The six musicians of the Para Aduma (Red Heifer) band got together in 2003 for the annual Safed Klezmer Music Festival. They were so warmly received they decided to continue playing together. They play a wide variety of music: Hasidic, Carlebach, Irish and Israeli. Their debut album, Bidrachim (On the Road), released in 2008, combines passages from Jewish sources with rock, rap and joyous music.

date created:2/3/2009  |  last updated:11/9/2010
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