On the cover of Jack Bielan’s new CD, “From the Heart of a Jewish Soul,” a pianist plays as his keyboard expands and spirals heavenward. Below, the glow from two yahrtzeit candles joins the keys soaring into the clouds.
The painting is, in a way, Bielan’s portrait.
For the past 14 years, the keyboardist-composer-arranger has been the musical director at Valley Outreach Synagogue, where he conducts an annual Shabbat service with a full gospel choir and High Holy Days services with more than 35 singers and chamber musicians. Bielan has toured with Bobby Vinton, written funk music for Motown Records and worked on arrangements for James Taylor’s gold album, “Sweet Baby James.”
But on Dec. 3, the composer will sail into uncharted musical territory: For the first time ever, he’ll conduct a concert of his own Jewish music. His new CD, to also debut Dec. 3, is the first to feature his original Jewish songs.
Bielan, who has earnest blue eyes and sensitive features, rarely wrote his own lyrics until several years ago. The change came after he endured a parent’s worst nightmare, which began on a dark highway near Barstow on Sept. 17, 1995. Bielan’s 17-year-old son, Blake, and his 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, were en route back to L.A. after transporting equipment to one of their father’s gigs. They never made it home. Around 1 a.m., their van was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Both children, along with the driver, died at the scene.
“From the Heart of a Jewish Soul” was born of Bielan’s subsequent spiritual struggle and his ultimate reconciliation with God. “It’s not music about death, but about praising God and praising life,” he says. “The message is that it’s OK to challenge God at the worst of times, because He can take it.”
Bielan, the son of a kosher butcher, became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Etz Jacob, just across the street from his fourplex on Stanley Avenue in Beverly-Fairfax. His musical education began even earlier, after he demonstrated perfect pitch at the age of 6 on the family’s new May Company spinet piano.
By his senior year at Fairfax High, he was a student by day, while by night he talked philosophy with the working-class people who listened to him strum guitar at Peacock Alley on Eighth Street. At 18, he played keyboards for an incarnation of the Strawberry Alarm Clock (think “Incense and Peppermints”); during the early years of his former marriage, he founded a special events company; and in 1985, he was persuaded to become musical director of Valley Outreach Synagogue, though he initially insisted he knew more about Motown than Moses.
All the while, Bielan averaged 20 weeks a year on the road, but in 1991, he abruptly stopped touring. The then-divorced dad had become a single father, with legal custody of his three children, Blake, Samantha and Megan Rose.
“I coached their Little League teams,” he recalls. “I learned to braid girls’ hair. I made sure my kids were off to school and their homework was done and that they were feeling good about themselves and knew they were loved. My children were my life.”
When the police arrived to deliver the news about the accident, Bielan collapsed in his driveway and shouted at God to return his children. Within the hour, his home was filled with Valley Outreach congregants, who fed him and took care of the funeral arrangements and even identified the bodies.Bielan professed his continued faith at the memorial service; when he conducted High Holy Days services two weeks later, he felt he was “in the best, safest place I could possibly have been.” Valley Outreach President Mickey Bilsky recalls, “It was one of the most inspiring High Holy Days services ever.”
But in the following months, Bielan privately went to war with God. “There is no blasphemy, no obscenity towards God which I have not uttered,” he wrote in an essay. “I would find open fields … and I would scream until there was blood in my throat and I couldn’t scream anymore. I would lay down in the middle of the road and rail at God, demanding that He bring a car to kill me.”
In June 1996, having sunk into an almost comatose depression, Bielan decided to attend Samantha’s junior high graduation and Blake’s high school commencement, both scheduled on the same day. “I was still their father, and I would not have their names acknowledged … without being there,” he explains. And so he sat among the cheering parents, never feeling more alone. “I returned home that night feeling certain of my impending suicide,” he says.
When 8-year-old Megan, who had suddenly, horribly become an only child, crawled into his bed that evening, Bielan changed his mind. “[I] looked at my beautiful, innocent, blue-eyed girl … and felt compelled to say to her, ‘I promise I won’t leave you,'” he recalls. Some hours later, Bielan knelt and addressed God. “I’ve lost two of my children, and I can’t lose You, too,” he whispered. “It was at that specific moment that I truly knew God would forgive me and that He was crying with me.”
It’s been a long road back for Bielan and Megan, now 13, but father and daughter have survived, even thrived. “The loss still hurts every day,” Bielan admits. But he finds joy in composing his liturgical music, and he is grateful that Megan is a healthy, athletic eighth-grader who sings and solos for the Valley Outreach choir. Recently, the family celebrated Megan’s Bat Mitzvah in a lively ceremony with Valley Outreach. And Bielan is engaged to be married next year. “I feel blessed,” he says. “I would never diminish anything that’s happened to me, but I have absolutely no interest in being viewed as a victim. I have love and happiness in my life, and I really do cherish every day.”
“Jack is very positive and very spiritual,” Bilsky says.
“From the Heart of a Jewish Soul” is Bielan’s message for people in trouble. “I want them to feel, ‘If this man survived the worst of losses with courage and faith, I can survive, too,'” he says. “The whole album is in the praise of God.”
For tickets to the Jack Bielan and Friends concert at the Performing Arts Center of Cal State Northridge Dec. 3, call (818) 348-4867 or (818) 677-2488. To order Bielan’s CD, go to www.serenitysong.com