Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Jewish pianist Mikhail Klein collapses, dies on stage

(JTA) — The celebrated pianist Mikhail Klein collapsed and died on stage at the age of 72 while performing his own composition in his hometown of Irkutsk.

Klein, who in 1987 was awarded the prestigious title of Honored Artist of Russia, died at the foot of a grand piano of the Irkutsk Philharmonic Orchestra on Tuesday before hundreds of people who had come to hear him play, said the municipality of the Siberian city, situated near Russia’s border with Mongolia.

“I was sitting in the front row and, seeing that Mikhail Leonidovich was ill, ran up to him,” the head of the city department of culture, Vitaly Baryshnikov, told RIA Novosti.

Two of the city’s most prominent physicians were in attendance but their attempts to reanimate him with a cardiac massage did not succeed. He died, reportedly of heart failure, just before 8:30 p.m. He had lived in Irkutsk for the past 45 years and has worked for the Irkutsk Philharmonic for all that time, the orchestra wrote in an obituary mourning his death.

With his “fanatic devotion to the arts,” the obituary said, he “brilliantly represented Russian musical art in many cultural and educational activities” locally and abroad. “His other passion was sports, loyalty to his friends — colleagues in the volleyball team, which he carried through all his creative life,” the statement also said.

Known in Russia and beyond for his renditions and interpretations of works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and other great composers, Klein, who was Jewish, was also a prolific jazz composer and enthusiast.

He was playing “This is all Russia,” a jazz composition that he wrote featuring fragments of several famous Russian songs, before he collapsed.

15 tracks to top your High Holy Days playlist

For centuries, the blast of the shofar has jolted generations of Jews into the proper frame of mind for the introspection needed to pursue teshuvah, or repentance, during the Days of Awe.

But that doesn’t have to be the only way to get into the spirit of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. For a more modern musical approach, try listening to a little Justin Bieber or Nirvana. Because while “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” — as Elton John sang in 1976 — it’s still the best place to start.

Here are some other songs and lyrics to get you going.

“This Is the New Year” (2014)
A Great Big World
“Another year you made a promise
Another chance to turn it all around
And do not save this for tomorrow
Embrace the past and you can live for now”

“Sorry” (2015)
Justin Bieber
“I just need one more shot at forgiveness
I know you know that I made those mistakes maybe once or twice
By once or twice I mean maybe a couple a hundred times”

“Please Forgive Me” (2010)
Bryan Adams
“Please forgive me
I know not what I do”

“Sorry, Blame It on Me” (2006)
“As life goes on, I’m starting to learn more and more about responsibility
I realize everything I do is affecting the people around me
So I want to take this time out to apologize for things I have done
And things that have not occurred yet”

“The New Year” (2003)
Death Cab for Cutie
“So this is the new year
And I have no resolutions
For self-assigned penance
For problems with easy solutions”

“The Apologist” (1998)
“When I feel regret
I get down on my knees and pray
I’m sorry, so sorry”

“All Apologies” (1993)
“What else should I be?
All apologies”

“Man in the Mirror” (1987)
Michael Jackson
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change”

“Let’s Start the New Year Right” (1942)
Bing Crosby
“Let’s watch the old year die
With a fond goodbye
And our hopes as high
As a kite”

And, of course, Leonard Cohen’s riff on the Unetanah Tokef prayer from the High Holy Days liturgy:

“Who by Fire” (1974)
Leonard Cohen
“And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry, merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?”


“Sorry” (2005) by Madonna

“Oops! … I Did It Again” (2000) by Britney Spears

“New Year’s Day” (1983) by U2

“Hard to Say I’m Sorry” (1982) by Chicago

“(Just Like) Starting Over” (1980) by John Lennon

Jewish End of Life Music by Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael

Expired And Inspired

Expired And Inspired

Jewish End of Life Music

In 2001, I had a conversation with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi z”l after my father of blessed memory, Mitchell Robinson z”l left this world. Reb Zalman talked about having a CD of Nichum Aveilim music: songs to comfort the mourner. Although I had been singing and recording for many years, at that time I just wasn’t ready to face a whole recording of an end of life genre of music.

The Process

Several years passed and then other friends, family, and colleagues died. Sometimes their death inspired me to compose a song to honor their passing. On other occasions, a song would come to me based on a traditional teaching that I might use in my pastoral work as a rabbi. Without even realizing it, I was compiling a series of “Jewish songs of comfort”.

I once learned that in an African country when a child is born they bring forth a new song. Looking back now, I see that unfortunately over the years, death has written a number of songs for me as well. Sometimes I look upon death as a mystifying detour taking us places we never imagined we would go. I never really wanted to be called to this work of composing songs for the deathbed and grief. Yet I have to acknowledge the bittersweet edge of creativity, comfort, and memory that my collection of songs have offered me and others.

The Result

          In 2014, after my teacher and mentor Reb Zalman died, I made a commitment to working on a CD of End of Life music called, “May the Angels Carry You – Jewish Songs of Comfort for Death, Dying and Mourning. The title of this CD is the title of a song dedicated to Savina Teuval z’l, a Jewish feminist scholar, as I was privileged to write it after singing at her deathbed.

It is also the title of the book written by my life partner, Dr. Simcha P. Raphael, founding Director of The Daat Institute, for Death, Awareness, Advocacy and Training, which is a short collection of prayers and readings for the deathbed, including the lyrics to the songs on the CD.

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach about this music for a public Jewish death and dying series sponsored by the Daat Institute and The Jewish Relationship Initiative. In teaching my session “Wisdom for the End of Life Journey” I researched other songwriters with a similar type of music that could be used at various stages of the end of life journey: Dying, Death, Taharah, Funeral, Shiva, Shloshim and Yartzeit.

A Resource

I have received many recommendations from my rabbinic colleagues in the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, and from Chevrah Kaddisha members. Many composers are listed, as this music spans the Jewish movements.

I am providing a link to the song sheet of the many heartfelt offerings from various Jewish songwriters. The list is not complete, but it’s a start. [Link to download END OF LIFE SONG SHEET] What is not listed are, of course, the various wordless niggunim that can be used at any time.

Life endings are always hard, and may be complicated and tragic, but music is the great soother. May this compilation be an assist for you at this holy time.

[Ed. Note: The list that Rabbi Raphael compiled spanned nine pages – far too long to include here. She has provided a link to download the list as a PDF file. If the link does not work, please email me at, and I will try to forward it to you. — JB]

Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi G Rayzel Raphael

Rabbi G. Rayzel Raphael is a Reconstructionist Rabbi in the Philadelphia area. She has a private practice, performing life cycle rituals as well as other artistic offerings of her soul. For more information see her website:



In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses. The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PSST; 8 PM EDST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is:

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgment. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session, and also receive a message on how to view a recording of each of the sessions.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program.

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you consider a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome.





Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings in the Spring on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays – the day of the week will change in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.


If you are not sure if the Nechama course is for you, plan to attend the Free one-time online PREVIEW of Nechama session planned for Monday evening March 6th, 2017 at 8-9:30 pm EST (5 PST/6 MST/7 CST/9 AST). The instructors will offer highlights from the material that the course covers, and let you know what the course includes. You can RSVP to


You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at A full description of all of the courses is found there.


For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. or, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.



Plan ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register now, and reserve your hotel room!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017


Registration is now open. Advance prices are good through the end of February. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study, and more.


The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to the Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.


We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700,


Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (



If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.



Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.



If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.





Klezmatics bringing a healthy dose of heresy on tour

Grab your children and your grandparents! A band of Yiddish heretics are zingen their way to Southern California!

Not that you should worry. These heretics, the Klezmatics, are happy and coming to share their zest for Eastern European Ashkenazi-inspired music.

What is so heretical about a long-established Grammy-winning group setting out on its 30th anniversary tour with December stops in Los Angeles and Costa Mesa? Along with the usual Yiddishe party music — which also includes songs by Woodie Guthrie — the band will perform songs from its new album, provocatively titled “Apikorsim/Heretics.”

For many Jews, the Yiddish word apikorsim — used as a cutting term by one Jewish denomination to describe the perceived religious deficits of another — is mostly familiar through its use in Chaim Potok’s best-seller from the mid-1960s, “The Chosen.” But Lorin Sklamberg, the Klezmatics’ longtime lead vocalist and accordion, guitar and piano player, doesn’t see it that way. For him, the word’s meaning moves beyond a Jewish showing of disrespect to representing one of the joys of the Jewish world.

“It’s not unusual for us to take things that have a stereotypically negative connotation and turn them around,” Sklamberg said in a recent phone interview the morning after he had flown to New York following a Klezmatics performance in Poland. 

As Sklamberg explained, the band likes to find a “positive aspect of something that might be somewhat controversial.” For instance, the title track of the new album, “Apikorsim,” represents the coming together of a traditional Yiddish dance tune by Klezmatics co-founder, vocalist, and horn and saxophone player Frank London with lyrics by contemporary Yiddish linguist Yuri Vedenyapin, who the band asked to write on the topic. “They just completely went to town on it,” Sklamberg said. And with lyrics like “Happy heretics don’t think about God … Happy heretics have no rabbi … Happy heretics don’t get circumcised,” it’s clear the writers not only had “gone to town,” they had left the shtetl

“You could take it literally or you could take it metaphorically,” Sklamberg said when asked about the song’s provocative lyrics. For him, the song invokes the thoughts that “you don’t need to have all those strictures in your life to enjoy life” and that “you don’t have to abide by Orthodoxy,” he said. 

“One of the nice things about the Jewish world,” he added, “is that there is a tacit acceptance that people allow everyone else to be Jewish in their own way.”

Sklamberg described the band’s following as comprising “everything from religious Jews with yarmulkes and beards to hipsters with tattoos and beards.”

“All of these Jewish worlds have been allowed to co-exist. I think that’s one of the delights of being Jewish,” said the musician, who had a Conservative upbringing at Temple Beth Torah in Alhambra.

Another song on the “Apikorsim/Heretics” album shows the group’s knack for turning around meaning. “Ver Firt Di Ale Shifn?” (Who Guides the Ships?) — with Yiddish lyrics by Zishe Landau (1889-1937) and music by Chava Alberstein — asks, in the form of a riddle, “Who plays with the children, and takes some of them away?”

Sklamberg said initially he was puzzled by the song’s lyrics. “As it turns out, Landau had lost a child, an infant when he was young,” and the poem “was kind of a lullaby for the child,” Sklamberg explained. But he sings the song with a broader meaning. It’s “for all parents who have had the tragedy of losing a child,” he said. “It’s one of the most well-received songs in our concerts.”

Growing up in Monterey Park, Sklamberg was in high school when he began playing accordion in a band called Rimonim that performed Israeli folk-dance music at weddings and bar and bat mitzvah parties.

“I didn’t know how the music was connected to my heritage and how the music I was hearing in shul was related to what we were playing,” he recalled. “There were people around I could have asked, but I didn’t think to do it.

“When I moved to New York and started studying Yiddish and getting involved with the Klezmatics, I started to see how all these things that I had grown up with were interconnected,” said Sklamberg, who as an original member has been with the band for 30 years.

His experience with listening to Chasidic music in shul and studying Hebrew at his synagogue’s school and Los Angeles
Hebrew High School helped ease his evolution to klezmer. “All these tools were really helpful in becoming proficient in Yiddish instrumental and vocal music,” he said, voicing a conclusion he laughingly acknowledged would make his Hebrew school teachers happy.

One of the ways the Klezmatics keep their audiences happy is when they conclude each show with “Mazel Tov,” a “little lullaby waltz” written by Yiddish singer, actor and impresario Boris Thomashefsky. The group plays it at the end to “wish everyone well and off into the night,” said Sklamberg, who sings it sweetly and innocently — without a heretical note.

“Every star that shines above us,” it begins, “should always shine on our future.” 

The Klezmatics will perform Dec. 19 at the Pico Union Project in Los Angeles and Dec. 22 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. For more information, visit Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa or Pico Union Project.

The ultimate bar or bat mitzvah playlist

Tired of listening to Kool & the Gang at b’nai mitzvah parties? Here is a playlist of 13 songs that will bring the shy boys and boy-crazy girls to the dance floor, while following in the talmudic tradition of adding a little commentary to the big day.

“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
The Beach Boys (1965)
That would be today, fellas.

“I’ll Be There for You”
(theme song from “Friends”)
The Rembrandts (1995)
Invite 300 of your closest friends!

“Get the Party Started”
Pink (2001)
Best. Entrance. Song. Ever.

Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Don’t forget bubbe and zayde during the candle lighting.

“I Want to Take You Higher”
Sly and the Family Stone (1969)
Lift that chair in the air!

Coldplay (2000)
Is it me or is the synagogue freezing?

“Gimme Little Sign”
Brenton Wood (1967)
No party is complete without a signing board.

“Suit & Tie”
Justin Timberlake (2013)
You’d better dress up, boys.  

Pharrell Williams (2013)
Clap along if you feel … like “Havah Nagilah” is played out.

“Beautiful Day”
U2 (2000)
Sure is.

“Parents Just Don’t Understand”
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (1988)
Sorry, Mom and Dad, but the next 13 years will be even harder.

“Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Drake (2013)
Not if this Jewish rapper has anything to say about it.

“Best Day of My Life”
American Authors (2013)
Until your 16th birthday, that is.


Music makes the long journey from Israel to L.A.

It was late during World War II and Curt Lowens, a member of the Dutch resistance whose family had fled Berlin after Kristallnacht, saw an Allied plane in distress. He knew what he had to do. 

Lowens followed the plane, watched as its pilots bailed out and then met them on the ground, guiding them to safety and helping them evade capture by the Nazis. Now, Lowens’ act of heroism and the story of his life during the war are being honored by a concerto written by award-winning composer Sharon Farber, which will be premiered by the Glendale Philharmonic Orchestra on Jan. 5 at the First Baptist Church of Glendale.

The story of how Farber met Lowens, now 88, is a tale of happy coincidences and being in the right place at the right time. Farber was born in Israel and came to the United States to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1994. Then  she moved to Los Angeles and began scoring for film and television, working on projects as diverse as The WB’s “Superman” animated series and Showtime docudramas. But despite her success in film and TV, Farber had a longing to do something different.

“I come from a classical background, so I knew, always, that I wanted to continue with that,” Farber said during a recent interview. “Unless you’re a film music fan, you don’t really pay attention to the music, while in concert music, people come to hear what you have to say.”

So Farber set about writing classical pieces and soon found her works being produced around town. She was working with an Israeli choir called LA-Shir when fate steered her life in a different direction. The group was performing at the Temple of the Arts, and, according to Farber, “After the performance, [Rabbi David Baron] approached me and asked me if I would consider becoming the new music director. I said ‘no’… but David is a very persuasive man.”

And so a partnership was born. Farber has been the music director at the synagogue ever since, something that has brought her much closer to her faith. 

“When you live in Israel, you take your Judaism for granted,” Farber said. “I realized that here, you have to really seek for it.”

Sharon Farber

Other things, though, just walk into your life — kind of like Curt Lowens. That happened for Farber on Yom Kippur this past year as the composer was searching for inspiration after having been contacted by Ruslan Biryukov, founder of the Glendale Philharmonic, about composing a piece for the group. 

That’s when Lowens, who became an actor, walked onstage and began to speak about his life at the Temple of the Arts. Farber knew she’d found the source of inspiration for her piece.

“When Ruslan called me … for this commission, I was really burned out. I’d just finished three films in a row,” Farber said. “And then, of course, came Yom Kippur, where Curt’s story was presented, and it was so moving … that it inspired me to try and put his story into music.”

The result is a cello concerto roughly 20 minutes in length called “Bestemming,” which means “destination” in Dutch. The piece includes narration, which will be read by Michael Des Barres, the actor and musician, whom many will remember from his role as the villainous Murdoc on “MacGyver.” 

Biryukov said he is excited to premiere the concerto with his Glendale Philharmonic, which was founded at the height of the recession, performing its first concert in 2009, and has managed to thrive. 

“We will have Baroque, we will have Romantic, and also contemporary [music in the program],” he said. Farber’s piece will be bookended by Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” and Bach’s Concerto for Two Pianos in C minor. 

Biryukov, a noted cellist, says that “Bestemming” has proved a welcome challenge. 

“The solo cello part is very demanding technically,” he said. “I have no doubt many cellists… will consider performing this piece. It’s accessible for the listeners, in spite of the fact that it’s contemporary music.”

For her part, Farber is just hopeful that her composition can live up to Lowens’ story. “I’m hoping that I’m able to convey through music what he went through,” she said. 

Lowens has already approved the narration, and plans to be present for the concert, according to Farber

“I hope that this concerto will talk to the hearts of the people, so that we never forget,” she said. “That not only Jewish people will hear it, but people all over the world, that we will never forget what cruelty is, but also what people can do, the courage when you face such a horrible situation.”

Yiddish swing

During the 1930s and ’40s, even as young people across America were swing dancing to the beat of such Jewish bandleaders as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Harry James, a vibrant musical subculture dubbed “Yiddish swing” was flourishing in an L.A. enclave, according to Tali Tadmor, a local pianist, composer and vocal coach. Tadmor’s homage to that Yiddish subculture comes to Hollywood this week, in a musical show she created after being awarded a prestigious Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. 

“I’m mostly a classical musician,” Tadmor said, “but I do a lot of work in the Jewish music world as well, and I’ve done a lot of Yiddish programs before, of traditional Yiddish music, so I knew I wanted something in that vein. And the fellowship required it to be brand-new music — original — as opposed to a remaking of something old.

“A lot of times with Jewish music, it tends to focus on the Holocaust and a lot of the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people. And, to me, Yiddish swing and that whole era in the ’40s is unusual in the sense that it was happy music and happy dance — of course in the midst of a lot of other things that were going on. But that’s really what drew me to that musical genre in particular.” 

While most people associate Yiddish music and theater of that era with New York, Tadmor said the youth of Boyle Heights, quite independently, created a very original form of Yiddish music, dancing and even theater.

“From the interviews that I’ve done,” Tadmor said, “what struck me the most was this idea that Los Angeles had always been an open-minded place … and that a lot of Jews found New York, especially, to be kind of a ghetto of its own. And when they wanted to escape that and do new things, and try new things and not have everybody in your business all the time, they tended to go west.”

Tadmor, a native Israeli, came here 18 years ago, and, while she has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and other venues around the world, she considers Los Angeles her home.

“I always joke and I say I love Israel like a mother, and I love Los Angeles like a lover. It’s a different kind of love, but it’s very intense, and I don’t see myself ever living anywhere else,” Tadmor said. “This is really where I honed my skills and was given opportunities by many, many people and organizations. So it was exciting for me to write a show that was a tribute to that.”

Tadmor’s proposal earned her a place alongside eight other Six Points fellows in the first L.A. cohort; she is the only musician in the group. She hired Jonathan Maseng, a frequent writer for the Jewish Journal, to collaborate with her on the book that serves as the anchor for her original score.

They named the project “Ella Fitzgeraldberg,” because, Tadmor explained, “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” the Yiddish swing hit originally made famous by the Andrews Sisters, was also covered by the legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

The cabaret-style show will be performed Dec. 14 at the M Bar in Hollywood, where the club will re-create a posh nightspot of the late 1930s with newspapers of the day strewn on tables, and, in one corner of the room, a silent film will be projected on the wall. Audience members are asked to dress in the style of the period. 

The evening begins with drinks and dinner, followed by a pre-recorded broadcast, in English, of a fictitious radio program called “Talk of the Town,” in which host Janice Howe (Connie Nelson) interviews 90-year-old Esther “Estee” Gerson (Annie Korzen), the last surviving member of the famous Gerson Girls trio, composed of two sisters and a cousin. Estee now lives in a Florida retirement community and is mourning the recent passing of her sister, Gilda. The story unfolds in flashback, as Estee, who has become a virtual recluse, relives the girls’ glory years as well as their dark days involving alcoholism, scandals and suicide. She also reveals, for the first time, what really caused the breakup of the trio. Her memories are inextricably bound up with the Depression era, World War II, the Holocaust, Jewish assimilation and the founding of the State of Israel, among other issues.

At key points in the story, live musicians and singers will perform a song from the Gersons’ repertoire. Tadmor herself will be on piano and will also be part of the vocal ensemble. Her original score is accompanied by Yiddish lyrics (with English translations provided in the programs), because, as Howe tells the radio audience, the Gersons sang exclusively in Yiddish. Tadmor took her lyrics from a Yiddish magazine called Keshbn, published between 1946 and 2007. “There were about 150 issues,” she said. “It was community generated, so people would send in poems, short stories, jokes and whatever. 

“I took things that looked like poems, that looked like they rhymed, and I went to the Jewish Home for the Aging, and a couple of people there just sat and translated all these poems” into English, so she could understand them before using them in their original Yiddish. 

“That was the starting point for the whole show, those lyrics. And then I set about 10 of them to music. That was the basis of the show, and then the story was written around that and connected one song to another. 

“I hope,” she said, “that people appreciate the richness of Yiddish culture — the language, the humor, the arts — and that they see that there are still young people who are interested in it and wanting to create new works and keep the language alive. 

“It’s not that the language is dying,” she said. “Enclaves of Orthodox Jews will always keep speaking Yiddish, but the secular Yiddish culture is in danger of being buried, and I think this show is just an example of how many people, young people, were excited to take part in this, from the writers, to the performers, to everyone who shows up. And I hope it gives hope for all of us that this beautiful, funny, sarcastic, creative culture will live on.”

“Ella Fitzgeraldberg,” Dec. 14, 7 p.m. (dinner), 8 p.m. (show) at M Bar, 1253 Vine St., Los Angeles. $15, plus $10 food/drink minimum. For reservations, call (323) 856-0036.

ADL raps rapper Kanye West for ‘classic anti-Semitism’ [VIDEO]

The Anti-Defamation League rapped rapper Kanye West over his off-the-cuff remarks in a radio interview that Jews and “oil people” are more well-connected than black people in general and President Obama in particular.

“If the comments are true as reported, this is classic anti-Semitism,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement.  “There it goes again, the age-old canard that Jews are all-powerful and control the levers of power in government.  As a celebrity with a wide following, Kanye West should know better.  We hope that he will take responsibility for his words, understand why they are so offensive, and apologize to those he has offended.”

For the record, here’s what West said:

Man, let me tell you something about George Bush and oil money and Obama and no money. People want to say Obama can’t make these moves or he’s not executing. That’s because he ain’t got those connections. Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people. Black people don’t have the same connection as oil people.

“You know we don’t know nobody that got a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that we can go to when we down. You know they can just put us back or put us in a corporation. You know we ain’t in situation. Can you guarantee that your daughter can get a job at this radio station? But if you own this radio station, you could guarantee that. That’s what I’m talking about.

Longtime West observers might suggest that these comments are just classic crazy Kanye rambling, a habit that occasionally has taken the rap impresario into some offensive places. Back in 2011, West drew criticism when he whined that his detractors looked at him as if he were Hitler. (The ADL seems to have steered clear of that Kanye kerfuffle.)

Still, West’s latest crazy comments provided an opportunity for some thoughtful punditry.

Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress agrees that West was engaging in stereotyping and takes issue with his premise. “The Presidency is as connected an office as exists anywhere in the world,” she writes.

But Rosenberg also suggests that there is a kernel of legitimate insight in West’s remarks. She suggests that West was giving voice to “a sense that there isn’t enough internal solidarity and self-help in African-American communities, in part because there aren’t enough black people in positions of power who can extend a hand up to the people who aspire to follow him.”

Nevertheless, Rosenberg concludes:

It’s one thing, though, to attempt to learn from the ways that other marginalized groups have built political and cultural power. And it’s another entirely to ascribe them with mystic powers of solidarity that paper over deep divisions and conflicts that do great harm to both members of the groups in question, and to people outside them. West may admire Jewish networking, but I doubt that he wants African-Americans to have the exact same experience of Jewish political organizations in the U.S., which haven’t exactly been conflict-free. Invoking some sort of monolithic Jewish authority isn’t just a bad idea because it’s a stereotype, and one that’s fueled hatred and suspicion of Jews for years. It’s a myth that obscures the difficulties of building political power and an enduring movement.

Tablet’s Adam Chandler, meanwhile, thinks West’s remarks were “ultimately harmless.” He writes:

But Kanye, who once declared himself “the Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme” (that’s Dior Homme, not Dior, homie) after the Israeli industry mogul, wasn’t just talking about Jewish power in music. He was talking about Jewish power in everything. Was it pernicious? Not entirely. Just last May we were talking about Vice-President Joe Biden’s oratorical contribution to Jewish Heritage Month, which raised some hackles because it was so laudatory of Jewish influence that it seemed to resemble the tropes of those who trade in conspiracies about Jewish power.

Discarding the fact that one does not become senator, POTUS, or editor of the Harvard Law Review without some contacts, this seems another inelegant but ultimately harmless utterance about Jews, which speaks to a popular perception that keeps some Chinese employers interested in hiring Jewish workers. For those who were fixating on the statement over Thanksgiving, I’ve got to ask, how you gonna be mad on vacation?

Israeli-Iranian DJ group spins for peace in Berlin

It’s 4 a.m. at the famous Kater Holzig club and hundreds of beautiful young people are going crazy on the dance floor to the sound of heavy electronic beats.

To the casual clubber, it’s just another ordinary night out in Europe’s hottest city. But this gathering is far from ordinary. Many of those dancing are immigrants from two countries whose ongoing tensions could explode in the world’s face at any given moment.

Welcome to the first Iranian-Israeli techno party organized by the Iranian-Israeli collective No Beef.

It’s the kind of thing that could only happen in Berlin: Iranians and Israelis clubbing together inside a World War II-era German soap factory that now houses some of the city’s best parties, high, happy and sweaty, grinding it like there’s no tomorrow to tunes spun by DJs from Tehran and Tel Aviv.

A couple of them sit around a small campfire outside the main dance hall, on the banks of the Spree River, passing around sweet-smelling peace blunts and munching on hummus and Persian chicken stew prepared by a Persian-Jewish Israeli restaurateur.

The air is filled with small talk in Hebrew, Farsi and everyone’s common language, German. Nobody talks about politics or nuclear bombs. It’s just a bunch of young people sitting together, enjoying the moment and connecting to each other through the music.

It’s what connected the party’s two organizers, Reza Khani and Roy Siny.

Khani, 36, is a well-known figure in Berlin nightlife as the proprietor of a successful bar in the hip Kreuzberg neighborhood. Siny, 35, is a doctoral student at Potsdam University by day and a popular techno DJ by night.

The two first met at Khani’s bar. Siny was having a few drinks with his girlfriend and ended up playing a spontaneous set. Few words were exchanged, but the pair connected again on Facebook, at the bottom of a long comment thread about the situation in the Middle East.

Siny was engaged in a heated discussion with radical German anti-Israel activists. Khani, who was tired of seeing the argument popping up on his feed, messaged him privately and told him to take it easy.

“I told him he’s wasting his energy on people who have no real understanding of our reality,” Khani said. “That these guys are only interested in arguing, not in finding solutions. We started talking, and it was very clear we have much more in common than just our love for music.”

It was clear as well that Siny was different from other Israelis Khani had met — most of whom, he says, are suspicious and assume he must be an anti-Semite.

“Roy was on a completely different frequency,” Khani said. “We talked and talked and eventually decided we must do something together — something good that can bring other people like us together.”

Thus was born No Beef. Israeli Guy “Katzele” Kenneth and Iranians Namito Khalaj and Afagh Irandoost were the first to join. DJ Asaf Samuel (Michatronix) was hauled over from Tel Aviv to play the first party on Aug. 17. A massive queue of hundreds of people stretched 300 feet down the block.

“We decided we don’t want any kind of brochures or political talk in our party, just good music and good vibes,” Siny said. “I have been to many politically themed parties here in Berlin, and I really didn’t like them. You always see the same faces.

“The German left-wing scene is very closed and narrow-minded. It seems like people there get together not to have fun but because it’s part of some routine. Nothing good can come out of that. We wanted people coming to our party to feel at home and connect with each other, and I think we succeeded in that.”

After recovering from their first party, Siny and Khani sat down to plan a mutual trip to Israel — and another party. If someone had stumbled into the meeting, if would have been hard to tell who was the Israeli and who was the Iranian — except for the fact that Siny was wearing a Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC T-shirt. Germans can’t really tell them apart.

“We are similar in so many ways,” Khani said. “It’s not only how we talk or how we see things that are so alike. Iranians and Israelis have gone through a lot of tough experiences in their lives and it makes them, in a way, a bit melancholic. It’s something we don’t have in common with, let’s say, Canadians.”

Siny said Khani told him of his most vivid childhood memory — hiding from Iraqi bombers strafing Iran during the eight-year war between the countries. Siny had the same memory of running to the bomb shelter as Iraqi rockets fell on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

“Young Germans, for example, will never be able to understand that,” Siny said. “They lead very comfortable lives. They don’t know what war is. Many of them come to Berlin, they party, they sometimes study, they don’t really need to work, and they don’t even realize how privileged they are and always complain about the stupidest things. They’ve never had to struggle to survive like us.”

Both men say their parties are intended not only to bring together two peoples who have much in common, but also to show the rest of the world that Iranians and Israelis are not enemies — that there is, well, no beef.

“The truth is that historically speaking, Persians and Jews were never enemies,” Khani said. “What’s happening now is a result of Israeli policy in the occupied territories and of the Islamic radicalization in Iran. It’s all politics. It has nothing to do with the real will of the people.”

Will they ever be able to throw the same kind of party in Tel Aviv or Tehran?

Not in the near future, as far as the two friends can tell. Both agree that Berlin, where thousands of Iranian and Israeli immigrants live side by side, is the perfect location for them.

“My utopian vision, which might sound a little bit like a John Lennon song or a 12-year-old girl’s dream, is a world where race and religion play no importance and everybody lives together in harmony and peace,” Khani said. “Until that happens, Berlin is the closest thing there is.”

Watch: Drake’s ‘Worst Behavior’ video

If you have 10 minutes to spare, check out Drake’s short film/video “Worst Behavior.”

It’s packed with shots of Memphis, f-bombs, and cameos from Drake’s dad Dennis Graham, Juicy J, Project Pat, and a very entertaining white guy dressed up like Drizzy’s OVO owl.

Jewish highlight: “I imported mine/Bar mitzvah money like my last name Mordecai/F***you bitch I’m Mordecai/My mom probably hear that and be mortified.”

Yeah, that’s definitely possible.

The night Lou Reed came to my house

Lou Reed’s death on Sunday has made me think not just of his music but of his life, and specifically about when his life and mine briefly intersected, back when my brother Frank and I entertained him at our parents’ Philadelphia home, unbeknownst to mom and dad.

It was 1969 and Frank, then in high school, was covering rock music for a local underground paper, The Distant Drummer, a paper that I, too, used to write for.

The Velvet Underground used to play fairly regularly — every six weeks or so, Frank says — at a club called the Second Fret. Frank was friendly with the house band and its manager and got to know Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvets.

So much so that twice Frank brought Reed over to our parents’ Center City brownstone after their gig to party. I don’t recall anything raucous on either occasion. In fact, the first time our parents slept through the whole thing.

It was the end of the summer and I had just returned to Philadelphia after a cross-country drive. Some friends I had traveled with were staying at our house before moving on. I’m not even sure that I went to the Velvets’ gig that night, but Frank was there. Afterward he turned up at home with Lou Reed and (I think) Doug Yule, another member of the band. Frank still can’t figure out why they came.

“I have no idea how that even happened,” he told me. “Why go over to this high school kid’s place were there was no dope and not much to do?“

Sill, we broke open jugs of my father’s probably ghastly homemade wine and finished it all. And it was on this occasion that Lou Reed told us that he didn’t do drugs.

“He told me that that ‘Heroin’ was him being a reporter,” Frank recalls.

In the morning, I’ll never forget our folks’ reaction when we revealed what had been going on as they slept. “What!” my mother said. “You had the Velvet Underground here and didn’t wake us up?”

The second Velvets party was a few months later. Again, Reed and maybe someone else from the band came over after a show. It was a real party this time, with other friends invited. One memory stands out from that night. The Rolling Stones album “Let it Bleed” had just come out, and for almost the entire evening Reed stayed upstairs, away from the other guests, in the room where my parents had a stereo, a real piece of furniture with speaker consoles the size of upright trunks.

The whole night (or so I remember) he stayed there, crouched down, his ear glued to the speaker, playing one track over and over and over: “Gimme Shelter.” I never hear that song without thinking of that night.

Lou Reed dies at 71

Musician Lou Reed, the frontman for the band Velvet Underground as well as a solo artist, has died.

Reed, who was born to a Jewish family, died Sunday at 71. A cause of death was not made public.

He had a liver transplant last year after years of alcohol and drug abuse.

Reed, born Lewis Allan Reed in Brooklyn, N.Y., became influential in rock by blending art and music in New York in the 1960s through Velvet Underground’s collaboration with pop artist Andy Warhol.  The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1996.

Reed quit the band in 1970 and focused on his solo career, which featured the 1972 hit song “Walk on the Wild Side.”

He visited Israel five years ago with his musician wife Laurie Anderson during her world tour.

Reed reportedly was coy about his Jewish roots. He was quoted as saying, “My God is rock ’n’ roll” and “The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.”

Ellen Grossman reviews new Jay-Z album

After befriending rapper Jay-Z on the R train to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Ellen Grossman is now reviewing his latest album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” for MTV News.

Grossman, a Brooklyn born visual artist, was contacted by MTV News after a clip of her subway encounter with Jay-Z was featured in the documentary “Jay-Z’s Life and Times: Where I’m From.”

The unlikely reviewer analyzes a few of the rapper’s rhymes and metaphors, honing in on the trials and tribulations of his rise to fame.

“It sounds like he’s really going deep into his heart and into fatherhood and even the meaning of fame,” Grossman said. “[He’s saying] that the money’s nice, but there’s life beyond that, that he’s exploring. I picked that up from the papers but I felt it in the man too, when I met him. That he had a depth to him.

On one of the album’s 16 tracks, Jay-Z shows love to his Jewish fans — and his lawyers in particular – with the song “Somewhereinamerica.” The first line of the first verse reads, “Shout out to old Jews and old rules.”

This isn’t the only time Jay-Z has mused on Jews in his lyrics. ‘This Can’t Be Life,” from his fifth album, “Roc La Familia: The Dynasty,” has the lyric: “flow tight like I was born Jewish.” Jay-Z has used “Jewish” as an adjective to describe those that are smart or conservative with money.

In “What More Can I say?” from “The Black Album,” he refers to himself as, ”The Martha Stewart that’s far from Jewish,” due to his money savvy mind.

Can’t knock the hustle.

Bands enter b’nai mitzvah music mix

While b’nai mitzvah parties have long featured DJs to mix tunes and rouse the crowd, some celebrants are choosing something else: teen bands.

Make all the One Direction or — for those of a certain age — New Kids on the Block jokes that you want, but this option for musical entertainment has big advantages; it’s competitive from a price perspective, according to Oscar Urrutia, founder of GEC Events and the main event organizer for June 15 Teen Party Expo in Long Beach at the Dome at the Queen Mary.

“A bar mitzvah DJ would charge roughly $1,000, and teen bands charge just the same or a little bit less. It’s something that people are trying and it’s different,” he said.  

Urrutia said several teen bands were introduced for entertainment at last year’s expo, and he found that many attendees were booking them for events.  

Jcity, a Los Alamitos-based teen pop band formed by Justice and Jazmine Lucero (, is one band that will be performing at this year’s expo with the hope of booking more events. The brother/sister duo perform mostly at charity events or stage events with other bands, but also do carnivals and birthdays and recently performed at their first bat mitzvah.

“We would like to do more of them — bat mitzvahs are big,” Jazmine Lucero said.  

She said for parties they usually perform a mix of the top songs on iTunes mixed with a couple originals — “just energetic songs that kids can dance and sing with us; it gets the crowd more involved.”

Thousands of teens and parents are expected to descend upon the Teen Party Expo ( in search of the latest party trends and a swarm of vendors offering steep discounts on entertainment, music, décor and more.  Last year’s expo drew 3,000 parents and their teens from all over SoCal despite inclement weather; this year organizers are hoping for 5,000. 

The event runs from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $10.

In addition to the exhibition with 60-plus vendors, popular DJs (including DJ Drew and Manny On The Streets from “On-Air With Ryan Seacrest,” and DJ Eddie One from LA 96.3 FM) will be mixing and hosting on the main stage alongside five teen bands performing live, who are also vying to book future celebrations.  

Hiring a DJ for a bar or bat mitzvah remains a popular option. Urrutia, whose affiliated company GEC Street Team produces all the musical entertainment for Knott’s Berry Farm as well as private events, said that a new trend at b’nai mitzvah parties is that the DJs have to entertain the adults, too. 

“We’re finding now that people want to entertain the adults as well, so we try to do games and activities that bring the adults and the kids together,” he said.  

Besides classic games like “Name That Tune,” they often do a musical quiz show and their own invention of a game called “Saturday Morning Cartoons,” in which the DJ plays music from back in the day and today and asks quiz questions from both new and old cartoon series.  

“It brings memories back to the adults and gives them a chance to connect with their kids,” he said.   

Other aspects of celebrating the coming-of-age ritual will be addressed at the expo as well. Sam Robinson, owner of Flowers by Sam and a feature designer on WE’s “My Fair Wedding,” does flower arrangements for about 20 b’nai mitzvah each year, primarily at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood.

Robinson said that flower requests for b’nai mitzvah celebrations tend to be traditional: pink for bat mitzvahs and blue-and-white arrangements — in which Robinson mixes white roses with blue roses that have dye injected into the plant — for bar mitzvahs.

Sunflowers are also popular for parties with both genders, and he’s found that glitter and rhinestones are very popular for bat mitzvahs. He either mixes them with the bouquet or applies crystal ribbons to the vases.

“I need some bling,” he said.  

It’s no secret that planning b’nai mitzvah parties, along with other coming-out parties, like quinceañera and Sweet 16, can get complicated — and expenses. These events have been known to average $15,000 to $25,000 on the high end, according to expo organizers.

Lena Dunham posts wedding plans on Instagram

You probably think Lena Dunham is nothing like the lovely cast members of “Princesses: Long Island.” You are most definitely wrong.

Not only is the “Girls” creator a Jewish woman dating a Jewish guy (Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff), but like the reality starlets, she too harbors elaborate wedding fantasies. On Saturday Dunham posted to Instagram this sketch of her dream “Pretty In Pink” style wedding dress, accompanied by a list of the music (Sade) and food (Tofurkey) to be featured at her nuptials.

“An upsetting document from 2002, back when I was fienden’ to get hitched,” Dunham’s caption reads.

Okay, so she did draw this up when she was 16. Since the princesses are all mentally 16, though, we felt it was okay to draw the comparison.

Lena Dunham's sketch. (Instagram)  

Matisyahu talks about his new religious outlook and appearance [Q & A]

Cigarette in one hand and cup of tea in the other, Matisyahu sat down with JTA in his closet-sized dressing room during his European tour to talk about his life, his music, how he's raising his kids, and the recent changes in his religious outlook and physical appearance.

The beatboxing reggae star once known for his signature beard and hasidic garb has left his yarmulke by the wayside, dyed his hair blond and moved to Los Angeles from the hasidic stronghold of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Matisyahu (aka Matthew Miller) says he felt locked in by the hasidic life and at some point thought his look no longer represented who he was. Orthodox Judaism does not have a monopoly on the truth in life, Matisyahu says; each person must discover his own truth. The 33-year-old singer, now dressed in a blue zip-up hoodie, says he still looks to the Torah and Judaism for inspiration, but his view of Jewish law — halachah — has changed.

Matisyahu talked about his ongoing evolution with JTA shortly before a performance at Le Bataclan in Paris.

JTA: A year ago you released the single “Sunshine,” probably one of your happiest songs. In what context did you write it?

Matisyahu: I was in California with my son, who has blond hair. It was “golden sunshine.” There was a really good feeling. Part of that is because of the connection between me and the producer and the way we approached the music — dealing with real topics, but in a positive light. I made certain changes in my life. I feel more open, more free. It’s like springtime coming out of a hibernation.

JTA: Let’s talk about these changes. A lot of your fans were shocked when you decided in December 2011 to shave your beard. Not long afterward, you posted pictures of yourself online without a yarmulke. Now you have dyed your hair blond. Can you explain the different steps leading to these changes?

Matisyahu: When I was in my early 20s, I became interested in Jewish identity and history. I went to Israel and had a strong feeling about being Jewish. I started to think about how to incorporate my spiritual search into reggae music. And I decided to make the leap to express myself as a Jew. I started to wear a yarmulke, grew a beard and changed my clothes. It was very much like the blending of the old mystical tradition and spirituality with who I am in America as a 21-year-old musician. Then I decided that I would go the next level with it all and that I would take on the ideology of Orthodox Judaism, even though I didn’t necessarily understand it logically. I figured that I was going to submit myself to it. And I accepted it. It became a part of my worldview. At the same time, I was traveling a lot, meeting different hasidim, and I really got a good understanding of what it means to be Jewish. But at some point I felt locked in to that vision of the world. I needed to go back to my choices and make decisions about my life. I still believe there is a lot of truth in Orthodox Judaism, but not the whole truth. Each person has his truth that he has to discover. You don’t necessarily have to mold yourself to another idea of who you are.

JTA: So you feel more authentic now that you have shaved your beard?

Matisyahu: When I had my beard and my suit, that was very true for me. In that moment that’s what I wanted. But I did feel that it no longer was representing who I was.

JTA: Were you affected by some of the negative reactions among your fans after you changed your look?

Matisyahu: Obviously it made me a little sad because I’m not really interested in making people upset. But at the same time, I’m not representative for anyone. Some Orthodox Jews felt that I betrayed them. There’s no betrayal; every person has to do what is right for him in his life. Then, separate from religion, there is the image issue. Some artists are bound to an image: Bob Marley has dreadlocks, Matisyahu has a beard. But that’s a reminder that the whole thing is not about style. It’s about music.

JTA: Still, you were, maybe unintentionally, a symbol for many Jews around the world that it was possible to reconcile tradition and modernity.

Matisyahu: I think I’m still doing that! I’m looking very much towards the Torah and Judaism as a source of inspiration. Maybe it’s not as obvious for people on the surface, but anyone who really listens to my record will find depth. And that’s a good way to weed out who is a real fan and who cannot go with you. When you are in a relationship with an artist, if his music is a part of your life, you have to choose whether or not to follow him through his transformation and evolution. You know, it’s like the story of the golden calf. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the first thing he does is burn it and it goes back to its original form. Sometimes a calf comes to us like an idol and we become stuck in an image. But to go back to the truth, we need to get rid of the image and get back to the base core. That’s kind of what I did.

JTA: Has your observance of Judaism evolved, too?

Matisyahu: I’m taking every day as it comes. For example, if I’m on the road with my chef or if I’m home, it’s very easy to keep kosher. But what is it to keep kosher? Is it eating kosher potato chips? Kosher is a bigger idea. I think it’s about being healthy. But according to some people, it’s about not eating this food because it’s forbidden by the Jewish law. My view of the halachah changed a little bit. The laws are there hopefully to be a tool. When they’re acting in that way, I’m following them. But if not, I’m not just doing random things because that’s what you are supposed to do.

JTA: How did the people around you react to your changes?

Matisyahu: The people that I’m around are my band. That’s who I’m spending most of my time with on the road. They’re not religious, they’re not Jewish and they’re very understanding. Also, I don’t live anymore in the neighborhood where I used to live. As for my family, they are very accepting of my changes. My kids are learning very different perspectives. I felt that was something very important to teach them all along: bringing them out, getting them out of the shtetl, seeing the whole world, meeting people from different cultures, stressing the humanity of mankind. They’re also growing up with a strong Jewish identity because it’s a big part of our lives — with Shabbat, holidays and even school. I’m teaching them real Jewish values: not to judge people, believe in unity and oneness, and also to know who they are.

JTA: Will we see a new Matisyahu a couple of years from now?

Matisyahu: In life, you’re never going to escape yourself, you’re never going to become something else. Hopefully, if you’re having this interview in two or three years, you will meet a more evolved Matisyahu. It’s important to keep growing.

JTA: Your latest album, “Spark Seeker,” has just been released in Europe. Critics describe it as more pop and less reggae than the previous albums. Do you agree?

Matisyahu: I don’t really consider it less reggae because reggae means a lot of different things to different people. There’s no such objective definition of the term when you’re talking about genres and styles in music. In the pure sense, it’s not so much reggae, but in some ways, this is more my delivery of vocals, a lot of them in a strong reggae patois. … The record was a sort of nice breath of fresh air: having a good time, writing feel-good songs. It’s more of a digitally produced record, more hip hop in the sense that drums and synthesizers are at the forefront of the music. But when my team and I went to Israel, we recorded a lot of live instruments, mostly Middle Eastern style. So in the end, we combined this Middle Eastern organic flavor with more modern fresh pop.

Ken Elkinson: Holiday sounds of chill

When musician Ken Elkinson began receiving kudos for his Christmas album, he knew it was time to return to his roots. “I started feeling guilty that I was selling my people out,” Elkinson, 40, said, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. While he was in esteemed company among Jews who’d done Christmas albums or written Christmas songs — boldface names like Bob Dylan, Mel Tormé, Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks, to name but a few — Elkinson was ready to tackle Chanukah.

This year, Elkinson has become a double threat, releasing a pair of albums, “Chanukah Ambient” and “Christmas Ambient,” for the holidays. Ambient, a style of music popularized by artists like Brian Eno, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, features heavy use of synthesizers to create a very atmospheric, often mellow tone. It may be most recognizable to people who’ve seen 1980s movies like “Legend,” “Blade Runner,” “The Keep” and “Chariots of Fire,” all of which heavily feature ambient pieces in their soundtracks.

For Elkinson, the choice to do ambient music was “more personal than musical.” A longtime pianist whose earlier albums were almost exclusively piano music, Elkinson’s children were a big part of his switch to ambient music — the form allows the composer to lay down one layer of sound, take a break to help out with the kids, and then go back into his studio to work. Elkinson said he also loves the depth of the music. “I like stuff where there’s a lot of complex things going on in the background,” he said. 

Elkinson achieved some fame for his ambient compositions after his boxed set “Music for Commuting” was written up in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on CNN. “I’m still kind of baffled by it,” Elkinson said of the album’s wide appeal, which was heightened due to its release just before Carmageddon, the weekend-long closure of Los Angeles’ hyper-busy 405 freeway in 2011. It was a lot of attention for an album that Elkinson says had its genesis in his own need to calm down while driving. “I can’t stand watching people eat meals and shave and put on makeup and drive [at the same time],” the New Jersey native said. 

Elkinson’s “Chanukah Ambient” album is certainly different from most Chanukah albums on the market, and he’s happy about it. “Some people are probably going to hate it,” he said, adding, “I have really thick skin, I’m totally fine with it. I just got tired of hearing the same songs over and over in the same way.”

Crafting the album became something of a learning process for Elkinson and deepened his understanding of the winter holiday. “I learned through this process that ‘Ocho Kandelikas’ is not a traditional Chanukah song; it’s actually something that was written in the ’80s,” said Elkinson of the song written by Bosnian Flory Jagoda, which people often think is a classic melody. “I feel more proud of the Chanukah music.”

Growing up, he said, he remembers Chanukah being a holiday that brought his family together, in a time before his parents divorced. “We didn’t get fancy presents. I always wanted an Atari and a dog and HBO and sugar cereals; those are the four things I always wanted for Chanukah, and I never got any of that stuff.” Like many former kids, he now remembers the holiday more for its gift of joy than for anything material. “It was a really happy time in my life.”

Today, Elkinson is excited about celebrating the holiday with his own kids. “I like passing the traditions on that I had as a child,” he said. And of course, there’s also the music. “They sing the songs the whole year. It’s funny watching them.”

Elkinson hopes his own album helps “calm people” during a time of holiday stress and brings them a “different perspective” on the familiar celebration. “It’s not like the Chanukah music you know,” Elkinson said. 

“Why just do another boring dreidel song?”

Iranian Jews and Muslims unite over Rita

It is not often nowadays that you find Jews and Muslims coming together to celebrate anything — especially when Israel is involved. The recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East makes such a harmonious scenario seem even more of a remote possibility.

Yet this supposed fantasy became reality on Nov. 12, when Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, hosted nearly 70 prominent Iranian-American Jews and Muslims at his home in a secluded and upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. 

This historic private event recalled the perhaps forgotten centuries-long friendship between the Jewish people and the people of Iran by highlighting not diplomats, but a musical artist who need use only one name: Rita. 

The Iranian-Israeli pop singing superstar Rita Jahanforuz, honored during the event, was offered as the perfect example for Oren’s argument that Israelis have nothing against the people and culture of Iran and only seek to support efforts to oppose an oppressive regime.

Well-known guests — ranging from CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer to former Bush administration Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to Iranian-Jewish former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad — listened as Rita energized the room with her singing.

Wearing a long, simple but elegant black dress, Rita sang a few Israeli songs as well as “Shah-Doomad,” or “King of Grooms,” a song popularly sung at Persian weddings. She spoke in Farsi to the cheering guests — and expressed her tremendous pride for her Iranian cultural identity. 

“For me it is amazing to hear your responses in Persian to me about my music. I am just not used to it because my audiences are mostly in Israel,” Rita said. 

Her band played a host of instruments, including a solo performance of the Iranian tar, a three-stringed, long-necked lute-type instrument. In the end, all of the guests — Iranian and American, Muslim and Jewish — joined Rita by singing, dancing and delighting with her. 

Both Oren and guests gave high praise to Rita for acting as a goodwill ambassador from Israel toward the people of Iran. No doubt her latest album, “All My Joys,” sung entirely in Farsi, has served as her best tool for reaching out to fans in Iran. 

Despite Western and all other music being outlawed by the current regime in Iran, thousands of fans there have downloaded Rita’s songs or bought bootleg versions of her CD. Rita mentioned one particular fan from Iran who sent her a recent e-mail stating that he so enjoyed her music that he was “willing to endure 30 years in prison and receive 70 lashes from the current Iranian regime in order to attend one of her concerts in Israel.” Rita also said she is looking forward to the day when she will perform for her fans at live concerts in a free Iran.

The substantial impact of Rita’s message of peace was illustrated by her ability to bring Jews and Muslims together in friendship at Oren’s home. Guests that night chanted her name in unison, demanding that she continue singing even after her performance was completed. Oren even joined the band briefly, playing an Iranian version of the bongo. 

For Iranian Jews, the evening was a reason to be proud. They spoke to one another of how important it was that Oren had honored one of their own at this private gathering, and they felt special that Israel was now officially recognizing the substantial cultural accomplishments of an Iranian Jew. 

For the others in the audience, it stoked curiosity. Many asked about how many Jews of Iranian background live in Israel or the United States, how many Jews still live in Iran, or why Jews have remained in Iran despite the difficult situation for them there.

Rita serves as an ambassador of goodwill from Israel not only because she speaks and sings in Farsi, but because she represents the Iranian segment of Israeli society that embraces its cultural heritage from Iran and would one day like to renew relations with individuals in its former homeland. Her music, and its message of peace, provides a nonpolitical way to counter the Iranian regime’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction.

Such cultural connections run deep. Even though there are currently high tensions in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the majority of non-Jewish Iranians living in the United States and Europe, and countless others living in Iran, harbor no ill will toward Israel or the Jewish people. Likewise, countless Jews and Muslims of Iranian heritage living in the United States have maintained strong friendships that predate the 1979 Iranian revolution, because of their common language and the common culture they share. 

Rita, who was born in Iran in 1962 and immigrated with her family to Israel in 1970, represents a segment of the Iranian community in Israel that never witnessed firsthand the Iranian revolution, and yet still feels a strong sense of nostalgia for Iran and Iranian culture. 

The nostalgia Iranian Jews have for Iranian culture also stems from the significant tolerance and prosperity they enjoyed while living under the Pahlavi dynasty for more than 50 years. For nearly 30 years before 1979, Iran and Israel also enjoyed indirect political relations as well as prosperous economic relations under the regime of the late shah of Iran. 

It is perhaps ironic how a Jewish person like Rita is today keeping Iranian music and songs alive with her albums and performances, considering the fact that for centuries many Jews in Iran were musicians who kept the country’s music alive, despite the national Islamic prohibition against Muslims listening to or performing music in Iran. 

And it was refreshing for many guests to see an Israeli official like Oren personally reaching out to non-Jewish Iranians, as well, in order to express the Jewish people’s longstanding friendship with the people of Iran, which dates back to the age of Iran’s first king, Cyrus the Great. 

“We as Israelis and Jews are here tonight to emphasize the fact that there is a 2,500-year friendship with the people of Iran, and despite the animosity that the regime in Iran has for Israel, we look forward to the day when we can renew our friendship in freedom with the people of Iran,” Oren said. 

Perhaps one day soon, an event like the one at Oren’s home will no longer be unique but, rather, commonplace. More important, cultural and music events such as the one recently organized by the Israeli ambassador give many of us living in the free world hope that despite conflicts in the world, Jews and Muslims can come together in harmony and celebrate their commonalities.

To view photos and videos from Rita’s recent performance at the home of Michael Oren, please visit Karmel Melamed’s blog:

Finding Judaism through music

For Chris Hardin, converting to Judaism was a family affair. 

In November 1994, Hardin, then 38, stepped into the mikveh. That day, his daughter and wife did the same. 

Hardin’s conversion process began when he met his future wife, Jennifer, on a cruise ship. He was directing the music, and she was one of the singers. They were both Lutheran, but she told him that she had the desire to be Jewish. 

After the birth of their daughter, Calah, Hardin started attending classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) out of support for Jennifer. He admired how the rabbis would allow questioning, unlike the pastors with whom he grew up. “I had no intention of converting, but by the second class I was hooked,” he said. “Judaism is not just a religion. It’s a way of life.”

As a child, Hardin went to church and Bible study every Sunday. After his parents divorced when he was 11, church was no longer a regular event. “I fell away from any kind of organized religion,” he said. “But I never left my feelings and thoughts about God.”

When he decided to convert, Hardin chose to be a member of the Conservative movement. Orthodoxy was full of practices that he and Jennifer did not wish to partake of, and Reform wasn’t enough for them. After going to more than a dozen shuls, they settled on Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where they’ve been members for 18 years. He’s also the music director. “Every time I write some new music for our synagogue, I learn more about Judaism, and I absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s made me a better person.”

By the time Hardin was Jewish, his mom had already passed away. His dad, a music director for Lutheran churches, said that if it made his son happy to practice a different religion, then he was fine with it. The only member of his family who had a huge issue with the conversion was his younger sister, an Evangelical Christian. “She didn’t speak to me for a few months,” he said. “She thought I was going to burn in hell because I didn’t accept Jesus as my savior. Then her priest said we were going to the same place, but we were just taking different paths. Now we’re tighter than I am with my other sisters, because she and I are the only ones with any observance at all.”

Today, Hardin brings Judaism into his family’s life by keeping a kosher home, learning Hebrew, observing all the holidays, and playing music at shul most Friday nights and Saturday mornings. It took him eight years to balance Shabbat and his work schedule, but he is now able to enjoy his day of rest. Calah, who is 20, was the president of United Synagogue Youth at her high school, and Hardin’s 15-year-old son, Benjamin, is now active in the same organization. 

Much of Hardin’s enthusiasm for Judaism can be attributed to Valley Beth Shalom and the community he’s been a part of there for nearly two decades. “In shul, you want your kids to have freedom and fun,” he said. “All the people in shul, I trust with my kids. You don’t find that in very many places. We have a community that’s helped us raised our kids.”

Hardin continued, “The community is unbelievable. My wife just lost her mom, and we got phone calls and e-mails from people. Everyone was coming up to me at shul asking what they could do. I’ve watched it with other deaths. Even if people in the community don’t know you, they come to you and support you and let you know they’re here for you.”

The only regret Hardin has about his conversion, he said, is that he didn’t do it sooner. “Judaism is the best-kept secret in the world. It makes one happy. But I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve seen people who are not so optimistic, who don’t even know why they came to shul but leave feeling uplifted, and that is beautiful. It’s a wonderful thing, and I wish more people could find it.”

The legacy of Iranian music

The long history of Jews in Iran is associated with honorable achievements in business, science and the arts. There have been many Jewish writers, poets and musicians throughout Iranian history, although many of their valuable works have been destroyed because of the frequent immigrations of Jews over the centuries.

Manuscripts, writings, valuable books and other once-prized objects in Iranian Jewish homes often were gradually forgotten, lost or destroyed. Many of the well-known Iranian-Jewish poets used their art to reflect upon their life situation and the pressures experienced by Jews, although others worked in the royal courts and wrote more to court favor with the aristocracy.

There also have been quite a number of notable musicians throughout the history of Jews in Iran. At a time when Jews made up only 1 percent of Iran’s population, the prevalence of Jewish musicians stood out. This was partially because, for members of the Shiite religion, singing and playing instruments in public were forbidden. By contrast, Iranian Jews were free to perform music, and this may be one of the reasons that Jews became so prevalent and had an important role in the development of Iranian classical and traditional music. 

Morteza Neydavoud, for example, was one of the most distinguished Jewish musicians and composers of Iranian classical music. Born into a family of musicians, he completed his education in music, performed in high-level classical concerts and established a music school. Neydavoud was a member of an Iranian radio organization, and his performances were broadcast to fans. In 1977, he immigrated to the United States with his family, and he died in California in 1990 at the age of 90.

But many Iranian-Jewish musicians chose to remain anonymous in classical and popular music. Jewish musicians often were invited to perform at parties and to entertain guests by performing on musical instruments and singing. However, entertaining at parties also was frowned upon in their society, so many Jewish musicians preferred to keep their identities private.

One of the most complete compilations of Jewish history in Iran was written by Iranian-Jewish philanthropist Habib Levy (1896-1984), whose book “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” contains very detailed information about Jewish life in Iran.

More recently, Alain Chaoulli, an Iranian Jewish philanthropist in Paris, published a book in French titled “Iranian Jews and Their Musicians.” That book, which stands out in the literature for exploring this subject, reveals the influence and effect of Jewish musicians on classical Iranian music. Chaoulli wrote the book based on existing documents as well as his personal observations. He also interviewed members of the Persian-Jewish community of Los Angeles to gather information. It’s a great contribution to preserving the history of Jewish life in Iran.

Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history

Joshua Bloom: His voice is more than the sum of his parts

The old theater saying that there are no small parts, only small actors, can also be said for opera. Just ask Australian bass Joshua Bloom, who was in town last month to begin rehearsals as Masetto for the Los Angeles Opera production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The opera’s seven performances run Sept. 22 through Oct. 14 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Masetto marks Bloom’s L.A. Opera debut. “Masetto is a small role, but a good one because you can certainly make an impression,” Bloom said during a break in rehearsal. “There are some roles where nobody remembers you, but Masetto has enough meat to it — it’s great to debut with in a major house.”

The role has already earned him accolades at other major opera houses, including last year at the Metropolitan Opera. In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini praised his peasant Masetto as “stalwart,” adding that his “hearty bass” made for an “endearing performance.”

Audiences may recall Bloom from his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut last year as Algernon in a striking concert version of Gerald Barry’s unpredictable operatic take on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Though primarily a bass, Bloom’s flexible range comfortably negotiated this quirky comic baritone part.

Bloom’s lyric, rather than dramatic, voice type has a substance and weight that projects well, especially in the Handel, Mozart and Rossini repertory.

“A lot of the roles for my voice type are smaller, but they’re significant,” Bloom said. “Masetto is the only one who stands up to Giovanni in any meaningful way, and that makes him interesting in a cast of people who are often manipulated by Giovanni without any recourse.”

Masetto is just one of the comprimario, or supporting parts, in Bloom’s repertory. In August, he played Leporello, the Don’s servant, at a festival in Tallinn, Estonia. And when Bloom returns to L.A. Opera in May 2013 for a six-performance run of Puccini’s “Tosca” (May 18 through June 8 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), he will be playing Angelotti.

“Angelotti is another small part, but actually it’s really pivotal,” Bloom said, “and possibly my favorite small role to do. You have some really good music, and it’s very dramatic.”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon observed in an e-mail that the late tenor Charles Anthony often made his greatest impact in smaller parts. A New York Times critic, reviewing his Met debut in 1954, said Anthony even made bit parts, like the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” unforgettable.

“Angelotti is very, very important,” Conlon said. “A great deal of the first act of ‘Tosca’ absolutely depends on a strongly sung and defined Angelotti as a counterweight to the other characters.”

Conlon added that Angelotti’s escape from prison sets “Tosca’s” entire drama in motion, which ends —  (spoiler alert!) — in the violent death of the opera’s four most prominent characters.

Bloom has sung larger parts, including the title character in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and Nick Shadow (the Devil) in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Next year, he is scheduled to sing the bass role in Gerald Barry’s opera “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit.” It’s part of a double bill with Handel’s “The Triumph of Time and Truth” at a festival in Germany.

“I play Time in both shows,” Bloom said. “The role has very low notes, but also very high. Gerald likes to explore the extremes of people’s ranges, so there’s not a huge difference between his baritone and bass roles. He writes a lot of falsetto for basses as well.”

Bloom, 38, grew up in Melbourne with musician parents who exposed him to all sorts of music from a very young age. But they encouraged him to go to law school. 

“Music wasn’t something I ever thought of doing as a profession,” Bloom said. “Music, to my parents, was not a good career choice. I think they wanted me to get a real job.”

Bloom, whose father is Jewish, went to Anglican schools on a music scholarship as a cellist and double bass player. “Technically, I’m not really Jewish,” Bloom said. “My parents are firm atheists, so I was never particularly religious. I went to Jewish kindergarten. That was as far as it went. Nonetheless, obviously having a Jewish father, and my name being as it is, well, there you go.” 

Bloom majored in history at the University of Melbourne, focusing on Hitler’s Germany, Holocaust history and Russia under Stalin. He also started acting in fringe theater, “doing the odd musical.” 

“I wanted to be an actor,” Bloom said, but people who heard him sing recommended he take voice lessons. “I kind of fell into opera. It wasn’t something I was desperate to do from a young age.”

Bloom left Melbourne for New York when he was 26 and is now based in San Francisco. Since his father was originally from Chicago, Bloom said he’s never had a problem working in the United States, which became necessary for him to cultivate an interesting career.

“Australia is very isolated geographically, and the arts scene is tricky,” Bloom said. “If you want to be a full-time, professional opera singer, there’s really only one company that is available — Opera Australia.”

Over the years, Bloom has been invited back regularly to Opera Australia, but he doesn’t regret leaving. “It’s a great country,” he said, “but for opera singers, it’s a difficult environment.”

Bloom, who is on the road for most of the year, said his parents are “very proud” of his thriving singing career. But, he added, living out of suitcase gets old quickly. And there’s no time for relationships outside the work.

“I would have to establish something quickly and then manage the long-distance thing, which is difficult at the best of times,” Bloom said, adding that most of the people he meets are in the business.

Though he continues to enjoy the variety of small and large lyric roles he’s offered, Bloom said he hopes in the next decade to venture into heftier emotional terrain. One of his dream roles is King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” 

“He’s such a complex and profound character,” Bloom said. “There’s a lot of pathos involved, and the music is extraordinary. Although I’ve never played him, Don Giovanni is also a role where, depending on your stage of life, you have a different insight into the character. Those roles have multiple layers, to be explored over a lifetime.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

Dear Matisyahu

Dear Matisyahu,

Tonight you performed at the WinStar World Casino in Oklahoma, 70 miles from my Dallas home. The distance may seem far, but in Texas proportion, it is right around the corner. I did not attend your concert. I could not. Frankly, I do not plan to see you again. You have disappointed me greatly. I will play your CD’s from time to time and hum your songs when the mood sets in. But you have let me down. All my life I’ve been waiting for and praying for a Charedi Jew to offer a message that resonates with America — a blessed country built on Judeo-Christian values but now listing toward secularism — and helps right it. How appropriate it would be for a member of one of the proudest, most observant Jewish groups to water the spiritual roots of American culture and give nourishment to its base. When your song “One Day” was chosen to be the theme melody of the 2010 Winter Olympics on NBC, my heart fluttered with pride.

Charedi, to me, means a Jew to whom Judaism — Torah values, Torah practice and Torah study — is numero uno and everything else is numero dos. It means someone to whom Judaism is not an identity but a life, not an ethnicity but a purpose. It would have to be someone who could capture the God-centeredness of the Charedi lifestyle and express it in lyrics that America could sing.  With your flowing beard, passionate vigor and refreshing creativity, I thought you were the one.

When your beard came off and your large black yarmulke remained, I took pause, but your reassuring tweets kept my hopes high. The pictures you recently tweeted of you and Wiz Khalifa — you with dyed blond hair sans yarmulke and Wiz smoking a joint — made me realized that you are no longer singing Z’miros in reggae. You are singing a different song. 

I drive by the Windstar World Casino often. It is just across the Texas state line, in Oklahoma, built on an Indian reservation where the Judeo-Christian values of the heartland don’t have jurisdiction, but close enough to tempt the millions in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex to turn gelt into glitter, savings into flashing lights. The dreamy theme of the building is a concrete version of the joint Wiz was smoking. It is not the place to offer even the most watered-down Jewish values.

Your transition followed a path that has been traveled before. A creative Orthodox message becomes a broader universal message, and a broader universal message becomes a self-centered message. What was “Look at God” becomes “Look at me.” 

“Me” is the currency of our pagan-light pop culture.

I grew up in New York, where God is glorified in the religious community but chided and derided in the surrounding culture. Twelve years ago, my wife and I left the Northeast to move to Dallas, where we joined the Dallas kollel and subsequently started a meat business. It is a land like I have never seen growing up; God is revered, and Jews are respected. 

Over the years, I came to the conclusion that we need not be as insular as we were in New York and can speak values to the world around us, as our patriarch Avraham did. The culture is utterly receptive; if it is listening, should we not speak? You, Matisyahu, were an example of what could be done if only we would speak.

But now I am discouraged. You recently tweeted: “I felt it was time to walk a new path. What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope.” Saying those words at this point in your life says, to me, that you have been sucked into the culture you were trying to influence. You have become connected to the hedonism that abhors rules and undermines values. And it says that I will, too, if I go it alone as you did. 

Sometimes I lie under the moon and think each observant Jew should reach out and touch the world. Now I see that community is the protector of God-centeredness and that discipline is the precursor of kiddush ha-Shem — sanctification of the Name.

I still believe that the American ship is listing precariously and the inspired Charedi community has a lead role to play in righting it. I still believe that if we speak, the world will listen. But I now appreciate, more than before, that it needs to be within a framework of community. And I pray that God helps us create and sustain a community that rallies behind the banner of kiddush ha-Shem, living passionate Charedi Judaism in a way that the world can observe, understand and appreciate.

The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively, as the CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats, LLC, and as a rabbi at NCSY — Dallas.

No, Adam Yauch wasn’t a yeshiva boy, but we can still claim him

As a student at an all-girls day school in Brooklyn, the first thing I learned about the Beastie Boys turned out to be untrue.
According to a yeshiva urban legend, two of the founding members of the Beastie Boys had attended The Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy in upper Manhattan. Some MTA students even claimed to know where the hip-hop pioneers had tagged the school with their handles.

This was before every claim could be verified or disproved with a Google search.

After seeing a photograph of the trio in a music magazine in the mid-1990s, I decided I could believe that the three nerdy-looking, funny white Jewish guys in fact had been nerdy, rebellious yeshiva students.

Of course they never attended an Orthodox educational institution. Still, despite denials from the Beastie Boys, the rumor persisted. Yeshiva students continued to project themselves onto this seminal hip-hop act for years, even after Drake came along and started talking about his bar mitzvah.

When Adam “MCA” Yauch, one of those alleged yeshiva students, died last Friday at 47 following a three-year battle with cancer, there was an outpouring of grief and condolences from fans and some of the biggest names in hip hop.

He and the Beastie Boys helped put hip hop on the map in 1986 with their debut, “Licensed to Ill,” the first rap album to hit the top of Billboard’s album charts.

The album yielded several classic singles such as “Fight for Your Right to Party” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” It also landed the Boys on the cover of Rolling Stone—the magazine had been notoriously unwilling to cover rap, a nascent and increasingly significant art form—with the headline “Three Idiots Make a Masterpiece.”

“The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs,” Rick Rubin, who produced “Licensed to Ill,” said in an interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. “As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Of course, this sort of attention turned the Jewish bohemians into targets for those who viewed their success through the prism of white privilege and racism. Yet, and this is much to the group’s credit, the criticisms eventually dissipated.

“We don’t hear the word ‘Elvis’ uttered in the same breath as ‘Beastie Boys,’ ” Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback,” wrote in a tribute to Yauch published in Spin. “The integrity of Yauch and his peers had a lot to do with it.”

Yauch and the Beasties came of age, creatively speaking, in the downtown bohemia of Manhattan in the early ’80s where punk rockers (as the Beasties had formerly been) mixed freely with uptown emcees and DJs. The racial lines in this scene and early hip hop were crossed in surprising ways.

The Beastie Boys’ own career reflects that. They were introduced to black audiences by the biggest rap act of the day, Run DMC.

In turn the Beasties, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, helped launch the career of Public Enemy, which opened for the mega-successful Boys on tour.

The Beastie Boys paid homage to their myriad influences in the pages of the now-defunct Grand Royal magazine, which started in the early ’90s and reflected their tastes, from movies to artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, a name familiar to those inside the hip-hop scene as his work is often sampled in tracks.

By exposing a wider audience to these important figures in the culture’s history, the Beasties Boys helped give credit where it was due and properly situated themselves within the hip-hop tradition.

“The Beastie Boys took responsibility for being grown-up white people without boring everyone with long rationalizations about how down they were,” Joseph Schloss, author of “Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip Hop,” wrote nearly a decade ago in “The Hip-Hop Album Guide.”

Except when they actually did apologize for some of their earlier homophobic and misogynist lyrics. This wasn’t a Rush Limbaugh-style mea culpa. They didn’t apologize that women and gays took offense at what they said—the “I’m sorry you took umbrage at that really awful thing I said”—thereby putting the onus on the targets of the hateful comments for even reacting to them.

Rather Yauch and the Beasties expressed true, sincere regret. Yauch famously rapped, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through.” This from a group that had once performed onstage alongside caged female dancers and a hydraulic-powered penis.

And the Boys did more than give lip service to these feminist impulses; they acted on them. The group famously asked Prodigy not to perform the song “Smack My Bitch Up” at the Reading Festival.

When the Beasties were criticized for this seemingly hypocritical stance, Yauch defended the move, saying they had begun changing the words when they performed old songs that had contained misogynistic lyrics. This was just one example of how deeply intertwined the Beastie Boys’ artistic and social progression was.

Yauch created a successful template of how to evolve, not only as an artist but also as a human being.

In addition to directing some of the most visually arresting and retro-inflected Beastie Boys music videos under the alias Nathaniel Hornblower, he also created Oscilloscope Laboratories, an independent film production and distribution company that cultivated and released several critical hits, including the Oscar-nominated “The Message” and “Exist Through the Gift Shop.” 

A practicing Buddhist, Yauch also founded the Milarepa Foundation, which raised money and awareness through the Tibetan Freedom Concerts.

While this doesn’t exactly sound like the work of your average yeshiva student, I have no problem with future generations of Orthodox boys pretending that the Beastie Boys had been their own.

Yeshiva boys couldn’t do much better than Adam Yauch as a role model.

Dvora Meyers is the author of the ebook “Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess,” a memoir essay collection about Orthodox Judaism and gymnastics.

Drake’s profanity-laced ‘re-bar mitzvah’ video filmed in Miami shul stirs controversy [VIDEO]

Thanks to hip-hop superstar Drake’s latest music video, there are now far more eyes focusing on Temple Israel’s bimah than there are even during the High Holidays.

And even though the song’s lyrics are decidedly more profane than sacred, the Reform synagogue’s president said he hoped the video would help Jewish youth connect to Judaism.

The video, parts of which were filmed in the Miami shul’s sanctuary, purports to depict Drake’s “re-bar mitzvah,” showing the Jewish rapper reading from what appears to be a Torah. But the accompanying song, “HYFR” (Hell Yeah F***ing Right), has nothing to do with a bar mitzvah. Rather, it features profanity-filled and sexually explicit lyrics.

“But she was no angel, and we never waited / I took her for sushi, she wanted to f*** / So we took it to go, told them don’t even plate it,” Drake raps.

The video had garnered well over 1 million views by Wednesday, only five days after its release.

At first, Temple Israel’s president, Ben Kuehne, said that the video—lyrics aside—is “an embracing of religious passage.” He said, “It’s not a sacrilegious message; it’s not an antireligious message.”

But once Kuehne had a chance to review the video and the lyrics more closely, he said, “The complete video is certainly not consistent with Temple Israel’s longstanding history and reputation as a progressive voice in the Jewish Reform movement.” He added, “Temple Israel does not adopt, condone, or sponsor any aspect of the Drake video, and was not involved in its production.”

Nevertheless, Kuehne said, he hoped “Jewish youth will see the Drake video at least in part as a reminder to ‘re-commit’ themselves to their Jewish religion.”

Drake, whose real name is Aubrey Graham, was raised by his Jewish mother in Toronto and attended a Jewish day school. “I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he told Heeb magazine in 2010. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.”

The 25-year-old rapper today us one of the biggest names in hip-hop. He has been very public in embracing his Jewish roots, wearing a Chai pendant on the cover of Vibe magazine.

The video for “HYFR” opens with a clip of Drake as a boy at a bar mitzvah celebration saying “mazel tov” and then cuts to him as an adult wearing a yarmulke and prayer shawl as he is shown apparently reading the Torah at Temple Israel’s bimah. A caption at the beginning of the video says the rapper “chose to get re-bar mitzvah’d as a re-commitment to the Jewish faith.”

The staged footage of the purported ceremony is followed by party and dancing scenes filmed elsewhere. In many ways, it looks like a typical over-the-top bar mitzvah party—only in this case, the bar mitzvah “boy” is a famous musician who is joined by hip-hop producer DJ Khaled and fellow rapper Lil Wayne wearing a panda mask.

The camera pans a food table with bagels and what appears to be gefilte fish and smoked fish. Drake is shown being lifted in a chair and later pounding a cake with its Torah scroll decorations.

Kuehne said that those involved in the filming were “very respectful and used the temple outside and inside as we would have expected anybody to do.” He said that the producers of the video paid a standard rental fee for the use of the synagogue’s facilities.

Kuehne also said the synagogue’s Torah scroll was not used and that the scenes where Drake appears to be rapping in the sanctuary were inserted post-production. “None of the song’s lyrics were sung in the Temple Israel Sanctuary,” he said.

Yitz Jordan, an Orthodox Jewish rapper who goes by the stage name Y-Love, told JTA he is thrilled to see Drake publicly embracing his Judaism.

“I’ve been saying for years, ‘What’s it gonna take to put Drake in a yarmulke,’” Y-Love said. “I’ve been clamoring for Drake’s Jewish visibility forever.”

He dismissed the lyrics, saying he doesn’t listen to Drake for the content.

“You’re not really sitting there trying to learn about the system of wealth distribution in America,” Y-Love said. “I’m ecstatic just to see Drake in a yarmulke period.” He added, “This is going to help a lot of Jewish kids of color stand up in the hood. Drake’s doing this is really going to help those kids.”

The video’s director, Director X, told Vibe magazine that filming the video last month was a “lot of fun.”

“We were very respectful of the religion and all that happens there,” he said. “So everyone took care with thinking about what’s what, but at the same time, it’s Drake, he’s 24 having a re-bar mitzvah. So it does have a comedy element just by the scenario itself.”

The video’s YouTube page has been flooded with comments both praising and blasting Drake.

“What’s the point of committing to a religion, whose principles you are not going to follow…?” one commenter wrote. “This is just making a mockery of Judaism. I do not practice Judaism, and even I am offended.”

Another wrote, “We get it, you’re proud, which is great—celebrate it more respectfully.”

The video also had its defenders. “Drake is Jewish, his mother is Jewish and he was raised in Jewish religion,” one wrote. “In this video he shows his recognition and actually says that’s what I am.”

Grantland blogger Rembert Browne sees the video as an expression of Drake’s second coming-of-age.

“Coming to terms with who you really are, publicly, is a sign of adulthood, and with this video it’s apparent that his process of doing this is at the very least under way,” Browne wrote. He also said he never had seen Drake “as happy, on-camera, as he is in these party scenes. The look on his face screams, ‘Finally, I can be myself.’”

Bigger than the beard, Matisyahu move marks ongoing spiritual journey

The world’s most famous Chasidic Jew has shaved his beard.

With a declaration Tuesday morning that he was “reclaiming” himself, Jewish music star Matisyahu—a.k.a. Matthew Miller—shaved his signature beard and wrote, “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.”

The musician posted two photos of his newly beardless face to the social networking site Twitter and added an explanation on his website a few hours later.

“When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process,” he wrote. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”
Matisyahu’s religious journey has long been an object of speculation and media fascination. Raised in a Reconstructionist family in White Plains, N.Y., he became affiliated with the Chabad movement only in 2000, after studying at one of its institutions in Israel.

Four years later, after his debut album “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” was released by JDub Records, Matisyahu began a rise that ultimately would find him performing on national television as well as at Jewish events.

Here was a beat-boxing Chasid borrowing lyrics from Jewish liturgy on television while wearing the black fedora and long black coat typical of members of the Chabad sect. Matisyahu represented a major step forward in the visibility of traditional Judaism in the mainstream media.

Chasidic Judaism was always central his public persona. While on tour, promoters made special arrangements to accommodate Matisyahu’s Sabbath observance.

As recently as last weekend, Matisyahu’s status as a Chasidic cultural icon was on full display. An episode of the Bravo channel’s “Chef Roble & Co.” focused on a kosher Thai Vegan party held at the musician’s home. The episode explored the intricacies of rules governing the preparation of kosher meals.

But Matisyahu’s spiritual exploration didn’t end with his rise to public attention. In 2007, he distanced himself the Chabad movement, a move that sparked another round of news stories.

“My initial ties were through the Lubavitch sect… At this point, I don’t necessarily identify with it any more,” Matisyahu told the Miami New Times in 2007. “I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews, I don’t want to exclude myself.”

“Matisyahu was never a part of the movement’s conventional line,” a senior Chabad official told Haaretz later that year. “It’s possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized.”

Matisyahu went on to explore other schools of Chasidism—including Karlin-Stoliners, a Chasidic group known for praying at full volume. It wasn’t a matter of rejecting Chabad, the singer told JTA in 2008, but rather “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”

The singer’s latest statement isn’t definitive. It doesn’t rule out belonging to Judaism or even a Chasidic movement. At most, the statement seems to indicate another stage of spiritual exploration.

“Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth,” Matisyahu says in his statement. “And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry … you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”

Pump up the volume: Music propels the way to a rededicated Jewish life

My 3-year-old son is obsessed with showing people his room, sidling sheepishly over to guests and asking, “Can I show you my room?”

My son reminds me how important our “place” is—“A Room of One’s Own,” in Virginia Wolff’s words. Our rooms make us feel secure and anchors us. (Just ask a teenager how important that is.) A room enables us to recharge before heading out into the world to do our work, and contains the objects, pictures and music that entertain us, occupy and preoccupy us, and evoke memories of another time.

I’ve been thinking about this room metaphor, especially as Chanukah nears. Chanukah means dedication. What we are celebrating is the courage of the Maccabees to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of our Jewish lives, after it was defiled by the Assyrian Greeks in 164 BCE. They re-established the room for the Jews to do their sacred work in the world.

What would it mean for us to dedicate a space and to make room for Judaism in our own lives? More specifically, what does our “Jewish room” (read: Jewish identity) look like? What are the objects and pictures in it? What is the ambiance of our Jewish room?

Is it a place that we feel like ourselves, or do we feel stiff and formal in it? Is our Jewish room more like a closet tucked away, a place that is in desperate need to be organized, the dust cleared away and precious gems of our past revived? Is it a place that we feel a tinge of guilt each time we pass because it has fallen into neglect?

Chanukah is an opportunity to do a little rededication of our Jewish rooms and Jewish lives. But what aspect of Jewish life do we want to rededicate?

Classic and contemporary Chanukah music can help answer the question. We all know how central music is to enlivening a room. (My 3-year-old loves to croon away to his favorite kiddie rock on his new CD while bouncing off his bed and clutching his little ukulele.)

One of my favorite Chanukah songs is “Al Hanisim,” literally “Of the Miracles.” Traditionally inserted into the standing silent prayer, or Amidah, the blessing after meals and sung throughout the holiday, it praises God for the “miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time.” It clearly affirms God’s centrality to the story of Chanukah and for the miracle of oil that lasted eight days, and renders less central the military victory of the Maccabees.

Another classic, “Maoz Tsur,” or “Rock of Ages,” written around the 13th century in Europe, is a brief recounting of Jewish history and also focuses on God’s centrality: “Rock of ages, let our song/ Praise Your saving power; / You, amid the raging foes, /Were our sheltering tower. /Furious they assailed us, /But Your arm availed us, /And Your word, /Broke their sword, /When our own strength failed us.”

In a world in which we think that our own power/strength and ambition is the cause of our success, how do we let the realm of the spiritual/God/ that which isn’t known/ is out of our control, into our lives when “our own strength fails us”?

A more contemporary Chanukah song, “Mi Y’malel,” or “Who can Retell?” has an opening line that goes, “Who can tell of the heroic deeds of Israel? … Yes in every generation a hero arises to save the people.” The Russian-born Zionist Menashe Ravina plays here on the words from Psalm 106:2, “Mi y’malel g’vurot Adonai …” (“Who can tell of the mighty acts of God?”). The song places human strength and know-how at center stage. It is not surprising that the Zionist take on the Chanukah story emphasizes human agency over heavenly intervention. After all, the Zionists created the “new Jew,” who left the beit midrash (house of study) to work the land.

This Chanukah, how will you rededicate yourself to understanding Israel and its story better?

Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1983 folk song “Light One Candle” casts the particular story about the Maccabean struggle for religious freedom within a universal context, and links it to other movements of defiance and protest that bring about a more just society. With the closing stanza comes the charge to use the memory of the past as a clarion call to do justice. They sing, “What is the memory that’s valued so highly,/That we keep it alive in that flame?/ What’s the commitment to those who have died?/ We cry out “they’ve not died in vain”,/ We have come this far, always believing,/ That justice will somehow prevail;/ This is the burden and This is the promise,/ This is why we will not fail!”

This Chanukah, how does our particular centuries-old struggle against the Assyrian Greeks to win religious freedom help motivate us to help others with their struggles?

Of course, some contemporary fare is a bit more lighthearted. Debbie Friedman’s “Latke Song” doesn’t let us forget that our holiday celebration would be nothing without traditional foods with lyrics like “I am a latke, I’m a latke, and I am waiting for Chanukah to come!” The song reminds us how important traditional food can be to help us create rich associations (and full bellies) during the holiday.

What traditional recipes will you try this year? How might you spice up your repertoire with some contemporary cuisine – sweet potato and ginger latkes anyone?

Matisyahu takes a different tack. The hip-hopping Chasid’s Chanukah tune “Miracle on Ice” sets up the opposition between Chanukah and Christmas. It confronts us with the threat facing Judaism in a majority culture that seduces us to participate and our need to look heavenward for support. He tells us, “born to struggle and fall but my strength does comes not from man at all … eight nights, eight lights, and these rites keep me right/ Bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.”

While it is easy to morph December into one big “holiday season” (who doesn’t like the egg nog latte at Starbucks?), what are the ways that you want to draw distinctions between your identity and practice and those of your Christian neighbors? How can you turn the discomfort of “difference” into a source of pride?

Yeshiva University’s a cappella group the Maccabeats with its 2010 YouTube sensation “Candelight” (a take-off of Taio Cruz’s No. 1 song “Dynamite”) and the Israeli group the Fountainheads from Ein Prat with “I Gotta Feelin’ Hanukkah” (a spoof on the Black Eyed Peas hit “I Gotta Feelin’”) present us with a final challenge: How can we make traditions and stories that we tell from year to year fresh, dynamic and fun?

The Maccabeats in particular retell the story, singing “I’ll tell a tale/ Of Maccabees in Israel/ When the Greeks tried to assail/ But it was all to no avail/ The war went on and on and on/ Until the mighty Greeks were gone/ I flip my latkes in the air sometimes sayin ayy ohh spin the dreidel/ Just wanna celebrate for all eight nights singin ayy oh, light the candles.”

So this Chanukah season, crank up the volume in that Jewish room of yours. Play the music loud, even wake the neighbors and discover the power of rededication.

iTunes labels Jewish music as ‘Christian & Gospel’

Apple’s iTunes has labeled some of the most well-known Jewish and Hasidic singers in the online music store “Christian & Gospel” section.

The Jerusalem Post reported Sunday that musicians such as Avraham Fried, an Orthodox Jew; Mordechai Ben-David; and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach all have some album’s categorized in iTunes’ “Christian & Gospel” genre section.

Fried’s “Yiddish Gems Volumes 1 & 2,” “My Fellow Jew” and “The Baal Shem Tov’s Songs”; Ben-David’s “Just One Shabbos” and “Yerushalayim Our Home”; and Carlebach’s “Shaarei Shabbat-Songs and Blessings For Your Jewish Home”—all fit into Christian categories.

Some albums by the artists, however, were filed under “Singer/Song Writer” and “World.”

“Why would they put Jewish and Chasidic music under the ‘Christian and Gospel’ category? It makes no sense,” Fried told the Post.

“I don’t understand where they are coming from and what the point is of doing this,” he said. “I would hate to think this is an attempt to bury Jewish music under a Christian or Gospel label.”

Fried told the Post that iTunes should create a Jewish Music section.

Apple’s iTunes is the largest online music vendor in the world, with 10 billion songs purchased between 2003 and February 2010. According to the Jewish Chronicle, Windows Media Player also does not have a Jewish music section.

JTA’s requests for comment by Apple went unanswered.

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Queens College group takes Jewish a cappella competition [VIDEO]

A group from Queens College won the inaugural Jewish collegiate a cappella competition and its $1,500 prize.

Tizmoret was named the best of the nine groups from seven U.S. campuses competing last weekend in the Kol HaOlam National Jewish Collegiate A Capella Competition in Washington, D.C. Along with the monetary prize, the New York group won a consultation with JDub Records.

Kol Sasson of the University of Maryland finished second. The third-place finisher, the Shabbatones of the University of Pennsylvania, received the audience favorite award that was determined by text voting immediately after the performances.

Other groups that performed were Chutzpah of Georgetown University; Jewish Fella A Capella of Brandeis University; Staam of Washington University in St. Louis; Kaskeset of Binghamton University; and Kol Sasson, Rak Shalom and Mezumenet, all from the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.

The judges included Jordan Gorfinkel, founder of the Jewish a capella group Beat’achon; Jason Diamond, editor in chief of; Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel International; Cantor Jeffrey Weber of Adas Israel, the host synagogue; and Mike Boxer, also the master of ceremonies, who hosts KolCast, the monthly podcast dedicated to Jewish a cappella.

Tizmoret performs “Im Eshkachech” at their annual winter show (2010)

Video courtesy of TizmoretTube.

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