July 18, 2019

Jazz Singer Jesse Palter Leaves ‘Paper Trail’ With Debut Album

Jesse Palter; Photos by Anna Webber

Jewish jazz and pop singer-songwriter Jesse Palter has just released her debut jazz-folk-pop album, “Paper Trail.” The singer, who admits to being “30-something,” said the album is an objective she’s been working toward for nearly two decades. 

“Clearly, I’m an overnight sensation,” she joked. “I’m just now finally starting to get to my next phase of my career and get to make music that I believe in.”

Bitten by the performance bug at a young age, the Detroit-area native said her parents have always supported her — through rehearsals and voice lessons, and acting as her cheering squad during school productions. By the time she turned 13, they realized her passion for music was more than a “cute little hobby.”

Palter started writing songs and performing covers and original music in historic venues large and small throughout Detroit. She caught the attention of the late singer-songwriter Andrew Gold (known for the 1970s hits “Lonely Boy” and “Thank You For Being a Friend”), who took her under his wing. 

Whether she was singing in Detroit or performing as a cantorial soloist at her synagogue, Palter said she did whatever she could to absorb music history and experiences. While most kids her age were spending time at the mall, Palter said, “I was performing jazz in clubs that the Funk Brothers and Martha Reeves performed at. I wasn’t old enough to drink yet. [My mom and I] would be the only two Jewish women in the Eastern Market [area of Detroit] singing jazz music at 3 in the morning.”

As she grew musically, Palter had the opportunity to perform with Grammy-nominated pianist Geoffrey Keezer, jazz bassist Christian McBride, Israeli jazz musician Avishai Cohen and jazz trumpeters Sean Jones and Marcus Belgrave.

She also connected with the Detroit music producing team Mark and Jeff Bass. Rather than sign with the Bass Brothers (who helped groom Detroit rapper Eminem), she turned down their offer and enrolled in the music program at the University of Michigan.

“Paper Trail” album cover

“I wanted to be a credible musician,” Palter said. “I didn’t want to be just another chick singer. It was important to me to be respected and have musical theoretical knowledge.”

Palter eventually went on to perform bigger gigs and connected with songwriter-producer Sam Barsh, known for writing over 100 songs for musicians including Aloe Blacc, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson Paak and Logic. Together, they created Palter Ego productions to continue their jazz careers together before moving to Los Angeles in 2010.  

 “I wanted to be a credible musician. I didn’t want to be just another chick singer. It was important to me to be respected and have musical theoretical knowledge.” — Jesse Palter

“It made sense for us to be in a city — working together, collaborating together — that didn’t feel like it had a ceiling to it,” Palter said. “Detroit is an amazing place to grow up and be a musician and I got all the amazing training. As far as connecting the dots with career moves, there’s still a ceiling, so Los Angeles was the right move.”

Palter said the pressure to succeed crept up on her countless times and she would be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about quitting. 

“It’s truly, truly hard. At the end of the day, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “I don’t think I picked being a singer or a songwriter or an artist — I think it chose me. I sometimes think, ‘Maybe I should try something a little more stable,’ but there are ups and downs and I’ve known that since I was a teenager. … It’s how I navigate my life; it’s how I process what I’m going through. You just have to figure out how to make it work.”

But once she moved to L.A., Palter said her music network grew exponentially. She had a solid stream of jazz gigs around L.A., even singing alongside actor and jazz enthusiast Jeff Goldblum. That led to her opening for her idol, Carole King. 

Meeting King was a pivotal moment for Palter, who was raised on King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.

Palter said “Paper Trail” was heavily influenced by “Carole King, Joni Mitchell, all the great singer-songwriters, the people who were really crafting songs and stories and there were no throwaways, nothing was gimmicky. It was about the stories and the melodies and the lyrics and the chord changes. They all worked in tandem to create a beautiful song.” 

One of the songs on her album that she cites as being close to her heart is “Goodbye My Friend,” because of its bittersweet backstory.

“The day that I signed my record deal, my aunt, who was a brilliant, brilliant artist, she took her own life,” Palter said. “That was really hard on me. ‘Goodbye My Friend’ was written about my friend who was struggling with alcoholism and I had a dream that he died. …When I went to record it, it became very much about what I was going through with my aunt and I was extremely emotional. … We were recording it one take through, completely live, and you can even hear at the end my voice cracked.” 

In addition to letting her music be her therapeutic guide, Palter also goes to therapy and wants to incorporate mental illness and trauma into her music so that the stigma behind it can disappear. 

“I think we’d all be better off if we could talk about it,” she said. “My journey, even to trying to make it in the music industry, I wouldn’t have been able to do if I wasn’t totally open with what I was going through. I gotta throw it all into the music.”

“Paper Trail” will be on Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Music July 19. Learn more on her website.

What Grandparents Leave Behind

Photo from Pexels.

What is it about grandparents that melts our hearts? Is it simply that they love us so unconditionally, without strings? After all, we can quarrel with parents but who’s got the chutzpah to quarrel with a bubbe or a zayde? Certainly not me.

I think about my grandparents almost all the time. None of them is alive but their presence is still with me. As I weather hectic days, I can almost hear their whispers of wisdom.

After an especially crazy day recently, it dawned on me that this wisdom comes from four sources: that is, each grandparent taught me something unique. 

From my paternal grandfather, Clifford, I inherited my attention to detail, astute travel planning skills and a devotion to Jewish philanthropy. My paternal grandmother, Surella, taught me how to sit with good posture, be a devoted spouse even during challenging times, make gefilte fish from scratch (still haven’t dared to try it on my own) and host a dinner party better than Martha Stewart ever could. Goldie, my maternal grandmother, taught me to be wary of false friends, to enjoy the little moments in life, to take care of myself (now called “self-care”) and to be a life-long learner. Arnold, my maternal grandfather, passed on to me his love of laughter, games, the importance of showing affection and unconditional love, and a willingness to help anyone who asks, even when I am going through tough times.

So, when I am transfixed in the audience of an Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concert, I think of Clifford, who was a successful endodontist and then real estate developer, but at his core, was a lover of the arts. Some of Clifford’s greatest passions were poetry, literature and classical music.

You might think I’ve over-idealized my grandparents but there’s another important lesson they taught me: what not to do.

When I cook for the holidays, I think of Surella. When she was in her 90s, she said to me, in a serious tone during one of my visits back home to Vancouver, “At my funeral, don’t let anyone say I was a good cook.” I knew what she meant. Surella may have always had fresh flowers in a vase and baked daily from scratch, but the message was clear: I may be good at entertaining, but I want to be known for the home I created, not for the food I cooked.

I find that to get through my long days of meetings and mommy duties, a cup of tea and cream at 3 in the afternoon really does the trick. Something as simple as tea has become a sweet reminder for me of the importance of taking a break and savoring the moment. I learned this from Goldie.

When I hug my kids, I try to envelop them, probably because Arnold always gave the kind of hugs that felt strong, soft and safe at the same time.

You might think I’ve over-idealized my grandparents but there’s another important lesson they taught me: what not to do.

Clifford could be really tough on the people he loved. Arnold made unsound business decisions. Goldie had low self-esteem. Surella was a doting wife but had no professional ambitions.

The greatest lessons I learned from them weren’t from listening to what they said to me but by watching them live for all those years. Their strengths and weaknesses taught me, like the famous phrase by Alexander Pope, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Even my impeccable grandparents weren’t perfect. They loved me entirely,
just as I am, therefore I have learned to feel less guilt about my mistakes and shortcomings. What matters is, that I love my family with the same intensity and consistency I was raised with. The rest will figure out itself.

Danielle Ames Spivak is the executive director of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Danielle, her husband and children live in Los Angeles.

Legendary Music Publicist Mitch Schneider on His Extensive PR Career

Mitch Schneider. Photo by Sorrell Schneider

As a then-teenaged music writer, the first public relations firm to really embrace me was a Los Angeles-based company known as the Mitch Schneider Organization. More than 20 years later, MSO has evolved into SRO – short for the Schneider/Rondan Organization– and is still handling some of music’s most influential artists, festivals and influencers.

SRO co-founder Mitch Schneider got his start within the musical realm as a freelance journalist in the 1970s. His credits included Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Hit Parader and Circus. Ultimately finding his way as a top-tier public relations executive, Schneider’s past and/or present PR roster has included – to name a very small grouping of clients – Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Dolly Parton, Slash, The Black Crowes, David Lee Roth, Korn, Steve Aoki and the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.

Further, a testament to Schneider’s long-term influence as a publicist is how many of today’s leading publicists originally worked under Schneider.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Schneider by phone in June 2019 and below are highlights from that chat.

Being Los Angeles-based and very hands-on:

“SRO, as we’re now called, we remain a very brick and mortar… We’re on Ventura Boulevard right near Encino Avenue. Tom Petty used to live right up the street from where we now are… We’re proudly a proper office and that means when people come to the office, whether it’s me, It’s Marcee [Rondan], it’s Kelly [Walsh], it’s Andrea [Faulk] or Lyndie [Wenner] our Nashville person if she’s in Los Angeles, there’s a place to come. We have ‘think tank’ meetings. It’s not just emailing other people and they work… You get to look at them. Say we’re running up against a wall here, let’s try to brainstorm another idea of how to get somebody’s attention or just figure this out. So yeah, we’re proudly brick and mortar in the year 2019.”

His longest client relationships:

“I could tell you exactly two of them, Ozzy Osborne and Heart. Both were originally signed in the year 1987 when it was Michael Levine Public Relations before it became Levine/Schneider. Ozzy took a break of maybe around six years when ‘The Osbournes’ was on TV and things were being done in-house. But after that went off the air he came back. Heart, we were with them from ‘87 to 2001 and then they had different management… But they came back to us in the year 2016 and continue to be with us. So yeah, we’re really proud of like those kinds of long runs. Those are unique clients to work with Both are pioneers, they’re trendsetters, they’re superstars, they’re the artist and their teams know their expectations are big. So you have to be obviously you have to be OK you have to be switched on 24/7.”

On the 24/7 workflow of PR these days:

“It is a 24/7 business not only for superstars like that, but I mean it’s kind of crazy on Saturdays and Sundays. My inbox starts to fill up with photo requests from tour dates around the country or ticket requests. We don’t answer them until Monday, but it’s very much in our world that this is going on.

You see, back in the old days, before things were digital, Monday through Friday there’d be a phone call coming into the general phone number. “Hey we’d like a photo pass for Ozzy Osbourne,” and the assistant would say, “Oh let me put you on with the tour publicist.” Well now because everybody’s names are all over the Internet, I’m often the first person to get the photo request…

So the amount of bandwidth or time that that’s in your life, it just keeps increasing… Even if you’re on a Sunday just checking your device if you’re out and about, because you’re a publicist, there could be an emergency… It’s still in your brain. So it is really tough to just shut it down. That’s why I run to my guitars and because I’m also a songwriter I would say like I always joke and say, ‘It’s nights, holidays and weekends.’ So that kind of gives me sanity because I’m able to access another part of my brain.

The difficult part of running a business is in PR you’re not only wondering about your current clients and are you satisfying them. You have to wonder who are the new clients that are going to come in to replace the current ones if they will be leaving you. They might be going on hiatus for six months before they come back… You also have to stay on top of invoices, have clients paid them? Without all of that, there’s no business. So you have to be switched on in many different levels…

Everybody’s dealing with this. Obviously, it’s just not publicity… I love the music. I love the people we work with They’re really unique characters and artists and people.”

On being remembered for using multi-colored paper for MSO press releases:

“Marilyn Manson came up to our office for a meeting probably in the late 90s and we did sign him for that live album. But he said he used to be a journalist in Florida for a rock paper, I forget which one. He looked, he goes, “Oh I remember you people. You always sent your press releases out on that flashy paper…

That was kind of always my approach to publicity. What are you going to do to stand out? What are you going to do to stop the traffic? That was certainly one visual way that we tried to be at least memorable.”

On also sending out 8 x 10 photos with the multi-colored paper for a lasting impression:

“Let’s say Tom Petty got his star on Hollywood Boulevard, we made sure that we made 8 x 10’s of it… Back then things weren’t being transferred digitally so much, or maybe was just the beginnings of it… I’ve had people come up and say, ‘Mitch, I saved an 8 x 10 you sent me.’ Whether it was David Bowie getting his star on the Boulevard or whatever media event that we were doing that we felt we should put it into the packages.”

Mitch Schneider. Photo by Sorrell Schneider

Choosing to work with music-related projects:

“Back in Levine… We not only handled Ozzy Osbourne and David Bowie but we handled Sandra Bernhard, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait and more… I handled those comics when comics were being called the new rock & roll. Certainly, Sam Kinison when he was on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’ definitely underlined that. But as we were heading into the early to mid-90s and then MSO forms in February ’95, I do make the conscious decision that we only want to work with musicians because things had become more and definitely more niche. There were more media outlets you were dealing with.
So when MSO formed we decided to move into Sherman Oaks which made sense for us because a lot of musicians were recording in Studio City and North Hollywood. Most musicians were rehearsing in North Hollywood. So when we’ve been out to cover interviews or just have meetings, it was often at bands’ rehearsal spaces or recording studios. So that was a big deal because we moved someplace where it’s like, ‘We don’t handle actors or actresses. We are music.’ So MSO definitely kicked off that new era for us and next year will mark the 25th year in the business.”

What memorabilia he has kept over the years:

“There’s a million things I could have kept. Like one of the things I love to keep is band touring itinerary books. For instance, if you’re on tour and you’re a member of Depeche Mode, you have your tour book. It says what time the bus leaves. It says all of that information and publicists and agents got those. We still get them digitally but we used to get them and I have them with David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Ozzy, Heart, Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac and so on and so forth…

So I saved a lot of those but not all of them. I think the one thing that I have been the best about saving are those the glossy ‘all access’ passes, which is a good reminder of all the tours and artists that I’ve worked with and sometimes I’ll just put my hand into sort of the bucket where I have that and I’ll just pick it up… ‘Oh, I remember I actually did go to that show when they launched that tour and I was there for opening night because we did publicity…’

I don’t save print press releases. I did save if they were like classic press releases but no, can’t save everything There’s the old saying, ‘You can’t take it with you when you go.’ But I saved enough.”

His last words for the kids:

“I know it’s a cliche but I always try to subscribe to that philosophy of ‘not taking no for an answer.’ I mean, I was a rock critic before I became a publicist and you really have to make your own space. What I did was when I was growing up, I think I was like 17 or 18, I went to see Lou Reed at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey because I grew up in the Bronx and it was after ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ the live album came out. So he was doing shows that were based upon that period. And I was so motivated by it that I wrote a review of it although I didn’t have an assignment and I sent it to ‘Good Times’ in Long Island.
Glen Brunman would later go on to be a big head of Epic Records on the West Coast He dug what I wrote and he ran it and he said, ‘Would you like to review records?’ And I said ‘Sure,’ so he started sending me albums. So I started to write for ‘Good Times’ and then I became an editor there. Richard Branciforte obviously is the publisher and top editor but he had me there for about a year, that would have been I think ‘75 or ’76. So I was editing and that was exciting.

So that’s really an example to really illustrate. Nobody asked me but I saw it and I said the show was incredible and I was so inspired that I just sent a review. So I would tell anybody if you want to become a publicist, you should probably start your own website, go out, review shows and if you’re interviewing for a job as a publicist, somebody might go, ‘Wow this person is really sharp, they started their own website, they were reviewing shows, they have an understanding of music and the live presentation.’ You stand a better chance of getting a gig as a junior publicist if you are a writer and if you are a writer who created their own website or blog…

Imagine yourself there. I mean, it’s creative visualization or you know whatever new age phrase you want to put on it, but that’s it. If you keep at it… There’s a combination of skill and luck, but it’s one of the things if you want to win at blackjack, you have to be seated at the blackjack table… So you have to put yourself in the environment in which you want to thrive or be a part of. I guess that’s kind of like my philosophy in life.”

Rachael Worby’s Mission to Bring Great Music to Everyone

Rachael Worby and her orchestra, MUSE/IQUE. Photos by Ben Gibbs

When Rachael Worby was 8 years old, she attended a Young People’s Concert at Carnegie Hall. Leonard Bernstein was conducting. Until that point, Worby thought all conductors were old, European and “unreachable.” Bernstein, by contrast, was “young, American … friendly and interactive,” Worby told the Journal. He also was Jewish. From that day on, when people asked Worby what she wanted to be when she grew up, the New York native had a ready answer: “Leonard Bernstein.”

Today, the Pasadena resident is the founder and artistic director of MUSE/IQUE and one of only a handful of female Jewish orchestra conductors in the world.

Neither of Worby’s parents were musicians. They did, however, love music and exposed their children to a dizzying variety they played on their phonograph: Ella Fitzgerald, Shostakovich, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Broadway show tunes. Worby also took piano lessons on the family’s spinet piano and was expected to practice daily.

“I was raised in a family, which, though the means were exceedingly modest, arts were held in the highest esteem,” she said.

Worby studied musicology at Brandeis University. During her final year, in the hopes of learning to conduct, she wrote letters to 10 teaching professionals on the East Coast. The only response she received was in French from Jacques-Louis Monod. And he said no.

Undaunted, Worby took a train from Boston to New York to meet him. Her mission was successful and he became her teacher for the next five years. But he ended every lesson by reminding her that women could not be conductors. 

Years later, she ran into Monod at Carnegie Hall, where her larger-than-life image was on a poster displayed outside the storied concert venue. She had become the conductor of the Young People’s Concerts, the very job held by her longtime role model, Leonard Bernstein.

Prior to the Carnegie Hall post, Worby was an assistant conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. More recently, she led the Pasadena Pops. Around 2010, when Worby’s position with the Pops was coming to an end, she contemplated a return to New York. But unbeknownst to her, several Los Angeles music lovers — all fans of hers — had gathered to talk about their keen interest in keeping Worby nearby. These individuals became some of the earliest and most important supporters of MUSE/IQUE, which Worby founded in 2011.

MUSE/IQUE is not a traditional orchestra. The players don’t typically perform in a concert hall. Among the many places they have performed are the Pasadena Ice Skating Center, the grounds of the Huntington Hospital and the locker room at the Rose Bowl. Shows are thematic and more often than not related to the site. The show at the skating rink was called “FREE/SKATE” while the one at the hospital was called “HUMAN/INSTRUMENT.” 

Rachael Worby

MUSE/IQUE is not strictly a classical orchestra. A recent show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing featured a program that ranged from the song “Fly Me to the Moon” to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It’s all part of Worby’s mission to lose the pretension and rigidity often associated with orchestral music, deliver an element of surprise and bring music to the people — all people.

“I believe that music is a basic human right and must be the purview of every person on the planet,” Worby said. “And toward that end … we make the entire community of Los Angeles our concert hall.”

MUSE/IQUE has longstanding relationships with over a dozen nonprofits in and around Pasadena that serve “some of the most disenfranchised populations there are,” Worby said, including “young people aging out of foster care and seniors on the poverty line.” 

In addition to bringing MUSE/IQUE musicians and other artists into those spaces, free tickets are set aside at every show for those organizations’ clients. These include the two remaining summer series concerts taking place at the Huntington Library, “TRAIN/GLORY” on Aug. 3 and “BAND/TOGETHER” on Aug. 24.

“I’m constantly eager to deconstruct the secrets and curate so everyone in the space understands,” Worby said. “In some ways, my responsibility is like a rabbi. I have a group of people in front of me and I have an opportunity to cause them to experience themselves as a loving community and go forth and make more love in the larger community, just through having experienced something powerful and passing it on.”

Healing of the Spirit: The Genius of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen Photo courtesy of Old Ideas, LLC

Up until two months ago, my relationship with Leonard Cohen was fairly one-dimensional. I was madly in love with “Hallelujah,” liked Jeff Buckley’s cover of it the best, until I discovered the IDF Band’s version in Hebrew, which took it to a new level. What I’d heard of his other work, I didn’t connect with. I found it and his persona too dark, gloomy, melancholy. In retrospect, I don’t think I was ready for it.

All of that changed dramatically in April at the opening of “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” at the Jewish Museum in New York City. The first exhibition devoted entirely to the renowned singer-songwriter’s imagination and legacy, “A Crack” includes commissioned works by a range of international artists — 12 visual artists and 18 musicians, representing 10 countries — who have been inspired by Cohen’s work. The exhibition takes up three floors of the elegant Warburg mansion yet is still smaller than the original exhibition, which started in Montreal at the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal (MAC) and opened a year after Cohen’s death in 2016.

The Jewish Museum is five blocks from my apartment. I began to stop in every couple of days, to sit on the beanbags scattered in every room and take in the music, the poetry, the sound of Cohen’s voice. I went when I was happy, sad, dejected, stressed. Each time, he had something to say to me. Each time, I cried.

I watched the visitors go from press to elderly Jews to scruffy millennials with ripped jeans. They cried, too.

I had known that “Hallelujah” is brilliantly layered — sexuality and spirituality woven together as only a lifetime student of both could do. But I began to see the layering of his other songs and poems — and how that layering could make a beeline to the soul, cleansing, comforting, healing.

“His interweaving of the sacred and the profane, of mystery and accessibility, is such a compelling combination that it becomes seared into memory,” wrote curator Victor Shiffman and John Zeppetelli, director and chief curator of the MAC, in the accompanying catalog. “Our exhibition explores how this vastly important achievement has affected and inspired artists, how it has entered the cultural conversation, and how it has cut deep into the marrow of the body politic.”

Cohen was “an extraordinary poet of the imperfection of the human condition, giving voice to what it means to be fully alert to the complexities and desires of body and soul,” wrote the curators. “With equal parts gravitas and grace, Cohen teased out a startlingly inventive and singular language, depicting both a rapturous, sometimes liturgical, spirituality and an earthly sexuality.” 

I began to see the layering of his other songs and poems — and how that layering could make a beeline to the soul, cleansing, comforting, healing.

The exhibition is a tribute to Cohen’s singular voice; to his stature as a global icon; to his ongoing influence and the many pathways that emanate from his work. It turns out that this is the Summer of Cohen. A poignant documentary about his longtime lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” opens July 5. In June, Christie’s auctioned off more than 50 letters Cohen had sent to Ihlen.

I have so much to catch up on — Cohen’s novels and books of poetry, decades of songs. But what’s clear to me after spending weeks in the 13-part exhibition is that to be ready for Leonard Cohen — fully ready — is to be able to appreciate his many complex layers; once you do, you begin to appreciate your own complex layers — and then the complex layers of humanity, of life.

Once I embraced the melancholy of his work, I was able to feel the beauty. And there is just so much beauty.

Ring the bells that still can ring; 

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything; 

That’s how the light gets in.
— “Anthem”

“Leonard Cohen, Trouville 1988,” taken from a photograph by Claude Gassian.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

The main piece in the exhibition is a 56-minute film titled “Passing Through” by George Fok. Three projections on three walls of a large room, the film is an exquisite montage of archival footage highlighting almost 50 years of Cohen’s concert performances; a single song is sometimes performed across several decades. We watch Cohen perform, but we also see the hushed silence of his audiences, the standing ovations, the waves of love.

Visitors sit, transfixed, often with their eyes closed, like at a hallucinogenic concert.

In the next room is Kara Blake’s “The Offerings,” a passage through Cohen’s intricate interior landscape. Blake pieced together footage of Cohen speaking, “using his singular voice to engage visitors in an intimate conversation.” Cohen muses on a variety of subjects, ranging from his personal writing practice to the themes that lie beneath: love, humility and spirituality.

“These offerings issue from a life of observation and introspection,” Blake wrote, “inviting guests into his contemplative world.” The film is “a memento of Cohen’s perspective on what it means to be human,” exploring his “lifelong investigation of the complex interplay between the mortal and the divine.” 

Together, the two films highlight the exhibition’s main theme: There is a crack in everything. Even when something seems perfect, it’s not. There is a crack because humanity is imperfect, because nature is imperfect, and striving for perfection only sets you up for despair. The world, people, are complex; life is sometimes very dark. 

But there is an upside to the crack: that’s how the light gets in. Even darkness has a crack.

It is perhaps the most inspired part of the exhibition to focus on those two lines from “Anthem.” Not only is it a major theme of Cohen’s work, but it’s a profoundly important personal message, a realistic twist to what is now called positive psychology. You think acknowledging pain and disappointment is going to bring you down, but instead: it allows you to accept the darkness. And once you accept it, you are better able to confront it, process it, move through it. It’s strengthening, liberating.

“The state of being cracked, imperfect, was one of this perfectionist’s longest, deepest studies,” writes Cohen’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons, in the catalog. “It might have been his battle cry.”

“The real mandate,” Cohen said, “is not fulfilling one’s dreams, but being brave enough to stand before the world, imperfect.” 

Like a bird on the wire; 

Like a drunk in a midnight choir;

I have tried in my way to be free.
— “Bird on the Wire”

When Cohen was a teen, he read the works of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who became one of Cohen’s greatest influences. “Lorca gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is, to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggled for its own existence,” Cohen said in 2011 when accepting Spain’s highest honor, the Premios Principe de Asturias.  

“The state of being cracked, imperfect, was one of this perfectionist’s longest, deepest studies. It might have been his battle cry.”
— Sylvie Simmons

“And as I grew older,” Cohen continued, “I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually, and if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.”

Cohen was a poet of the human condition. He used the universal language of music to create timeless pieces that have affected generations. Just as Lorca had done for him, Cohen gives each of us — especially artists — the freedom to be ourselves, in all our sacred complexity.

Indeed, in reading the artists’ statements about their exhibition pieces, what becomes clear is that Cohen was an artist’s artist, unafraid of nonconformity and beauty. 

Canadian indie band Half Moon Run covers “Suzanne” in the exhibition piece “Listening to Leonard.” In the catalog, they wrote: “Considering the work of Leonard Cohen, one can get a better understanding of the very function of an artist. His art is essential. It shines a light into the dark corners of our collective human soul. It gives a magical spark of hope that perhaps life can be more transcendentally beautiful than you can even imagine. 

“He speaks to the poet inside all of us and reinforces our life with meaning. He is a true heir to a set of traditions that are as old as articulated speech — a master of song, verse and narrative. One gets the sense that he could have been born in any century, and still his voice would have found a way to cut through to communicate with and illuminate those around him.”

Cohen was cool precisely because he refused to conform to artistic trends. The Beat poets of New York associated his rhymed, polished verses with the oppressive literary establishment. He didn’t care. Cohen made “defiantly unfashionable music which people were compelled to catch up to,” wrote the curators.

“His songs were like nothing else made in the late sixties,” Simmons wrote. “He was unique, at the same time ancient and fresh.”

One could argue Cohen didn’t write songs; he wrote poetry set to music. He often spent years on his work, imbuing each piece with a biblical significance. Yet he was too humble to call himself a poet: “A poet is an exalted term at the end of one’s work. … Poetry is a verdict, not a choice.” 

A poised, courtly gentleman and an unabashed hedonist; an often gloomy, depressive figure with a wry, ironic sense of humor—Cohen embodied contradiction and complexity. He also saw no contradiction between innovation and beauty, personally or professionally. He tried wearing jeans but never felt completely comfortable, so he went back to wearing suits and soon, a signature fedora.

Cohen did share with the folk singers of the 1960s and ’70s a focus on underlying values, not partisan politics. In “Democracy,” he declares, “I’m neither left nor right.” In the ’70s, he stated, “I’m not a pacifist. I don’t believe that this world can afford pacifism. I think pacifism delights the hearts of killers.” That’s about as directly political as he gets. (He did offer himself to the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur War — to “stop Egypt’s bullet” — but was turned down.)

The otherwise brilliant exhibition includes one false note in trying to politicize a man who refused to be politicized. A piece by Taryn Simon shows the cover of The New York Times on Nov. 11, 2016. At the top is a photograph and article describing the first meeting between President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump; below is Cohen’s obituary. I believe we’re supposed to gasp at the timing.

Did Cohen hate Trump? Who knows; no evidence is offered. What is offered, over and over, is evidence of his hatred of precisely this kind of simplistic politicization (and projection).

Cohen’s art can’t be reduced to politics; it transcends politics. That is one of the reasons it is both brilliant and timeless.

Dance me to your beauty

With a burning violin
— “Dance Me to the End of Love”

“I’m not a pacifist. I don’t believe that this world can afford pacifism. I think pacifism delights the hearts of killers.” —  Leonard Cohen

 After World War II, German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno believed it would be impossible for Jews to create beauty again.

The Holocaust clearly haunted Cohen, who was 10 in 1944. References to it turn up in many of his songs. But his answer to Adorno was clear: Sacred beauty can’t be extinguished; indeed, it’s the only answer to evil.

“He swam in beauty, because in its transience, he aspired to discern a glimpse of eternity,” wrote longtime friend Leon Wieseltier when Cohen died.

Like the great philosophers before him, Cohen saw truth in beauty and beauty in truth. “The truth of the line overwhelms all other considerations,” Cohen wrote in “The Book of Longing.” As Jon Rafman, creator of “Legendary Reality,” a meditation on art, identity and time drawing on Cohen’s work, put it: “It’s a thin line between ethics and aesthetics in the search for truth.”

“Dance Me to the End of Love” started out as an exploration of the origins of evil, Cohen tells us. It turned into a haunting ode to the musicians forced to perform in the concentration camps.

Cohen used the language of music to connect with humanity; he used beauty to speak to our hearts, to sear a place in our souls. “Music has a sacred function, and that sacred function is uniting men, honoring ancestors and placing yourself in a reverent attitude toward the future,” Cohen said.

Design studio Daily tous les jours asked the question: Why is “Hallelujah” so popular in so many places around the world, with people from different backgrounds and generations? To answer the question, it created “I Heard There Was a Secret Chord,” a participatory humming experience. Visitors sit in a cushioned circle, take a microphone hanging from the ceiling and begin to hum. The seat vibrates with our humming. A digital monitor above displays the ever-changing number of people around the world listening to “Hallelujah.”

 “ ‘Hallelujah’ attests to Cohen’s ability to make that leap from the personal to the universal,” wrote the artists in the catalog. “The way he observes and questions the human condition reveals the power artistic works can hold when they succeed in tapping into the collective spirit.”

The piece is an homage to this universality. “It celebrates the emotional thread that connects us as humans; it imagines a sense of unity through a transcendent experience. … We focused on the mystical experience of the song. … Using humming instead of words, we hoped to amplify the song’s ability to reach the core inside ourselves, transforming both real and networked space into magical, sensory, pulsating fields that transport people across the planet to a unique shared place — just as Cohen has been doing for decades.”

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
— “Hallelujah”

I said all my faith to see

Her naked body
— “Memories”

Born in Montreal into a family of rabbis, scholars and businessmen who founded synagogues and Canada’s first English-language Jewish newspaper, Cohen said it was the “charged speech of the synagogue” that inspired him to write his first poem, an elegy for his father, who died when Cohen was 9. 

Cohen went on to study kabbalah, dabbled in Scientology and became a Buddhist monk for five years. But his connection to his Judaism was lifelong and profound. His lyrics incorporate Hebrew prayers, reference liturgical themes and are filled with biblical imagery. 

“Basically, he was born to be a rabbi,” Simmons said. “Instead, he moved into the world of poetry and song. But he never turned his back on that.”

Cohen was not religious but deeply spiritual. “We are dark romantics who explore to find the Other and to find ourselves,” Rafman wrote about Cohen and himself.

“The great art … is religion,” Cohen said. “How people see the origin of the soul or the psyche.”

An artist using art to speak to the soul — to God — was, of course, nothing new; it used to be the very definition of great art. Even Picasso said about art: “It washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” 

But Cohen took this to a different level. It’s hard not to listen to certain songs like “Come Healing” or “If It Be Your Will” and think you’re not listening to something sacred, a prayer.

Despite his reputation as a hedonist and his sometimes raunchy lyrics, Cohen’s frequent use of sexuality as a cover for spirituality imbues the former with a holiness it rarely receives.

And let the heavens hear it

The penitential hymn

Come healing of the spirit

Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy

In arbitrary space

And none of us deserving 

The cruelty or the grace.
— “Come Healing”

Part of the Leonard Cohen exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York.
Photo by Frederick Charles, Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

Despite his reputation as a hedonist and his sometimes raunchy lyrics, Cohen’s frequent use of sexuality as a cover for spirituality imbues the former with a holiness it rarely receives.

Cohen first gained fame in the 1960s, when the world felt as chaotic as it does today. When totalitarian ideologies were reigning (Marxism), ideologies completely out of sync with human nature. The huge difference is that folk music, consciously or not, imbued that rebellious era with a spirituality, with a grounding in soulful beauty. “In such ugly times, the real protest is beauty,” singer-songwriter Phil Ochs famously said.

None of that soulful artistic grounding exists today. Perhaps that is why this exhibition feels so explosive, why Cohen’s words feel so urgent.

Indeed, perhaps Cohen’s greatest role was as a spiritual philosopher. “We are all embraced by the truth continually,” Cohen said. “Sometimes we know it; sometimes we don’t.” His son, Adam, confirmed Cohen felt his work was “a mandate from God.”

At the same time, it’s hard not to see that Cohen struggled at times to maintain his faith (“your faith was strong but you needed proof”), that when you think he’s talking about women and romance — about how love is the eternal struggle — it often really is about God. Was Cohen’s struggle with love a metaphor for his struggle with faith?

It seems as though his writing and music eased his own sense of emptiness — was a reminder of God’s presence. Perhaps that’s why it feels so intimate, why it helps us feel less lonely, too.

Cohen’s theme — cracks are precisely what lets the light in — is steeped in Jewish theology. “The sins of Judah made him fit to lead; the brokenness of David turned into Psalms — great Jewish leaders have all made mistakes,” Rabbi Eli Fink said. “And we don’t shy away from telling their stories because their brokenness is what created their light. ‘Hallelujah’ is a clever retelling of the David story (with some creative changes) because to Cohen, reading David’s story may have been like looking in the mirror.”

On Oct. 21, 2016, a month after his 82nd birthday and days before his death, Cohen released his 14th and final album, “You Want It Darker.” In many of the songs, he is accompanied by the cantor and choir of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue his great-grandfather helped found and in whose cemetery Cohen would be buried.

Much has been written about the song “Hineni,” which means “Here I Am” in Hebrew, that he’s reciting his own Kaddish. I keep going back to the line “A million candles burning, for the help that never came.” Seventy-one years later, I don’t think he forgave God for the Holocaust. His spirit finally succumbed to his soul.

Magnified, sanctified be Thy Holy Name

Vilified, crucified in the human frame

A million candles burning, for the help that never came

You want it darker, we kill the flame

Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.
— “You Want It Darker”

I already feel the inevitable sadness when the exhibition closes here on Sept. 8. (It will travel to San Francisco next, then Copenhagen.) Sitting in those dark rooms, listening to Cohen’s gravelly voice and ethereal music became my safe space at a particularly vulnerable time.

The genius of Leonard Cohen is that he understood that we need to be able to embrace the sadness, the darkness, to move on. That learning how to move through the darkness is how we heal, how we get stronger, how we better appreciate and create the light. After you touch the darkness, you’re no longer afraid of it.

Perfection of ourselves, of humanity, is a false ideal, Cohen tells us. We are human. And the only way we’re going to begin to reconnect with each other is through our humanity, our sacred, complex individuality.

Music — art — is here to help us to deal with the cracks, the personal cracks, the political cracks. The creation of beauty is essential to a moral landscape: Beauty and hate can’t coexist. Artist Julia Holter covers “Take This Waltz.” She wrote Cohen was “one of the first realizations I had of the truth that hides in abstraction — that the madness we experience in our heads can be the building blocks of beauty and understanding. … I see it as a kind of healing music — we need the reassurance that the ordinariness of our day-to-day lives has a beauty.” 

Perhaps this is why Cohen feels even more relevant today. We cannot heal the world until we first heal ourselves, until we fully understand imperfection and complexity. There is a reason why many of our greatest leaders have been deeply spiritual. Spirituality helps us maintain the hope we need to change the world.

The birds they sang at the break of day;

Start again, I heard them say.

Don’t dwell on what has passed away;

Or what is yet to be.
 — “Anthem”

Cohen has given us permission to not just embrace the darkness, but to teach our children that the world, life, isn’t perfect. To help them understand the complexity of the human condition, to adjust their expectations.

Yes, I will feel profound sadness when this exhibition leaves New York City. But his songs and poems remain, as does the knowledge that his words, his wisdom, will resonate for generations. As Sharon Robinson, his longtime collaborator, put it: “Now, in the deepest realms of the soul, where there is no sun, no gravity, no morning or night, his words are a compass, an anchor and a light.”

So I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back

They’re movin’ us tomorrow to the tower down the track

But you’ll be hearin’ from me, baby, long after I’m gone

I’ll be speakin’ to you sweetly from a window in the Tower
of Song.
— “Tower of Song”

Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.

Local Persian Singer Chloe Pourmorady Releases Debut Album

Courtesy of Chloe Pourmorady.

Musician Chloe Pourmorady wears a large hamsa necklace and carries a rose-gold brass water bottle. She thinks before she speaks and she’s hip but with a kick of traditionalism in her veins, which probably stems from her Persian, Sephardic roots.

Pourmorady graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 2008 and studied classical music at Loyola Marymount University. “It’s radical right now [for] one of the first-generation [Iranian] Americans to have a career in the arts,” she said. 

Pourmorady, 29, spoke with the Journal a couple of days after the release of her debut album “Begin Majesty,” with her seven-piece ensemble — the Chloe Pourmorady ensemble. She calls the album an amalgam of different elements, with music in Farsi, Ladino, Hebrew and English. Originally, she wanted to call it “Bipayan,” (Farsi for “endless”) but decided she needed a name that would attract a universal audience. 

“It’s called ‘Begin Majesty,’ she said, “because it’s a command. Go forth, begin majesty — go forth and begin your beauty, your splendor, your creativity, your beginning.” 

The album cover is a spectrum of light and dark brown, an image created by Elisabeth Louy, an artist in Ibiza, Spain, and the mother of a good friend of Pourmorady’s. Half of a woman’s face emerges from the various shades. Different people see different things, Pourmorady said, and it all depends on what’s going on inside you. However, she sees the image as “something emerging, like creation beginning.” The piece was made with coffee, oil and water — elements that typically don’t mix well together, she said. 

She also calls on her Jewish roots for inspiration. “I use the texts. I use brachot,” she said. “I use the story of Bereshit — of the creation of the world — I use our morning prayer, Elohai Neshama. I use all of these concepts because I see creativity in Judaism.” 

However, she added that she is always evolving as an artist “and I don’t like to identify with any label or genre or title or anything like that. It’s a little bit difficult to identify what you’re listening to because it’s a very natural combination of things that might not typically blend together.” 

Indeed, there are a host of unexpected sounds on the album, including a song embellished with snapping and even the natural sound of a chair squeaking during the recording, Pourmorady said. 

Courtesy of Chloe Pourmorady.

Pourmorady composes, plays the violin and the kamancheh (a traditional Persian bowed string instrument), and on her album sings with Cantor Liran Kohn, a cantor at Baba Sale Congregation in the Fairfax neighborhood. The other musicians in the ensemble are Daniel Raijman on guitar, Alexander Meimand on Persian tar, Zack Lodmer on clarinet, Ramin Abrams on bass, and master percussionists Jamie Papish and Ava Nahas.

“It’s radical right now [for] one of the first-generation [Iranian] Americans to have a career in the arts.”
— Chloe Pourmorady

Pourmorady’s father wrote the lyrics for most of the Farsi songs and she notes that he “had a big influence on my creativity.” She recalls the song he taught her — the one he wrote for her mother and sang at their engagement party. The song, she said, is called “Lebose Ghermez” (Red Dress), the color her mother wore at her engagement. Pourmorady described it as “one of the first songs I’ve ever loved in my life,” and she rearranged it for her parents’ wedding anniversary two years ago. 

But even though she began to study the violin at the age of 9 (which Pourmorady said is late), she said she never thought she would make a career out of it. It wasn’t until her final year of high school that she knew she wanted to pursue music. 

Her ensemble, she said, is something that she prayed for and wanted for a long time, and one by one, her fellow ensemble musicians came into her life. She met some of them through synagogue, others through friends and a few by accident. 

The ensemble played its first concert at the Skirball Cultural Center in 2016. That’s the moment, “the ensemble was really the ensemble,” Pourmorady said. Today, the ensemble “are the best musicians I’ve ever played with in my life.” They work well together on all levels, she said, “creatively, personality-wise and even humor-wise.” 

After three years of performing, the ensemble created a $40,000 Kickstarter campaign in September 2018 to make the “Begin Majesty” album. Within two months they had met their goal. 

But Pourmorady said she ventured far out of her comfort zone during that time, asking people from the Persian and Jewish community for generous donations. She noted that her grandmother didn’t approve of her reaching out to donors. She recalled her grandmother saying, “What is she doing? She’s bringing a bad name to our family.” 

Yet Pourmorady remains unapologetic. “I put out a beautiful work of art,” she said. “It was worth it in the end.”

Michelle Naim is a senior studying English with a concentration in journalism at Stern College for Women in Manhattan and a Jewish Journal summer intern. 

The Stray Cats’ Lee Rocker on His Music Career, leaving New York

The Stray Cats from L-R: Lee Rocker, Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom. Photo by Russ Harrington

The Stray Cats is single-handedly the band that put rockabilly music back on the record charts in the early 1980s. Formed by guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer, upright bass player Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom in the Long Island town of Massapequa, New York, the trio first found fame after moving to England. 40 years after starting up in 1979, the music of The Stray Cats – the massive hits, of course, include “Runaway Boys,” “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut” “(She’s) Sexy + 17,” and “I Won’t Stand In Your Way” – still sound fantastic and remain on classic rock radio playlists worldwide.

Last year, The Stray Cats regrouped to record a full-length album titled “40.” Made with producer Peter Collins (Rush, Bon Jovi, The Brian Setzer Orchestra) and engineer Vance Powell (Jack White, Chris Stapleton, Arctic Monkeys), “40” was recorded in Nashville and features a dozen original songs. The Stray Cats will be embarking on a world tour this summer in support of “40,” including an August 28th show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

An awesome factoid that not everyone realizes about The Stray Cats is the background of the earlier-mentioned bassist Lee Rocker. Rocker — born “Leon Drucker” — is the son of classical clarinetists Stanley Drucker (the retired principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) and Naomi Drucker (a famed music professor at this writer’s undergraduate alma mater, Hofstra University). Rocker’s touring and/or recording credits otherwise include George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. Rocker also had the distinction of being nominated for a Grammy Award in 1982, the same year his father was, making the Druckers/Rockers the second father-son duo to be nominated for a Grammy in the same year.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lee Rocker by phone about the past, present and future of his career. Transcribed below is a few minutes from our May 2019 chat, while my full interview with Rocker will air later this summer via the “Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz” podcast.

Jewish Journal: You first had your fame in the U.K. then it happened again in the States. At what point did you say, “I’m done with New York” and you moved west?


LR: There were a lot of years really of living like a rock and roll gypsy, you know? I mean, we were on tour most of the time for those early years, but probably summer of 1980 I moved to London and was there for a couple of years. I moved back to New York City then around ‘83 or ‘85 or so. I moved to the West Coast and actually now these last number of years, I’m so happy, I really split my time between New York and California.

JJ: Was the Long Island music scene supportive of you in the early days? Or was that leaving in response to it not being supportive?

LR: Well I didn’t know much about the scene out of Long Island. We would play a lot of different bars really and it definitely went well. That was the proving ground for the band. We’d be every Thursday at one club, every Friday at another, and it really gave me the confidence and the understanding of what was going on. That first Thursday somewhere, we would have 20 people. A week later there was 50. The following week there was a hundred and the week after that there’s a line down the block. That happened on Long Island at a couple of different clubs and at the same time we were doing it, we were playing Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, going into the city. That was a little bit more of a scene…

So I don’t know if that scene on Long Island was supportive or not but people absolutely were. And that really gave us the confidence to go, “You know what? This is happening, let’s try London.” That was a function of being in New York City mainly and people going to record shops. Back in those days, there was two or three rock and roll newspapers that came out weekly, the “Melody Maker,” the “New Musical Express”… They were all based out of London so it covered what was going on there… We wanted to be part of it and that’s where everything was really happening at that moment.

JJ: Did you start off as your first instrument on the upright bass?

LR: No, I’m from a family of musicians. My dad was the solo clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic and my mom was a clarinetist also and a teacher at Hofstra University. The only rule that we ever had growing up, and it wasn’t a house of a lot of discipline in a real house of artists, really was that you had to play an instrument, that you had to take lessons. So I started at about 7 years old playing cello and took lessons to read, write music and I did that from about 7 to around 12 or so, then switched to electric bass… A lot of the music that I loved was blues music and rockabilly. I was discovering it had an upright bass so I had to get myself one, and that’s really how that came together.

JJ: One of the amazing things to me about your career is that The Stray Cats is only one part of it. For example, the band that you and Jim had with Earl Slick, you had a couple of major label albums there. You played with two Beatles, etc. At the same time, people go, “Oh yeah that’s the guy from The Stray Cats.” I’m curious if there’s an accomplishment that you’re most proud of in your career.

LR: I’m overall really proud of what I’ve done. I always try to improve and learn more… What you say is true, I mean, The Stray Cats are a huge part of what I am and it’s the foundation was that’s where it started. I think for all three of us… That will be in the first sentence, the three words, separate obituaries, will be the words “Stray Cats.” But certainly I did two records with Earl Slick, Keith Richards was on it, Nicky Hopkins from the Stones. I played a lot with Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore — Elvis Presley’s original guitar player joined my band and toured with me and I recorded with him… I’ve got so much to be happy about.

Actually one of the things that I do now, we’re embarking on a lot of Stray Cats concerts and the new album, but in addition to that even throughout this year, I’m probably doing 40 performing arts centers with my other band… We have screens and video and stills and it’s a concert. But I also tell stories and talk about the reasons why I’m doing some songs… That’s a really cool thing that I’ve been enjoying and that’s what I’ve been mainly doing this last 2 or 3 years up until this monumental 40th anniversary.

JJ: Were you bar mitzvahed? Is there a memory that you can share related to that?

LR: Well I wasn’t, but I have to say culturally I’m pretty steeped in the culture and food and music and art.

JJ: So finally, any last words for the kids?

LR: Figure out what you love and just go for it and don’t compromise.

More on Lee Rocker and The Stray Cats can be found online.

Hamas Rockets Won’t Stop Eurovision

Croatia rehearses for Eurovision at Expo Tel Aviv. Photo by Thomas Hanses

When Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon last year with her hit song, “Toy,” the triumph earned Israel the right to host the 64th annual contest. In tune with Netta’s empowering anthem, the Jewish state is not playing around with preparations for the spectacle. Even rocket attacks from Gaza are not impeding plans for the event, which runs May 14-18 at Expo Tel Aviv.

“For months, we have prepared for these kinds of scenarios and responses,” Sharon Ben-David, head of communications for Eurovision for KAN, the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, told Army Radio.

In a May 6 statement, the European Broadcast Union (EBU) said: “We continue to work alongside KAN and the Home Front Command to safeguard the well-being of everyone working at and joining us at Expo Tel Aviv. The rehearsals have been unaffected and continue as normal. The artists, delegations and production crew are working hard, and everything is running to schedule and going well.”

Located 20 minutes from Ben Gurion Airport, Expo Tel Aviv is overhauling pavilion 2 for Eurovision’s 41 competitors, with a dynamic stage, audience seating, and everything needed for television monitors to broadcast foreign-language commentaries from other countries. The Tel Aviv-Jaffo Municipality is creating an official beachside welcome site. KAN and the EBU will broadcast the event to an expected audience of 200 million. Israel will broadcast the semifinals on May 15 and 16, and the finale on May 18. Meanwhile, the city is promoting the event with an emphasis on sustainability and climate-friendly initiatives.

Local organizers are billing Tel Aviv as the most sustainable and climate-friendly Eurovision location to date, and city officials say instead of relying on plastic, catering will use perishable paper, bamboo plates and utensils, and reusable glasses. The Expo has installed power-saving LED lights to conserve energy and is recycling gray water from air-conditioning units to water lawns, Expo CEO Tamir Dayan said.

Israel’s representative this year is Kobi Marimi, who will perform “Home” by Inbar Wizman and Ohad Shragai. The song is an expression of self-esteem for Marimi, who struggled with childhood obesity, and includes the refrain, “I am someone.” The official video already has garnered more than 1 million views.

“We continue to work alongside KAN and the Home Front Command to safeguard the well-being of everyone working at and joining us at Expo Tel Aviv. The rehearsals have been unaffected and continue as normal.”

— European Broadcast Union

Israel’s involvement with Eurovision dates to 1973, with Ilanit performing “Ey Sham.” Israel was the first non-European country granted permission to participate. Israel’s broadcaster, the former Israel Broadcasting Authority, was an EBU member, thereby allowing participation. Israel’s first win was in Paris in 1978, when Izhar Cohen and his backup band, the Alphabeta, triumphed with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.”
Israel won the following year when Jerusalem hosted, with a performance of “Hallelujah” by Milk and Honey. Dana International made headlines in 1998 when she became the first transgender singer to win Eurovision, with “Diva.”

The competition returned to Jerusalem in 1999 and Israel has made it to the grand finale every year since 2015.

Expo Tel Aviv has a history of staging large-scale international events and hosts hundreds of concerts that bring in 2.5 million visitors per year. Past performers include Lady Gaga, Iggy Pop and Nine Inch Nails. “But this will be a first for Expo Tel Aviv to be hosting one of this scale, scope and size,” Dayan said. He estimates approximately 80,000 people will attend Eurovision.  

To bring Expo Tel Aviv up to international standards for Eurovision, Expo Tel Aviv invested more than 8 million shekels (roughly $2.3 million U.S.) to improve the facility. Crews have installed more than 500 new signs, most of which are in Hebrew, English and Arabic, and overhauled the website to be “inviting, convenient, accessible and international,” Dayan said. A newly inaugurated plaza offers an expansive background for television journalists.

In addition to the improvements at Expo Tel Aviv, the city is constructing a companion site called Eurovision Village. This official festival area is located at Charles Clore Park, in the southern part of Tel Aviv at the end of the beach promenade.

A new main entrance to the compound now is titled the Rokach Gate, which cost NIS 500,000 (approximately $139,000). The gate bears the logo of the “Flying Camel,” designed by artist Aryeh Elhanani when the complex was constructed in 1932. Drone aficionados and passengers in a nearby hot-air balloon will discover the roof of the Expo’s pavilion 1 now boasts the same image.

In the 1930s, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, promoted the idea of “Levant Fair.” Based on the popular World’s Fair, Dizengoff envisioned bringing together cultures and the region’s produce at an international festival.

At the time, 20-year-old Tel Aviv was home to 100,000 inhabitants, most of them recent immigrants. Lore has it one of the event’s many critics dismissed the fair as a crazy concept, saying, “The Levant Fair will happen when camels will grow wings and fly … .” The event was a success, and the Flying Camel was transformed into the facility’s mascot. It has remained in honor of those who, the Expo suggests, “dare to dream.”

Fittingly, those three words double as the theme of this year’s Eurovision.

The reporter received a tour of the facilities, courtesy of the European Israel Press Association.

Lisa Klug is a freelance journalist and the author of “Cool Jew” and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe.”

Southern Avenue’s Ori Naftaly ‘Keep On’ album and His Journey from Israel to Memphis

Southern Avenue; Photo by David McClister

Shortly after forming in Memphis, Tennesee in 2015, the band known as Southern Avenue had a deal with Stax Records. Its self-titled debut album not only entered the US Billboard Top Blues Albums Chart at number six in 2017, but it would reach the #1 spot on the iTunes Blues Chart. This would lead to gigs alongside the likes of Buddy Guy, Umphrey’s McGee, Los Lobos and the North Mississippi Allstars and all sorts of international coverage for vocalist Tierinii Jackson, guitarist Ori Naftaly, keyboardist Jeremy Powell and drummer Tikyra Jackson.

The second full-length from Southern Avenue, “Keep On,” is set for release via Concord Records on May 10th. “Keep On” was produced by producer Johnny Black (Jessie J, Daughtry, Estelle) at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording, and it includes guest appearances by seminal Stax Records artist William Bell, noted Memphis musician Gage Markey (who serves as guest bassist on most of the album) and a horn section comprised of Art Edmaiston (JJ Grey & Mofro, Gregg Allman) and Marc Franklin (The Bo-Keys, Gregg Allman). Its first single, “Whiskey Love,” was recently premiered by Relix.

I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with guitarist Ori Naftaly – a Memphis transplant by way of Israel – about his personal and professional journeys. Highlights from that Q&A are below for your reading pleasure.

Jewish Journal: “Keep On” is your new album. How long did you spend writing it?

Ori Naftaly: We spent two years writing it, it was an amazing experience that we learned a lot from.

JJ: Do you have a favorite song on Keep On?

ON: Yes! For me, it’s “We’re Gonna Make It.” We wrote it in Australia at the golden coast. We played the Blues On Broadbeach Festival and between shows I kind of started jamming the chords and humming the melody and then Tierinii joined and we wrote most of it that day. Weeks later we came back to it and brought Tikyra our drummer to help with the outro. It is the perfect combination of Southern Avenue that I want to see more and more of as time goes by.

JJ: How did you wind up in Memphis?

ON: I represented Israel at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee in 2013. I did well enough to book a tour and make important friendships that last until this day. I went back to Israel to record another full original album and then came back to the United States in October 2013 and never came back home. I visited a few times but that was never for more than 10 days.

JJ: And how did you meet your bandmates in Southern Avenue?

ON: I was touring in 2013, 2014 and the start of 2015 with my solo band, the Ori Naftaly Band. In February I realized I needed a musical change. My personal life took a big turn and I found myself homeless, staying with fans. I wrote “Don’t Give Up” at that time. I asked my fill-in drummer at the time, who’s the best singer in Memphis. He showed me a clip of Tierinii and I literally saw my entire future flash in front of me. From there everything went by so quick. We met in-person and clicked right away.

She introduced me to her sister and together we started rehearsing new songs and Tierinii and I began writing. After a few months, I realized that we could do something bigger. I saw the potential and had a vision. I offered the girls to join me and start a band together and be musical partners. It took them a few days to agree. The following January of 2016 we competed at the International Blues Challenge and made it to the finals. A month later we got offered to sign to Stax [Records].

I feel blessed. My weakest moment brought me my biggest joy and love of my life.

JJ: How many of the States had you seen before moving to Memphis?

ON: I’d never been to the United States before landing in Memphis in 2013. It was my first experience in this country and I LOVED every minute of it. I was so nervous that I started developing high fever and stomachaches before the flight to Memphis. I passed out at the airport before check-in. At the airport hospital, they told me I couldn’t go on my flight because I just had an IV for an hour and needed to rest. Somehow with the help of God, I managed to convince them to let me fly. My first week in Memphis was full of joy but pain! Totally worth it.

JJ: Have you met any other people of Israeli descent in Memphis?

ON: Other than the Israeli Jewish agency Shlichim, no. I met two Israelis at the mall one time but they were working there temporarily and couldn’t wait to leave. They were not fans of Memphis. It was hilarious. I represent my country everywhere I go and I’m very proud of that.

JJ: Back to Southern Avenue, what is coming up for the band in the near-future?

ON: Other than the new album, we just announced a tour with Tedeschi Trucks Band and more festival shows around the world including a tour in Europe and in Canada. I’m super-excited about just playing with my bandmates in beautiful settings and for our amazing fans.

JJ: When not busy with Southern Avenue, how do you like to spend your free time?

ON: I listen to a lot of music. I play video games and love reading about politics and news. I enjoy the outdoors and love off-road driving but don’t get to do that as often as I would like. I’m a huge fan of TV shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” I love writing and producing at home. But that’s work I guess, right?

JJ: Right. I feel compelled to ask: What memories do you have of your bar mitzvah?

ON: I wish I could organize another bar mitzvah! It was so much fun. The family and the energy and I even got to do a few songs with my band at the time with my teacher. I am so proud of my heritage and love to celebrate it.

JJ: Finally, Ori, any last words for the kids?

ON: Believe in yourself. I have played guitar since I was five years old. But I only met friends my age who also liked to listen to what I liked when I was 13. I did the unbelievable and somehow moved to another country with no family there and built myself from scratch. I never gave up. I failed way more then I succeeded. Never be afraid to jump in the water and then learn how to swim. When you learn how to swim, always, listen to those who have been there before you and take their advice. Life is about perspectives.

More on Southern Avenue can be found online.

Raise a Tambourine for the Song of the Sea at Passover

In last week’s Jewish Journal, I showed how to make placemats for Passover depicting the parting of the Red Sea. The follow-up to that craft activity is inspired by what happened after the waters parted and the Israelites made safe passage out of Egypt — Miriam’s musical celebration, in which she lifted her tambourine and led the people in the Song of the Sea. 

Making your own tambourine for Passover is easy. Since the tambourine is made with paper plates, I decided it would be appropriate to adorn it with the six symbolic foods of the seder plate. This creates a great opportunity to teach kids about the seder plate and what each of the elements mean.

What you’ll need:
Two paper plates
Acrylic paint
Colored markers
Graphic icons of seder plate foods (downloadable here)
Hole punch
Jingle bells
String or yarn


1. You’ll need two paper plates per tambourine. I recommend small, 7-inch paper plates as opposed to the larger ones, as they are easier to work with. (And they’re great for little hands.) The back side of a paper plate is usually white, so paint your plates in the color of your choice.


2. Draw designs on the painted side with colored markers. Have fun with the doodles. If you want to add the seder plate icons like I did, download and print them. After cutting them out, glue them to the plates.


3. Line up the two paper plates so that the painted sides are facing out. Punch six holes that are evenly spaced around the rim of the plates, punching through both plates at the same time so the holes will be aligned.


4. Thread string or yarn through the shank of a bell and tie the string around the aligned punched holes. The string not only attaches the bell, it secures the two plates together. If you’re using colored yarn, leave the ends long and loose for an extra decorative accent. Repeat for all the bells.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

‘Defiant Requiem’: They Sang to the Nazis What They Could Not Say

In 1943-44, at Terézin, a hybrid ghetto/concentration camp in the Czech Republic, 150 Jewish prisoners, led by a remarkable conductor, sang Verdi’s “Requiem” as a private act of defiance against the Nazis. 

Two separate performances of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terézin,”— on April 16 at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and on April 17 at UCLA’s Royce Hall — paid homage to those prisoners and to Rafael Schächter, the man who led the choir at Terézin, where the Nazis imprisoned many Jewish cultural figures, including classical musicians. 

“Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terézin,” which has been presented nearly 50 times around the world, performs Verdi’s Christian funeral mass in its entirety. The music is intercut with film clips, narration and taped testimonies from survivors. Much more than a concert or musical event, it’s a soul-wrenching testament to the power of maintaining one’s humanity in the most inhumane circumstances. 

In a phone interview with the Journal, Murry Sidlin, 78, who created, crafted and conducted “Defiant Requiem,” said that 25 years ago, when he was conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, he wandered past a table of used books. “I walked over and pulled a book from the middle. It was sticking out, almost beckoning me,” Sidlin said. “It was called ‘Music in Terézin.’”

The book, by Joža Karas, deals with music and the Holocaust. Sidlin was drawn to it because he is a noted orchestra conductor and music educator, and his grandmother was killed during the Holocaust.

“That book is about musicians at Terézin,” Sidler said. “I opened the book at random to a chapter called ‘Rafael Schächter.’ It said he had grown up in Romania and had excelled in music. In the last paragraph, it said that [at Terézin] he put together a volunteer choir of 150 singers and taught them Verdi’s “Requiem” by rote, because there was no score other than his own, and they performed it 16 times between September 1943 and June 1944.”

“The general state of things at Terézin was just insanity and chaos. And in the midst of all this, this guy, [Schächter], put together performances of the Verdi ‘Requiem?’ ” — Murry Sidlin

Sidlin knew the “Requiem” required an orchestra, double-size choir and four operatic soloists. When he read it had been performed at Terézin, Sidlin found it hard to believe. 

Soon after finding the book, Sidlin left Minneapolis and became conductor of the Oregon Symphony in Portland. While there, he continued to pursue Schächter’s story. It soon became clear to Sidlin that Terézin’s reputation as a model concentration camp was Nazi propaganda. There was a Jewish Council of Elders that oversaw cultural events, but the council was a tool of the Nazis. Prisoners were allowed to wear civilian clothes with a Star of David insignia, as in the ghettos, but Terézin inmates faced the same conditions as prisoners in other concentration camps: little or no food, slave labor, illnesses including typhus, and constant fear of sudden violence and death. 

“The general state of things at Terézin was just insanity and chaos,” Sidlin said. “And in the midst of all this, this guy, [Schächter], put together performances of the Verdi ‘Requiem?’” 

Sidlin contacted historians and they put him in touch with Edgar Krasa, who had been Schächter’s bunkmate at Terézin. Sidlin flew to Boston, where Krasa lived, and spoke with him for hours. Krasa, as it turned out, was one of Schächter’s first recruits for the choir, and he connected Sidlin to other survivors, witnesses and singers who talked about their experiences. 

“The Council of Jewish Elders at Terézin did not want Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ performed,” Sidlin said. “They felt [that performing a Catholic funeral mass] was going to stir up a lot of trouble. There were rabbis at the camp who were very unhappy about this. … The council told Schächter in no uncertain terms that this should not be done, and he told them in no uncertain terms that this was the right thing to do: It’s inspiring, it’s beautiful music and the text is proper and right …”

Sidlin said that Krasa told him that Schächter’s choice of Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ was deliberate: It was because of the text’s coded language. The Latin liturgy talks about Judgment Day: “When therefore the Judge will sit/Whatever lies hidden will be revealed/Nothing will remain unavenged.” Even as they were facing death, the Jews in that choir sang to the Nazis that, in the end, they would be punished. But the lyrics were Latin, so it’s unlikely the Nazis understood. 

As members of Schächter’s 150-person choir were deported, he recruited others and the new singers also had to learn the piece by rote. On June 23, 1944, Schächter’s choir, plus its “orchestra” of a broken piano, gave its final performance: this time for the Nazi command escorting a delegation from the International Red Cross (IRC). 

After considering several options, Sidlin decided that the best way to pay homage to those inmates and to Schächter would be to create an event that blends musical and theatrical elements. In 2002, conducting the Oregon Symphony, Sidlin presented “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terézin” for the first time. 

The interspersed narration and survivor interviews tell personal and poignant stories: 

“Whenever I sang, my stomach stopped growling from hunger.” 

“Singing the ‘Requiem’ made us feel human.” 

“This music put us in another world. This was not the world of the Nazis, this was our world.”

“We sang to the Nazis what we could not say to them.”

An occasional train whistle, echoing the trains that took Jews to death camps, is a reminder that the original performance took place in a concentration camp. 

And at the end, there’s a slow, mournful rendition of Nurit Hirsch’s melody to the often-sung prayer, Oseh Shalom — a hint that even after such overwhelming tragedy, there is hope for peace.

Charlie Faye on ‘The Whole Shebang’ Album With The Fayettes, Playing SXSW

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As heard on the “Riverdale,” “Seal Team” and “Girlboss” television shows, Charlie Faye & The Fayettes make music that is both classic and forward-thinking. While heavily influenced by the “girl groups” of the 1960s, Faye and the Fayettes’ lyrics are definitely modern. In other words, expect classic harmonies and “Wall Of Sound”-style production and arrangements alongside shout-along hooks that are reflective of the ‘00s and 2010s.

“The Whole Shebang” is the latest album from Charlie Faye & The Fayettes, as released in February through Burnside Distribution. “You Gotta Give It Up (Party Song)” was notably premiered by Parade Magazine. Meanwhile, Bill Kopp of Musoscribe recently said: “If ‘That Thing You Do!’ ever gets a distaff reboot, Faye and her group should handle the music. And that’s some of the highest praise I can think of.”

I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with group-leader Charlie Faye and highlights from that interview are below.

Jewish Journal: “The Whole Shebang” is your latest album. How long did you spend making it? 

Charlie Faye: We laid down the basic tracks for the record in four days, and then over the next few months we worked on vocals, string and horn arrangements, and other overdubs. We’re lucky enough to have our own home studio so we were able to take the time we needed to put all the finishing touches on the record.  

JJ: Do you have a favorite song on “The Whole Shebang?”  

CF: Oh that’s always so hard. And it changes over time! Right now I think my favorite is “Night People.”

JJ: I believe you were down at SXSW promoting “The Whole Shebang” this year. How do you feel SXSW has changed over the years?

CF: SXSW has definitely grown in the decade that I’ve been attending it. There were a few years where it started to feel too big and too corporate, but a lot of people felt like it got smaller and a little more personal this past year, so maybe things are swinging back in the other direction. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed SXSW and felt like it provided great opportunities for me and the band. 

JJ: In support of your 2011 album, you interestingly spent a month apiece in 10 different cities. I’ve never heard of another artist doing a full residency tour before. Is that something you look back on fondly?

CF: Actually, I did that residency tour in 2010, and it was during the tour that I made my 2011 release, “Travels With Charlie.” I do look back on that tour fondly, it was an incredible life experience. I got to really get to know ten different cities and immerse myself in their local music communities. I made a lot of great friends. 

JJ: Charlie Faye & The Fayettes have had music placed on some popular television shows. How do those sorts of usages happen for the band? Is someone pitching your music to shows?

CF: Soon after I finished making the first Charlie Faye & The Fayettes album, I made it my goal to get us a licensing deal so that we could get these kinds of placements. I secured a deal with a great licensing company called Bank Robber Music, and the placements came through them. 

JJ: You recently signed a deal with Rough Trade Publishing. Does that mean that you have been doing writing for other artists? 

CF: Sometimes writing for other artists is a big part of having a publishing deal, but in my case it’s more about making more music for Charlie Faye & The Fayettes, and writing for film and TV placements! 

JJ: Songwriting aside, what’s coming up for you career-wise?

CF: Well songwriting IS what’s happening for me career-wise right now! I’m just starting to write for our next record. This week I’m flying to Nashville to do some co-writing with one of my favorites writers, Bill Demain.

JJ: I feel compelled to ask: Were you bat mitzvahed? Any memories to share from that era of your life?

CF: I was bat mitzvahed! It wasn’t forced on me, either, it was totally my choice.

My family really only went to temple on the High Holidays, and there was no expectation that I be bat mitzvahed, but when I expressed interest in Hebrew school, my parents sent me. And of course then I wanted to be bat mitzvahed like the rest of my class.

Memories from that time? I think that’s a tough age for many of us, and I was no exception! I was an awkward pre-teen. and I remember how nervous I was to get up in front of all those people to sing in Hebrew!

JJ: Finally, Charlie, any last words for the kids?

CF: Sure. I actually read some of my childhood diaries recently, as my mom was packing up my childhood home, and I had written at 8 or 9 years old that I wanted to be a singer when I grew up, like my idol Carole King. Somewhere in my teens I lost confidence that that was something I could actually do, but I found it again when I hit my 20s, and I’ve been pursuing a career in music ever since.

I guess I want to say, if you have passion for your childhood dream, you really can pursue it. If it’s a career in music  or the arts in general  it probably won’t be easy, and there will be a lot of risk involved… But if you keep at it, it might just work out!

More on Charlie Faye & The Fayettes can be found online at www.charliefayeandthefayettes.com.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer on new Record Store Day single with Chad Smith

New Album cover

As the lead guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers — arguably the most popular band ever come out of Los Angeles — Josh Klinghoffer has played on many of the world’s most important stages. Klinghoffer is also reportedly the youngest-ever living inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.

Prior to joining the Chili Peppers, Klinghoffer was a steadily-working musician. His touring and/or studio credits included Gnarls Barkley, Ataxia (alongside RHCP guitarist John Frusciante), Vincent Gallo, P.J. Harvey, and Beck. The multi-instrumentalist has also kept busy over the years with his own band, Dot Hacker.

The latest release from Klinghoffer is the Record Store Day release “Jeepster” b/w “Monolith,” a pair of T. Rex covers recorded by Klinghoffer alongside Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. The two-piece’s tracks will be out on April 13th – Record Store Day – via ORG Music, as limited to 3,000 copies on 7” vinyl.

I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with Josh Klinghoffer on behalf of the Jewish Journal and highlights from such are below.

Jewish Journal: Where did the idea for a “Record Store Day 7” come from? Was it something you had already recorded?

 Josh Klinghoffer: I believe it started with Zak Starkey asking Chad to be a part of a T. Rex tribute record he was putting together. We did the songs in a couple of days and sent them along. I think about a year went by and we never heard about that tribute coming together, so we figured we’d throw them out ourselves, with the gracious help of ORG! 

JJ: How long did it take from recording it, to mixing and mastering, to having the artwork done?

JK: They were recorded over a two-day period. “Jeepster” was the initial focus but “Monolith” has always been my favorite T. Rex song, so my idea was to end “Jeepster” by doing the “Monolith” count-off.  Chad had Laker tickets the day we tracked, but I got him to lay down a take or two of drums and did the rest the next day. It was a lot of fun. 

JJ: Will there be other releases from you and Chad?

JK: Perhaps. We’ve talked about doing an annual covers series. Record Store Day is a wonderful thing!

JJ: Record Store Day release aside, what is coming up for you career-wise? More from Dot Hacker?

JK: No Dots at the moment, though I suppose we did finish off an old relic from the first album called “Neon Arrow.” It was meant to be a part of Cassette Store Day, but roadblocks arose. So I suppose that will slide out sometime soon. I’ve been making a record mostly on my own, which I suppose with see the light of day sometime soon. Perhaps.

JJ: If I’ve done my research correctly, you’ve always lived in Los Angeles. What is it that keeps you so loyal to L.A.?

JK: Trust me, I wasn’t always loyal to it. I wanted to leave my whole childhood, and very nearly did in my early 20’s. My whole family is from New York and New Jersey, so I spent a lot of time there visiting as a kid. I suppose music always seemed to be here for me. That last time that I was inches away from leaving L.A., rather than doing that, I went on tour with Sparks in early ’06 and that’s sort of been one continuous ride that made stops in Gnarls Barkley and eventually the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

JJ: Do you have a favorite venue to play live at in L.A.?

JK: Venue in L.A.? I haven’t played them all so it’d be hard to answer. I have love of The Palladium and even more for the old Palace, which is now something entirely different. Name and purpose.  

JJ: Finally, Josh, any last words for the kids?

JK: Yikes, I’m at a loss. Go back in! Runaway! I don’t know… Read… A lot. Don’t have kids.

More on Josh Klinghoffer and Chad Smith’s Jeepster” b/w “Monolith” and other ORG Music releases can be found online at www.orgmusic.com.

Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz on 2019 Underwater Sunshine Festival and Bar Mitzvah Memories

Danny Clinch; Courtesy of Danny Clinch's team.

Adam Duritz is arguably best known as the frontman of the band Counting Crows, which has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. Yet not everyone realizes the impact that Duritz has made on other artists for 20-something years. Beyond introducing a new generation to the genius of Alex Chilton and Big Star, Duritz has run record labels and curated music festivals.

Underwater Sunshine  also the name of Counting Crows’ 2012 album, which debuted at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Rock chart  is name of the music festival run by him and co-founder Barbara Rappaport. The Underwater Sunshine Festival launched last October with a two-day event, and will be returning to New York City’s Bowery Electric for two more days of programming on April 5th and 6th. Among the participating artists for the April 2019 edition are Jordan Klassen, Eric Hutchinson, Red Wanting Blue, Amy Vachal, Maria Taylor and Roan Yellowthorn.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Duritz by phone about Underwater Sunshine Fest – which also the name of his podcast with author and music journalist James Campion – his preference of New York over California, his bar mitzvah, and more. Highlights from the chat are below, while the full interview will be part of an upcoming episode of the “Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz” podcast.

Jewish Journal: Underwater Sunshine is both the name of your podcast and the upcoming festival and both of those promote new music you like. So would you look at that as your new outlet in lieu of having a record label?

Adam Duritz: Yeah, it’s the same kind of stuff in a lot of ways…

JJ: So what is it that draws you to the Bowery Electric?

AD: The people running it. Diane [Gentile] and Jesse Malin… I love the place, I love the people working there… It’s a small venue. The sound is fantastic but it’s small. I would like to eventually move out of there to someplace bigger. But they’ve been so good to us for so long… They love music and they run a really cool great club and have multiple rooms, more than one stage…

This has been running pretty efficient. We are pretty happy with it… What’s nice about the clubs here… New York has a lot of clubs that sound great… They’ve done the work, they’ve figured out how to make that room sound good and they bring bands on and off stage with like 15-minute changeovers, which is incredible to me. And that was never the way when I was coming up…

JJ: Are you a full-time New Yorker these days?

AD: Oh yes, for 15, 16, 17 years. I moved here in 2003, I’ve been in New York for a long time.

JJ: What is it that makes you loyal to New York rather than Los Angeles? Because I know that you did write some of your greatest work in Los Angeles.

AD: You know, L.A. was great… I grew up in a really cool struggling artist community in the Bay Area with Berkeley and Oakland and San Francisco. But it was really hard when I was a working artist. I felt like there was a lot of resentment towards that, whereas when I came to L.A. and it’s not that way for me at home back in the Bay Area, but it was at first… L.A. was really welcoming and started being a real person artist town and whatnot especially… Everybody was there to work…

But I think New York is a great city to be a grownup. Anything you might be interested in, anything in the world, whether that’s the ballet or the opera or a bookstore. Whatever it is they have it here and they have some of the best in the world here. You can really, as an adult, you can find anything you want and there’s a world-class version of it here. And I find that fascinating… There’s 50,000 art galleries and 10 of the best museums in the world… They’ve got the best [ballet and opera] companies in the world here… There’s big and small venues… Everybody in the world comes to play here. Same thing with food. It’s just, everything you might be interested in is here and I’ve really found that to be an amazing, generous thing to live around.

Also I really love the [New York City] subway. The idea that someone built a train like 100 years ago, underground. It will take me anywhere I want to go 24 hours a day for a couple of bucks. I don’t even know how to express that. Of all the things in New York that’s maybe the best. I mean, it’s an incredible traffic-free thing that carries us all everywhere… I’m in love with the subway…

JJ: Here’s a question out of nowhere because part of this interview is going up on the Jewish Journal website. Can you tell me something about your bar mitzvah? Any memories about it?

AD: I’m trying to think… I remember after the party I went upstairs to change and my mother told me get the f**k back into my suit. (laughs) I don’t remember it very well. I remember I wrote a speech, which means the rabbi wrote a speech. I could always sing pretty well… I remember other people’s bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs more than my own because I had a band that played a lot of friends’ bar mitzvahs, so I have a lot of memories of that.

I don’t really remember my own very well, though. It was such a long time ago. I remember studying in Jerusalem a bit a few years later when I was 17, 18, I was over there. I got really interested in that for a little while. But my bar mitzvah, I don’t really remember a whole lot about it. It was pretty easy… (pauses)

My girlfriend is reminding me that I performed my bar mitzvah speech a couple of months ago, but it wasn’t my bar mitzvah speech, it was my confirmation speech. They refuse to understand that Jews can get confirmed but it’s not the same as Christian confirmation. But yeah, we did it in the Bay Area. (laughs)

JJ: In closing, any last words for the kids?

AD: Listen to music and go see it. There’s more good music now than there ever was before. It’s just a matter of finding it, there’s more of it out there than there ever was. Music is in better shape that way than it ever was before but it does need support from people. It’s easy to be lazy about it because we’ve got everything delivered to our doorstep… But bands need real people to come see them in real places… It’s important.

More on Adam Duritz and the Underwater Sunshine Fest can be found online.

New Age Band Opium Moon Scores Grammy Nomination

Opium Moon, Photo by Michele Mattei

Los Angeles-based Opium Moon had just finished an all-day video shoot for BBC Persian service when three-quarters of the band — violinist Lili Haydn, her husband, bassist Itai Disraeli, and percussionist MB Gordy (Hamid Saeidi, who plays the santoor, had another gig) — met with the Journal at a local restaurant to discuss their work and their Grammy Award nomination for Best New Age Album for their self-titled debut record. 

The Dec. 5 announcement was something of a surprise for the band. Haydn was up early and ran into their bedroom screaming, “We got nominated!” Gordy had no idea the nominations had been announced and was initially puzzled when congratulatory texts popped up on his phone. Two days before the nomination, Saeidi told Disraeli he was experiencing a crisis of confidence. After the nomination, “he realized that what we’re doing is right. The universe was telling him to go on,” Disraeli said, adding that a band of Americans and Iranians, gentiles and Jews being nominated for a Grammy shows “that music done in freedom and peace has value and is recognized.” 

Opium Moon’s music sounds very much in the moment. It’s hypnotic but alert. Touches of jazz, rock, Middle Eastern and African sounds flit about, but it never settles on a specific sound.

Haydn, 43, said the band, which formed about three years ago, “came together to create something that had no form, that had no particular destination. It was very important to all of us that it feels like we’re discovering something in the process.” 

It’s a sound she called “world music from another world,” but it has found some high-profile fans on this planet. Bob Boilen of NPR called their album “a rare pleasure,” while Tom Schnabel, host of KCRW’s “Rhythm Planet,” described it as “enchanting music that sounds contemporary but has ancient roots.” 

Opium Moon’s distinctive sound is a melding of the members’ diverse backgrounds. Haydn, who has been performing since she was a child, is the Canadian-born daughter of Lotus Weinstock, a comedian and singer who wrote a best-selling memoir, “The Lotus Position.” An in-demand session player, Haydn has collaborated or toured with, among others, P-Funk, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Cyndi Lauper, Herbie Hancock and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She has released five solo albums and also scores for films. She turned her recovery from neurological damage after being exposed to the pesticide Chlordane into a popular TED Talk.

“For a band of Americans and Iranians, gentiles and Jews to be nominated for a Grammy sends a message that music done in freedom and peace has value and is recognized.” 

— Itai Disraeli

Disraeli, 58, was born on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in Israel, where music was a family affair. He played traditional songs but was influenced by the blues and Indian music. Since moving to the United States in the late 1990s, he’s played in many projects, most notably with his brothers in the trio Maetar. 

Sixty-something percussionist Gordy is not Jewish but considers himself a “Jew by osmosis.” He is married to a Jewish woman and estimates he’s played “every temple in town.” His wife, he said, jokingly calls him “the drummer to the Jews.” 

Iranian-born Saeidi is considered a master of the santoor. He has composed scores for over 30 films and has toured the world leading his own ensemble.  

Haydn said what makes Opium Moon special “is that we all listen. There’s no map or destination. Rather, it’s like a magic potion. It just comes together. You let it go anywhere it needs to go.” 

Gordy concurred, adding, “Everybody in the band is a producer, a composer — we know how to do that other stuff.” Disraeli finished the thought, calling Opium Moon “a conversation between four people talking and listening at the same time.”  

Disraeli said the first time the band played together, “we didn’t even have to talk to each other. We don’t tell each other what we’re going to play, we just feel it. If it goes somewhere, it’s just natural. When we listen, we become the center of the universe. When we listen, everything comes to us.” 

The band members admit they sound as though they’re speaking about a religious experience and that they also connect with spiritual elements and the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. However, Haydn said she didn’t really connect with her Jewish background until she was an adult caring for her dying mother. She said she fell in love with “the process of inquiry and wrestling with God.” 

Disraeli said he grew up in area of Israel that is “all about peace. As children, we learned how to speak Arabic, we’d visit Arab villages, Arab kids would come visit us. It’s a whole, idealistic view of how the country could be. We came here to live in peace. You don’t really hear a lot about that in America.”

Gordy, who usually can be found Friday nights playing at Shabbat services, has come to appreciate the tradition of Shabbat. “It’s about taking the week and putting everything aside and honoring the day,” he said.

Disraeli believes Opium Moon’s music can serve a similar function. “We’re so scheduled and tied to technology,” he said. “Our music gives you a chance to catch your breath and be with each other.”  

The Grammy Awards will take place Feb. 10 at Staples Center and will air on CBS at 5 p.m.

Iranian-Israeli Singer Carves Her Own Path

Iranian-Israeli singer and songwriter Maureen Nehedar recently made her solo debut in New York at Temple Israel of Great Neck. It was an unadorned yet extraordinary performance. Given her authentic voice and her impact on the audience, she seems poised for global acclaim.

Sitting on the center platform of the synagogue, Nehedar, 41, embraced the maxim “less is more.” There were no electric instruments. It was just Nehedar, modestly dressed in a long, floral tunic, with an acoustic guitar and a stringed instrument called a cümbüs.  

Performing solo (her accompanist reportedly was refused a visa), Nehedar had no problems enthralling the crowd. Her voice was delicate and pure and showed off her tremendous range, honed from years of rigorous training with revered musical masters. She opened her performance with an original composition called “A Prayer for Peace,” a meditative song in Hebrew, and followed up with well-known Iranian folk songs. 

Nehedar has dedicated herself to preserving Iranian folk music and its rapidly disappearing Judeo-Persian variant. Her authenticity is powerful and was beautifully showcased in an introduction she gave to a traditional Iranian lullaby. These lullabies (or lalaee) are among the saddest in Persian tradition. Many depict lonesome mothers lamenting their traveling or working spouses and babies who refuse to give their mothers respite. 

Nehedar spoke of these tragic figures as young mothers, perhaps 12 or 13 years of age, raising children. She characterized lullabies as possible moments of solace and self-expression, when these adolescent mothers could grieve their vanished hopes and interrupted lives. 

“Nehedar’s music is more about introspection than entertainment. Its message is a reminder that our cultural heritage is not a thing of the past but a timeless treasure to inspire the future.”

The crowd listened with silent reverence. Nehedar continued, talking about her beloved grandmother, Homayoon, a quiet and traditional lady who had been taught never to sing in public despite her beautiful voice. She talked about how she recorded her grandmother’s voice on one of her albums and then delivered her own rendition of the lullaby, in what she described as “the soundtrack of our lives.” It was emotional, powerful and profoundly tragic. As she sang, Nehedar unlocked coffers of emotions that had been lodged in the subconscious of so many in the room. Tears streamed down faces of women and men. And yet, it wasn’t all nostalgia, but rather a cathartic release of pent-up sorrow that had been held in the hearts of mothers and their sons and daughters for generations. 

Despite her love of Persian music, Nehedar did not spend her formative years in Iran. The descendant of Iranian-Jews from Esfahan, she discovered Persian music as an immigrant child living in Israel. Her path has not been easy. At a private gathering of local women the day following the concert, Nehedar opened up about her struggles with infertility. Raised by a single mother and now a mother herself, Nehedar spoke of her strong belief in a woman’s financial independence and path for self-determination. 

In her journey to discovering and reinterpreting Iranian folk music, Nehedar said she increasingly scrutinized the lyrics. She recited the lyrics of a wedding song: the bride’s neck is white as crystal, the groom wants to visit her, 40 camels are carrying her dowry, she’s walking delicately. Nehedar said underneath these beautiful words lies a “cruel culture. Everyone sings about how beautiful the bride is, but has “anyone sung about her soul? How old is this bride?” Nehedar asked.

It’s personal with her, because, Nehedar revealed, her own mother was married off at 15 and her grandmother at 9. These revelations unleashed a wave of confessions from women at the gathering. 

Nehedar’s powerful message of advocacy for women is one she has applied to her own career. She spoke of how she embarked on field research, going door-to-door, asking older Iranian Jews to sing her old songs. She also refused to sign contracts with several recording companies because, she said, she had her own standards about how her music should sound. Instead, she saved her own money to pay for the recording of her three albums. And it’s paying off. 

Nehedar’s music is more about introspection than entertainment. It’s music that reminds us who we are and where we come from. Its message is a reminder that our cultural heritage is not a thing of the past but a timeless treasure to inspire the future.

Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, who was born and raised in Iran, is a human rights advocate and an amateur musician.

Anna Shternshis: A Grammy Nomination for ‘Yiddish Glory’

Photo courtesy of Roman Boldyrev

Included in this year’s Grammy Award nominations for World Music is “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of WWII” (Six Degrees Records). It’s a collection of songs that haven’t been heard since 1947. By turns mournful, angry, defiant, brutal, tender, lovelorn and mocking, all the songs are written and sung in Yiddish with an unvarnished directness and honesty. 

The Journal caught up with Anna Shternshis, the Al and Malka Green Associate Professor in Yiddish Language and Literature and the Director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, who discovered the songs and, with musician Psoy Korolenko and producer Dan Rosenberg, compiled and created the album. 

Jewish Journal: How did the album come about? 

Anna Shternshis: It started as an academic project. I was working, and [am] still working, on a book on Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust and [World War II], and I came across this document about a collection that ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovski put together during the war of songs by refugees, soldiers and Soviet Jewish evacuees singing in Yiddish about the war, during the war. 

None of the songs were actually known in the world of Jewish music. We didn’t know that Soviet Jews and Polish Jews in the Soviet Union at the time sang in Yiddish. It was very different from what we associate from Holocaust music. For example, they’re very pro-Stalin and very graphically anti-Hitler. They’re also amateur; just everyday people singing these kinds of songs. I thought it would be really interesting to bring a musician in to help me with at least presenting this material in an academic context. I invited Psoy Korolenko, who is Russian-born and performs in Russian and Yiddish and who I knew was familiar with Soviet culture of the time. With the help of Dan Rosenberg, the producer, we got together a band. It was meant to be an educational tool but it grew into an album. 

JJ: Before you came across them, did you have any idea the songs existed?

AS: Beregovski was an important ethnomusicologist. When he was arrested by Stalin in 1950, they confiscated this archive and when Beregovski came out of jail in 1956, it did not come back to him. The consensus was this: During the war, these songs were collected. After the war, they were destroyed when they arrested Beregovski. 

In the late ’90s, a librarian in the Ukrainian national library started looking through material that was uncatalogued. In the ’40s, a lot of people were arrested by Stalin’s government, a lot of documents were confiscated. They had to put them somewhere. We think now they first put them in a secret police archive or secret police basement and then there was not enough space, so they quietly moved them to the Ukrainian national library in the ’70s.  At the end of the ’90s, the librarians were allowed to open them. I only came across them because I was looking for stuff in Kiev. 

JJ: What surprised you most as you went through them?

AS: That I didn’t recognize a single one. I kept thinking, “How come I don’t know any of them?” I expected them to be either just Yiddish versions of Soviet songs or songs lamenting Jewish life. These songs were talking about politics. There’s one song that talks about how Hitler wants to invade the Soviet Union because he wants to get his hands on the resources of Ukraine — on coal and oil. I did not expect that. And the crazy thing is, the area they’re singing about? It’s still in the news today. And, ironically, similar sides are fighting. 

Another thing I didn’t expect was how much humor was in this music. It was very crude, very physical — toilet humor about Hitler. A lot of songs compared Hitler to Haman. There’s one song called “Purim Gifts For Hitler.” For people more familiar with Holocaust music of the ghettos, that’s not a big deal. But Soviet Jews were quite divorced from their Jewish traditions and Purim was not celebrated in the Soviet Union since the ’20s, so why would it come back? Finally, there were a lot of songs written by children. It’s so rare that we get to hear the genuine voices of people living through a war. We rely on journalists or historians or advocates to tell their stories, but here it’s from 10-year-olds or 5-year-olds. That was very moving.

JJ: I think many people will be surprised at the defiance heard in these songs. 

AS: The songs are very adamant about not being led like sheep to slaughter. They even used that language. 

JJ: What do the songs have to say to modern audiences?

AS: Unfortunately, wars and violence and genocide continue today. The most vulnerable are young kids and the elderly. What people can learn from this project is children, who are not educated, or women, who are not educated, how they make sense of suffering, how they suffer so deeply, and how they use music in order to tell us a story they hope we’ll remember. 

These songs did not end up in memory. People say, ‘During the war, there was no Yiddish. We didn’t sing in Yiddish.’ This material is a miracle that survived that did not end up in memory. History and memory tell different stories. 

JJ: Why didn’t people remember?

AS: You go through this war. Then, 1945 comes. Stalin’s policy says if a Jew survived the war and the German occupation it was because they collaborated with the German army so they’re traitors and they need to go to jail. These poor survivors, they’re worried about jail. So what do they do? They lied. Then comes Stalinist anti-Semitism. [Nikita] Khrushchev was not a friend of the Jews, exactly. Then comes [Leonid] Brezhnev and all the tsuris there. So they start to think about what you want to share, what you want to talk about. The Yiddish songs you sang in the war are not going to be very high on your list. We all make choices.  

JJ: What can we learn from these songs?

AS: I’m a university professor. My goal is always to educate. This is my way of telling the story of what happened to Soviet Jews during WWII. When people listen to this album, I want them to want learn more about what happened to Jews during the Holocaust. I want them to think more about what happens to people during a war. I also want them to enjoy this beautiful music.

After ‘Delete Airbnb,’ PORTNOY Has No Complaints

PORTNOY Music. Photo from Facebook.

Don’t let Sruli and Mendy Portnoy, the eponymous duo behind Jerusalem-based band PORTNOY, fool you with their boy-band good looks and feel-good melodies.

Acerbic lyrics such as those in their recent viral hit, “Delete Airbnb” — “I’m gonna take you off of my phone/Until you stop discriminating on my home” — belie their dulcet tunes and velvety voices.

Yet the England-born brothers are loath to be thought of as political commentators. They want to be valued as musicians — period. Last week, they practiced their accidental anthem lambasting the vacation rental giant while in a taxi on their way to an interview with pro-Israel group StandWithUs, which shared the song to its Facebook page and received 128,000 views. As tends to happen in Israel, they got to chatting with the taxi driver, an Egyptian Arab.

“So there we are at the traffic lights, singing this song about Airbnb’s anti-Israel policy and playing the ukulele, and suddenly the Arab driver pulls a flute from the glove compartment and starts jamming with us,” Sruli said. “It was this absolutely brilliant scene that you can’t make up, and I’m thinking this is what it’s all about. Playing arenas is definitely on the to-do list, but I really cherish those intimate, one-on-one moments you have with other human beings sharing in the music.”

That’s not to say the Portnoys haven’t had a taste of the big time. They’ve opened for Israeli superstar Idan Raichel in 3,000-person gigs, were included in the list of 100 most influential olim in Britain’s Jewish News, and have released viral covers ranging from the pop anthem “Angels” to the Israeli classic “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” as well as an homage to George Harrison that was included in a website playlist alongside Harrison covers by Eric Clapton and Santana.

Yet, they haven’t let those accomplishments go to their heads. Their modesty may be the result of growing up with nine other musical siblings and a conductor-cum-rabbi father. At the age of 7, Sruli performed at a wedding; and a year later he was leading Kabbalat Shabbat services at his father’s synagogue.

“I was never going to do anything else — I couldn’t really do anything else,” Sruli said. “I was either going to hate or embrace the performing-monkey side of being the rabbi’s kid.”

The Portnoys’ music always contained a strong element of altruism. At 12, Sruli released his first single honoring victims of terror. In later years, the brothers played for Israel Defense Forces soldiers along the Gaza border during Operation Pillar of Defense. For six years, PORTNOY was also the in-house band at Camp Simcha, a summer camp for children battling cancer.

“I know it sounds corny, but we’ve been given this gift,” Sruli said. “It doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to humankind. It’s not mine any more than it is the listeners’.”

That sentiment is nice but it doesn’t bring home the (kosher) bacon.

Mendy, the younger and markedly more sarcastic of the two, quipped: “My 1-year-old son wakes up every morning and runs straight to the piano. I’m still trying to convince him he should pursue a more stable career, but I feel like he just doesn’t understand me.”

PORTNOY’s main earnings come from playing private functions around the world — from weddings in Ibiza to evangelical churches in America’s Deep South.

In the Spotify generation, when 10 dollars a month buys access to unlimited music, they’ve had to turn to other means to support their music. PORTNOY recently launched a crowdfunding campaign for their second album, “No Complaints” — a nod to Philip Roth’s simmering novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and are set to mark the release of their first single, the aptly named “Spotified,” at an event at New York City’s Highline Ballroom later this month.

Safeguarding their autonomy and artistic independence has also meant the brothers have chosen to eschew TV talent shows such as Israel’s version of the The Voice, despite being hounded by scouts.

“There’s so much noise and the industry is so saturated that even the record labels don’t know what the correct path is,” Sruli said. “It’s like this mass confusion. So we just figured, instead of having someone else guess in the dark, we might as well guess in the dark for ourselves because at least we know who we are and who our fans are.”

Get The Gift Of Music From Nashuva for Chanukah


Buy the Nashuva Band CD: Heaven on EarthBring the Nashuva band into your home with their new album, “Heaven on Earth – Songs of the Soul!” Click here to purchase a copy for yourself and one as a Chanukah gift!

Nashuva’s new album is produced by Don Was. The music is full of light to lift your soul! This is a special limited edition of 500 copies —
Make sure to get yours now!


Sing With The Nashuva Band: Heaven On Earth Songs Of The Soul

Thank you to the amazing band including: Jared Stein, Justin Stein, Jamie Papish, Ed Lemus, Fino Roverato, Bernadette Mauban, Andrea Kay and Alula Tzadik.
At Nashuva, we believe that prayer can heal our souls and help us find personal peace. But it also leads us to action. It reminds us that we are here to heal this broken world.
Celebrate with the Nashuva Band

“Music has the power to elevate one to prophetic inspiration.

With song, we can open the gates of heaven.”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady

More from Rabbi Naomi and Nashuva:

I wrote about Rabbi Naomi’s book for my 50th birthday: Click here to read From Terrified to Blessed (about when I went sky diving!) Buy her book: “Einstein and the Rabbi

Celebrate with the Nashuva Band 3

I wrote about another book by Rabbi Naomi in this article, Spirit of Adventure in 2010:

As Rabbi Naomi Levy says in Hope will Find You, “By far the most human condition I learned to guide people through is this: an overwhelming feeling that life hasn’t begun yet. They would say to me, “My life will begin when…when I lose weight, when I fall in love, when I get a job, when I get married, when I have a baby, when I buy a home, when I get divorced, when I quit my job.”

Video: Join Nashuva at Santa Monica Beach for Tashlich

Tashlich on the Beach with Nashuva 5777

Join in Shabbat services once a month: “Our Shabbat services offer an opportunity to take a break from the daily stresses of life.  Come nourish your soul, connect with community and experience the beauty and joy of Shabbat.  All are welcome, no tickets, membership or advanced reservations required.   We look forward to seeing your there!”

Happy Reading! Happy Singing, Happy Chanukah and Happy Shabbanica!


Celebrate with the Nashuva Band group photo

Blondie’s Chris Stein on His New Book, the Future of the Group and Why He Wasn’t Bar Mitzvahed

Blondie members (from left) Chris Stein, Debbie Harry and Clem Burke.

Few bands have had the staying of Blondie. The New York-based band first hit it big in the late 1970s, ultimately scoring hit after hit – “Heart Of Glass,” “Dreaming,” “The Tide Is High,” “Rapture,” “Hanging On The Telephone,” “Sunday Girl,” “One Way Or Another,” “Call Me”… Last year’s “Pollinator” album featured collaborations with Sia, The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, Joan Jett, Charli XCX, TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek and The Strokes’ Nick Valensi and was named one of Rolling Stone’s “20 Best Pop Albums of 2017.”

Blondie co-founder, guitarist and songwriter Chris Stein has also found success as an artist outside of Blondie. His latest book is “Point of View: Me, New York City, & The Punk Scene,” a collection of photographs taken by Stein. Stein and Blondie frontman Debbie Harry will be part of an event at New York City’s Cooper Union on November 30 in which “Point of View” will be discussed alongside Rob Roth, Blondie’s creative director; the event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is recommended.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Stein by phone. We chatted about his Jewish roots before talking about “Point o View” and his other endeavors.

Jewish Journal: Were you bar mitzvahed?

Chris Stein: No, my parents were “reds.” (laughs) So we never really practiced, but we did have a big birthday party when I was 13.

JJ: Did being Jewish ever come up when you were with Joey Ramone or other punk rock scene people who of The Tribe?

CS: Nah, I don’t think so. It was always kind of unsaid. I was close to Joey but I don’t think we talked about it specifically that I can remember.

JJ: How long did you spend putting together your new book?

CS: The book was put together over the course of a year, pretty much, dealing with film. I suppose if we had digital cameras back then it might have been a lot faster. But I had a good editor on the book, I enjoy the process.

JJ: Did you have all the film readily available? Or was a lot of it in storage?

CS: I have it all here where I live. It’s not a huge amount of stuff, it’s all in binders. It’s just a huge pain in the ass looking for individual images because there’s really no way to mark the stuff. There’s really no way to categorize it when you think about it. It’s just there… Most of the original film containers are gone, it’s just pages and binders. So that’s a time-consuming process.

JJ: What was your entry into the art world beyond music?

CS: My mom was a painter and a window designer. She knew [Willem] de Kooning and all this stuff, so I was always exposed to it.

JJ: But in the case of collaborations over the years with Warhol, Basquiat and all that, how did your entry into that world happen?

CS: I went to art school, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, so there was always that crossover. I was always doing photography.

JJ: Beyond that, you always had a lot of interesting projects going on, like TV Party. When did you first start to diversify beyond just being a guy in a band?

CS: Everyone just kind of multitasking back then. It was just what we did. Some people were strictly musicians, but [David] Byrne was always doing photography…

JJ: Is that still the case today? Do you have projects going on beyond Blondie, your photography and your books?

CS: We’re always doing other things. For Blondie, we’re always being approached about films and TV.

JJ: The album Pollinator was interesting in that you used outside writers for a lot of the songwriting. Was that something you would do again?

CS: Yeah, sure. Actually, we got another great song from Johnny Marr that we’ll definitely do, we’ll record it. I don’t know if we’ll do as much on the next album, but for sure. It’s nice to make connections with younger artists that are out there working.

JJ: So there is another Blondie album planned right now?

CS: Yeah. I haven’t yet finished dealing with the book, so I haven’t really been into songwriting mode. I’ve got to start doing that pretty soon. But we’ll do another one with [producer] John Congleton because he was so much fun to work with.

JJ: Being more than 40 years into a successful career, is there anything you are still hoping to accomplish?

CS: Yeah, of course, I can always think of stuff. (laughs) A long list of things, for sure.

JJ: Let me phrase that a different way. Is there a career accomplishment you are most proud of? Or is it simply a proud accomplishment to still be doing it over 40 years later at a high level?

CS: Yeah, we’re getting a lot of love these days. We kind of have complete acceptance now that we didn’t have 20 years ago. That’s a nice thing.


JJ: Ultimately is there something you wish more people knew about you, beyond you being someone that wrote a lot of hit songs?

CS: I don’t know. I just would like more Twitter followers. (laughs)

JJ: Not Instagram, but Twitter specifically?

CS: Twitter is for the political aspect of it, so I’m always on there complaining about things.

JJ: So in closing, any last words for the kids?

CS: I don’t know, I think things are good [now]. It’s an interesting period we came up in but things are also exciting now. It’s not terrible to be in the moment.

More on Chris Stein and Blondie can be found online at www.blondie.net.

The ‘Surrogate’ Elton John

Adam Chester (right) with Elton John

Most teenagers have a musical hero: an artist they listen to again and again when they are happy, when they are sad, when they just want to chill. But few ever get to meet their hero. However, San Fernando Valley resident Adam Chester went one better. He actually gets to be his musical hero —  Elton John, or rather, he fills in for him at band rehearsals.

Chester, who also works as a sales manager at the Keyboard Concepts piano store in Sherman Oaks, and is the author of a humorous book titled “S’Mother: The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She’s Mailed Him,” said he has been playing piano since he was 3 years old. Neither of his parents was a musician, but musical talent does run in his family. His grandmother was a violinist. His uncle was a concert pianist. And his aunt was a sound engineer. So it’s not altogether surprising that Chester, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in New Jersey, showed early promise as a piano player. He remembers neighbors setting up lawn chairs outside his family’s garden apartment to listen to him play when he was 5. His electric keyboard was positioned by a ground floor window. 

Chester continued to play piano throughout his youth. “In high school is where I really got focused,” he said. By then, he was already a fan of Elton John. But when he heard John’s opus-like “Funeral for a Friend” on the radio, he was sold. 

“I just loved his piano playing, his voice, everything about it,” he said. Elton John posters lined the walls of his room. Chester even performed “Funeral for a Friend” as part of his high school rock ensemble, emerging from a dry-ice filled coffin onstage in a white tuxedo.

 He headed west for college at USC, where he studied music theory and composition. “I wanted to write and sing and be the next Elton John or Barry Manilow or whoever was hip back then,” he said.

Chester, who is married with two sons, had some early success. He worked with Barry White and producer Jimmie Haskell. Some of his music was used in television and film. But to pay the bills, he took a job at Music Plus in Hollywood. One day, one of his regular customers came in with her husband. Chester recognized him immediately. It was Davey Johnstone, Elton John’s longtime guitar player.

Chester and Johnstone became friends. They played a few gigs together around Los Angeles. Then in 2005, Johnstone approached Chester with a proposition.

Adam Chester (right) with
Elton John

“He asked if I would sit in as Elton for all the Elton John band rehearsals,” Chester recalled. “I would sing and play piano with the band so Elton would not have to be there.”

Someone else had been filling in for John but that person didn’t sing. Chester didn’t hesitate. He was in. Shortly thereafter, he met Elton John in Boston. John was about to begin his Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy anniversary tour. It had been 30 years since the release of the album featuring such songs as “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” The band needed to rehearse the entire album until the musicians were tight. They did, with Chester on piano and vocals.

“I was in heaven,” Chester recalled.

“He asked if I would sit in as Elton for all the Elton John band rehearsals. I would sing and play piano with the band so Elton would not have to be there.”
— Adam Chester

Since then, Chester, who has a regular gig at Bar 1200 at Sunset Marquis, has been “Surrogate Elton John,” the title Johnstone gave him, on multiple occasions. 

“I became Sur Elton with an S.U.R. instead of Sir Elton,” Chester is fond of saying. (Elton John was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.)

Chester also had the opportunity to sit in for John at John’s 60th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden and a gala concert in London for the BRIT Awards. Earlier this year, the Recording Academy hosted a Grammy salute to Elton John that included some of the biggest names in contemporary pop, including Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and Miley Cyrus. Chester got to accompany all of them on piano while John, along with his husband David Furnish and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, sat in the audience. And just a few weeks ago, Chester headed to Pennsylvania to rehearse the band for John’s three-year farewell tour.

“I’m not trying to copy him,” Chester said. “I never want to do an Elton tribute band. I think that would diminish what I do … I definitely try to put a little bit of myself in there.”

It’s been a dream gig for the kid from New Jersey. “It’s never work,” he said. “I’m at the edge of my seat. I’m so excited to be with the band.”

New Album Brings Reggae to Jewish Songs and Prayers

Photo from davidsolidgould.com

How about something different this year for Hanukkah? How about some reggae?

That’s what you’ll get with “Festival of Lights,” the creation of David Solid Gould, a Jewish bassist who recorded it with his own group, The Temple Rockers, as well as with three veteran Jamaican performers who sing in Hebrew and English. 

Gould, 48, told the Journal via telephone from his home near Ithaca, N.Y., that he has spent more than 20 years working on the musical fusion between Jewish and Jamaican music, and that this resolve grew out of two musical epiphanies. When he was 25 and already a professional musician, he saw a live performance of Jamaica-born singer Burning Spear.

“That’s when I first heard reggae,” Gould said. “Feeling the bass in the sound system. The groove feeding back into itself. It was like a spiritual rebirth for me. It really flipped my world.” 

Hooked on the tantalizing sounds of Jamaica, Gould became bassist for John Brown’s Body, a reggae band whose musicians dubbed him “Solid,” as much for what Gould calls his “low-end grooves” on bass as for the wordplay on his last name. 

Gould’s other musical epiphany came a couple of years later when he was touring in California with John Brown’s Body in the late 1990s. Suddenly, he sensed that the reggae music he was playing could be merged with songs and prayers he recalled from childhood. He rushed to a synagogue where he heard “Sim Shalom” chanted by a cantor and congregation. 

“I realized that I could use reggae to play the songs I’d sung at Hebrew school, at shul, at my bar mitzvah, during holidays like Passover and Hanukkah,” he said. 

This second epiphany led directly to his forming The Temple Rockers, a musical group that fuses reggae with Jewish musical traditions. In 2001 they recorded an album called “Adonai and I” — reggae versions of traditional prayers such as “Leha Dodi” and “Adon Olam.” This was followed in 2009 by the “Feast of the Passover,” seder songs and melodies, also in reggae style. 

“I realized that I could use reggae to play the songs I’d sung at Hebrew school, at shul, at my bar mitzvah, during holidays like Passover and Hanukkah.”  

— David Gould

On Oct. 19, the third album of this melding of Jewish and Jamaican musical traditions will be released: “Festival of Lights,” Gould’s reggae versions of Hanukkah songs. Gould said he found the project challenging. “For Hanukkah, I had to do research and seek out music and learn about music that was new to me and choose songs that suited the theme of the collection and also suited reggae music. So it was a fun project for me because I got to learn new music.” 

During the last 20 years, Gould has made several trips to Jamaica, where he’s stayed with reggae musicians who have helped him learn about Rastafarianism, a Jamaican religion. “They taught me about its origins, about their beliefs,” Gould said, “and I saw lots of connection to Judaism. Many of the lyrics in reggae songs refer to stories in the Bible.” 

Indeed they do. Babylon, Exodus, Zion, Egypt, and especially Jah (God). 

In Rasta belief, the late Ethiopian leader, Haile Selassie, was descended from the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which is why the fence at the Kingston, Jamaica house of the late Bob Marley — a sainted figure in the reggae world — is studded with Stars of David. 

For “Festival of Lights,” Gould felt it was vital for the Jamaican singers to explore the Jewish origins of Rasta traditions, and he made sure they learned some Hebrew, at least enough to sing in the language. “Every Jamaican singer that I worked with on this has loved the music, and they love the connection between Jewish music and Jamaican music,” Gould said. 

When he first started planning “Festival of Lights,” Gould made a list of the Jamaican singers he wanted, and he snagged three who were on his wish list: Linval Thompson, Wayne Jarrett and Ansel Meditations, three singers who have been performing and recording since the 1970s. During that time Bob Marley was an international superstar, and the soundtrack of the Jamaican movie “The Harder They Come” — featuring Jimmy Cliff as well as Toots and the Maytals — became the background music of daily life, not just in Jamaica but in other places, including Israel. 

On “Festival of Lights,” as is usual in record production, the instrumentals were recorded first (at Solid Studios, near Ithaca, where Gould lives); but what is very unusual is that Gould recorded every bit of this record, vocals and instrumentals, on two-inch reel-to-reel tape.

“It’s very rare these days that people record on tape because it’s so expensive. It’s so much easier and cheaper and convenient to record on digital,” Gould said. “But there is a warmth and richness when you record on analog tape. Digital strips away that warmth and richness. It makes everything harsh.”

Having first taped the instrumentals with The Temple Rockers — a large group that includes keyboards, strings, horns, and percussion — Gould traveled to Miami to record Wayne Jarrett.

“I brought my reels with me and they’re heavy,” Gould said. “I had two reels in a bag and it was like a 40-pound bag I was lugging around.” It was the same when Gould went to Kingston to record Thompson. In Jamaica, he had to hunt around for a studio that could handle reel-to-reel tape. Fortunately he didn’t have to travel far to record Ansel Meditations, who lives in New York and recorded his songs at Gould’s house. 

From the way that Gould describes all the hoops he’s jumped through to record this music, it’s clear that it’s a labor of love: for the Jewish and Jamaican parts of his musical soul. 

Maybe because the music is often in a minor key, or maybe because it uses traditional Hanukkah and Biblical tropes, or maybe because of the high quality and professionalism of the musicians, or maybe because of all of the above, the result is an album that grows on you stealthily with each hearing, touching some deep core. Listening to “Days Long Ago” and other songs from the record, you feel you’re listening to a dreadlocked Rasta group from the ’70s and ’80s. It’s easy to get carried away by the soulful Jamaican vocalists whose voices — like Hanukkah itself — embody the unquenchable hope of a miracle in a time of darkness.

For more information on obtaining “Festival of Lights,” visit www.templerockers.com.

Shalhevet Students Meet With Koolulam Founder

Photo by Ricky Rachman

Every morning, Or Taicher, one of the founders of Israel’s social flash mob-style sing-along craze Koolulam, opens his email in search of inspiration to start his day. A few months ago, a message sent by Shalhevet High School administrators did the trick. 

“That’s the reason I’m here today,” Taicher told more than 200 Shalhevet students gathered in the school’s gymnasium the day before erev Yom Kippur. An online link led Taicher to a Koolulam-inspired video of Shalhevet’s student body, aided by live instrumentation, singing Matisyahu’s “One Day” in honor of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. 

“I was truly moved by what I saw,” he said. And that’s saying something. 

Since kicking off in Tel Aviv last year, Koolulam — a play on the English word “cool,” the Hebrew words “kulam” (everyone) and “kol” (voice), and “kululu,” a festive ululation of Sephardic Jews — has soared in popularity throughout Israel. Thousands of tickets to take part in arena-filling Koolulam events are sold in minutes. Swaths of strangers come together … to sing. 

Koolulam partners with nongovernmental organizations and local municipalities to reach every sect of Israeli society. To date, more than 100,000 people from diverse backgrounds have attended to learn musical arrangements (which take about an hour) and sing well-known songs in English, Hebrew and Arabic. The videos garner millions of online views, making Koolulam an international phenomenon. 

During Taicher’s recent visit to Shalhevet, proceedings kicked off with 30 seconds of silence in honor of Ari Fuld, the American-Israeli terrorism victim who was stabbed in Gush Etzion on Sept. 16. The Shalhevet choir then sang “One Day” for Taicher before 17-year-old Lucy Fried interviewed him.

“It all started with curiosity,” Taicher said. “Two years ago, I saw a video of thousands of people praying at the Wailing Wall. I was so moved, so inspired. I asked myself, ‘How can I pass that along? How can I inspire others?’”

Taicher, a filmmaker, recalled brainstorming ways to help unify a fractured Israeli society marred by a lack of constructive political dialogue. He immediately considered the international language of music. 

“I wanted to do something that could make connections instead of separating people,” he said. “This is how it began. I feel that music has a lot of power. It can open hearts and build bridges.”

Beyond bridging ethnic and religious divides in Israel, the mass singing sensation has proven to be a diplomatic tool. Earlier this summer, Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf, the secretary general of the world’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, which is based in Indonesia and has more than 60 million members, called Taicher on his cellphone and confessed to being a Koolulam fan. 

“I wanted to do something that could make connections instead of separating people. This is how it began. I feel that music has a lot of power. It can open hearts and build bridges.” — Or Taicher

“I hung up. I thought it was a joke,” Taicher said. But it wasn’t. Taicher and his two co-founders, Ben Yefet and Michal Shahaf Shneiderman, set off to plan a truly majestic event for Staquf’s Jerusalem visit slated for mid-June. The 800 available tickets sold out in six minutes. The attendees included Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders. The crowd convened at midnight in the courtyards of the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem to sing Bob Marley’s “One Love” in English, Hebrew and Arabic (the Journal reported on this story in its June 29 edition).

Shortly after the Koolulam event, Indonesia, a country with no previous diplomatic ties to Israel, opened its borders to Israeli passport-holding tourists. “This showed me that what we’re doing, our movement, it’s working,” Taicher said. 

He also noted that Koolulam receives Facebook messages from Arab fans around the world. Some even contain apologies for harboring unfounded hate of Israel. 

Koolulam’s founders will receive the 2018 Asia Game Changer Award in New York next month, which Taicher called “an unbelievable honor.” Fellow honorees include the founder of the Syrian White Helmets and the Thai rescuers who saved a dozen teenage soccer players in a flooded cave earlier this year.   

Ari Schwarzberg, Shalhevet’s dean of students, told the Journal that initiatives like Koolulam help frame conversations on Zionism divorced from politics. 

“I think that the way our school views the value of Zionism, one of the ways we deeply feel it, is demonstrating that Israel has the great potential to be a place that models the best version of the Jewish people,” he said. “It gets complicated with politics. But this seemed to be one of those initiatives that represents the best of the Jewish people and a way to show our students and our community a way of deepening the understanding of what Zionism is.” 

Taicher told the Shalhevet students it was an uphill battle to get Koolulam off the ground, saying he heard the word “no” a lot. “You can’t let it stop you,” he said. “Now we have over 100 people working for us and we’re making a change.”

He also spoke about Koolulam’s expansion plans, which he said may involve opening branches in Los Angeles, New York, South Africa and Abu Dhabi. A South African event is scheduled for November. 

“It was really cool to get a chance to talk with [Taicher],” Fried said following the discussion. “It’s really inspiring that he created something so powerful despite all the rejection he faced.” 

Many Shalhevet students expressed interest in attending a potential future Koolulam event in Los Angeles. Tobey Lee, 16, told the Journal the idea sounded fun, but it’s not the singing he’s drawn to.

“Koolulam is something bigger than just singing a song,” he said. “It’s creating something bigger than music. It’s really cool that it’s creating peace.”

Maroon 5 at the Super Bowl, KISS Farewell Tour

Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Tommy Thayer, Eric Singer of KISS (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Maroon 5 will headline the halftime show at Super Bowl LII on Feb. 3, 2019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. The Adam Levine-led rock band follows such previous superstar headliners as Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, U2, The Who, Katy Perry, Prince, the Black Eyed Peas and Janet Jackson. Levine has often that playing the Super Bowl is one of his biggest goals.

The NFL has made no official announcement about the halftime show or which other acts may perform.

KISS is hanging up their platform boots and taking off their makeup. The veteran rock band, founded more than 40 years ago by Israel-born bassist Gene Simmons (né Chaim Witz), 69, and guitarist Paul Stanley (né Stanley Eisen), 66, with former members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, announced their farewell End of the World Tour on the Sept. 19 finale of “America’s Got Talent.”

“All that we have built and all that we have conquered over the past four decades could never have happened without the millions of people worldwide who’ve filled clubs, arenas and stadiums over those years,” the band said in a statement. “This will be the ultimate celebration for those who’ve seen us and a last chance for those who haven’t. KISS Army, we’re saying goodbye on our final tour with our biggest show yet and we’ll go out the same way we came in… Unapologetic and unstoppable.”

KISS, which includes guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer, have sold more than 100 million albums.

Kenny G’s Sax Appeal

Saxophonist Kenneth Bruce Gorelick, better known by his stage name, Kenny G, rose to fame in the 1980s and ’90s, becoming one of the top-selling recording artists of all time. He won a Grammy Award in 1994 and at one point held the world record for the longest sustained note on a sax.

However, at 61, he’s more than the sum of his trademark curly locks and his reed-blowing skills. He’s also an accomplished golfer and a pilot — because, why not?

Jewish Journal: How did you get interested in music?

Kenny G: I was made to take piano lessons at 6 years of age. I hated it. And then I saw a sax player on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and that struck a chord in me and made me want to play sax.

JJ: How and why did you settle on the professional name Kenny G?

KG: My friends always called me G or Mr. G or G Man, so it was a no-brainer.

JJ: Which musicians have been your greatest influences?

KG: I really got inspired with Grover Washington Jr.’s sound. And also pretty much all the jazz greats — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon. I’m old school. I listen to the jazz that the masters played in the ’50s and ’60s and to the great players of today, too.

“Be humble. Listen more. Don’t try to be ‘right’ but instead ask more questions when involved in confrontations.”

JJ: What part has your Jewish upbringing and heritage played in your work and life?

KG: I’m proud of my Jewish heritage and I know how to read Hebrew. I think my attention to detail and the fact that I wanted not only to play an instrument but also to get really good on the instrument was due to my Jewish mother’s quest to make sure her kids worked hard and got good grades and played music.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

KG: I donate each month to Food on Foot, a program in L.A. that takes people who have become homeless and helps them get back on their feet.

JJ: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music and show business?

KG: I play golf. I’m a 3 handicap and I am a pilot with 3,500 hours of flight time since 1989.

JJ: What do you do to maintain peak performance?

KG: I work hard at staying in the best shape I can. I work out every day for about an hour. I eat good, healthy food. No junk food, I love to cook and do that most days. Consistency is the key to it all. Just do it every day and eventually you will get into great shape. I also practice my sax three hours every day.

JJ: You’ve worked and collaborated with many amazing musicians. Do you have any favorites?

KG: I have lots of favorites. All you have to do is look at the names of those I’ve collaborated with: Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli. [They’re] all great, fun and different.

JJ: Do you have a philosophy that you live by?

KG: Be humble. Listen more. Don’t try to be “right” but instead ask more questions when involved in confrontations.

JJ: You earned a place in “Guiness World Records” in 1997 for playing the longest note ever recorded on a saxophone — 45 minutes and 47 seconds. How did you manage that?

KG: Circular breathing is a technique. In through the nose, out through the mouth simultaneously. I saw some players do a version of it when I was in high school at a concert for the group the Jazz Crusaders. I went home, figured out how they did it and then spent the next 10 years getting great at it.

Mark Miller is a humorist, stand-up comic and has written for various sitcoms. His first book is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”

Everything you need to know about Toy- the Israeli song that is taking over the world

The Eurovision singing contest – one of the biggest annual cultural events in Europe – is will take place in Portugal this May. And for the first time in what seems to be forever, Israel seems to have a winner. With more than 5 million views on YouTube and raging reviews, side by side with a powerful message and a unique artist, Toy seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Toy was created by Doron Medalie together with Stav Beger, who joined forces with Netta Barzilai, the performer. Barzilai is a young singer and an up-and-coming star, who took first place at the reality singing contest – The Next Star to the Eurovision 2018, and got to become our ambassador at the event.

Barzilai had won us all over during this season of The Next Star, thanks to her unique sound and inspiring personality.

Now, she is expressing herself, as a musician and as a person, in an empowering song, which combines a little bit of quirkiness with an important message.

In an interview to ESC Today – Doron Medalie, co-creator of the song, talked about the strong message of Toy: “That’s a bingo for me. And when Netta looks and behaves the way she does, so it turns toy into ‘I’m not your toy, don’t play with me.’ Let’s use toys to say something different about the #MeToo movement.”

The song was released less than two weeks ago, and is already ranking support from all across the globe, including from the Arab world. The Foreign Ministry shared a video of the song on its Arabic-language Facebook page, which has 1.5 million followers, and it received some unexpected support (side by side with hate words for Israel, but still…). For instance, Abu Majd from Saudi Arabia wrote: “This isn’t the type of music I like, but this song has everything it takes to become an international hit.”

Netta Barzilai will perform Toy in the first half of Semi-Final 1 on Tuesday 8 May 2018, and currently, Eurovision experts are betting on Toy to win the contest. Fingers crossed!

You can watch the music video here, and let me know what you think in the comments below:


The Key to Reaching Autistic Children

Jewish autism therapy is 4 years old; Noam Korenstein, who inspired its accidental invention, is 10 years old; and the author of both, age initially irrelevant, is typical of brilliant fathers everywhere.

Reuvein Korenstein, a native of Framingham, Mass., who now lives in Los Angeles, detected a need in Noam, his first-born son, who is autistic.

Plunging into a series of trials and errors in his graduate program at Yale, he invented a Jewish concept intended to grant relief to thousands of conflicted Jewish parents.

“I created Jewish autism therapy,” Korenstein says, “to respond to the needs of parents who feel they have to choose between autism therapy and Jewish education.”

After operating a clinic for autistic children in Hartford, Conn., he brought Jewish autism therapy, thick with a traditional religious vein, to Los Angeles last summer. Korenstein debuted his program for boys ages 5 to 12, one-on-one therapy, for a week or a month or more at a time, at Beit Aaron near Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. For four hours a day, five days a week, classes seasoned by Torah and talmudic stories bring an unprecedented Jewish flavor to autism therapy.

“Our rabbis teach us that this can be understood by us when we are going through our own tribulations.” —  Reuvein Korenstein

Korenstein, 36, urges parents to try it for a week before judging.

“This program is Jewish and therapy,” he said of the pillars that frame his unique venture.

“We apply effective methods that are field tested,” he said.

While Korenstein designed his program at Yale, the spark that ignited what billowed into a blaze was purely accidental.

Or was it?

“I am a musician, and one day I started playing the piano,” he said.

Noam was in the next room.

“I started just to play music for myself. I just wanted to make myself happy. Sing Tehillim.

“All of a sudden as I began to play these Tehillim, actually even singing them in English without trying to get Noam to change at all or do any sort of therapy … Suddenly, Noam started, like, coming alive. He started talking more. He got really excited. He started playing with toys I never saw him play with.”

Six-year-old Noam came over to the piano, which shocked his father. “This is a big thing for children with autism — to initiate social interaction,” Korenstein said. “My son would play by himself with the water in the kitchen. Happy being isolated.”

The father of two believes he has gained precise insights.

“My hunch,” Korenstein said, was that isolation consoles “an inner sadness that goes like this:

“I am feeling deficient.

“I am feeling a lacking.

“Let me do something I can be good at.”

Again Korenstein thought back to the giant psychological steps Noam took toward him at the melodious piano. “It’s a big deal for a child to initiate,” he said, “to come out of that self-soothing world.”

Before that memorably happy moment, Reuvein and Leah Korenstein had trod the same exasperating, well-worn paths followed by many.

For the six years before the dramatic, life-changing, revelatory morning at the piano, Noam had been a pure loner.

“We had experimented with schools,” Korenstein said. “We went to every single type of therapist, speech therapist, physical therapist. We went to conferences.

“Noam was just not able to maintain … being in school.”

What were Leah and Reuvein Korenstein, intellectually kindred, thinking during these painful hours, weeks and years?

They had met in 2004 at the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine. They each were spending a year after college studying in Jerusalem. Their dual mission of the moment was to bring Passover to the Jews of Ukraine.

He credits his wife’s inherent belief with winging the couple and the family to safe ground.

“She said, ‘We just have to keep going. We have to keep trying. He is in there. Something is blocking him from being able to express it.’ ”

Did Korenstein see the sunshine ahead that illuminated his wife’s vision?

“I started to grow this optimism when I began to pay really close attention to his movements.

“My training, one of the things that HaShem blessed me with was attention to detail,” Korenstein said. “This is what one of my professors at Yale saw in me — really paying close attention to detail.

“I started to pay very close attention to Noam.

“At exactly 11 a.m. every day, I would sit down at the piano and begin to play these songs, as before, just for myself. Really singing. Just me and him. I was just letting it go. Special Tehillim.”

Korenstein said there are lessons in the life of King David for parents of autistic children.

He knows that King David was chased by his own son. “Our rabbis teach us that this can be understood by us when we are going through our own tribulations,” Korenstein said. “Even though it may seem despairing and bleak, there is still hope. Give hope to HaShem.’’

“In the end, [King David] turns around and says, ‘This is good. Don’t give up,’ ” said Korenstein, elevating his happy voice.

“When I read these words, I started to tear up. I thought he was talking about my life, my own struggles to help my son, my own desire that he would get better, that I could take him to synagogue with me.”

Korenstein’s passion was bursting forth again.

“Noam, he really felt that honest, speaking out loud to God. Really. He really felt that. It touched him,” Korenstein said.

“And so I realized that Jewish autism therapy really came out of this, which is this honest speaking of the soul of the person working with the child with autism, whether it is the parent, the teacher, the therapist, the rebbe.

“This person is engaged in the kind of activity [King David] was engaged in. Basically, it is about finding the good in a situation even though it seems bleak.”

Which happens to be Korenstein’s banner at Beit Aaron, bringing hope to those tempted to bury themselves in hopelessness.

Reuvein Korenstein can be contacted at www.reuvein.korenstein@gmail.com.

Arise, Arise and Rock Out! – A Poem for Haftarah Beshalach by Rick Lupert

I was so pleased to come across
the story of Deborah and find out it
culminates as a musical.

Praise! Praise Deborah
Utter a song.

And she does. A lengthy one
of Don McLeanean proportions.
This is Israeli Pie or

Devorah’s Restaurant, if you prefer.
It goes on and every detail of
every victory is sung.

It’s epic.
It’s Biblical rock and roll.
It’s milk instead of water.
It’s stakes through temples.
It’s men who refuse to fight
     without women by their side.
It’s curses and blessings.
It’s chariots and swords.

It’s Deborah, our Deborah
staked out under her palm tree
on a mountain, doling out wisdom
and instruction and judgement.

It’s all of us taking the time
to sing a song, like Miriam did before
to recount our history
to take stock of what
we’ve got going on.

How much of history do
we know better thanks to
the rock operas of our day?
Give me a test on Joseph
or even the American Revolution –
I’ll rap my way to an A+.

We’ve been uttering songs since
Deborah sang of Harosheth-golim
Since Moses sang his way
to the edge of the Holy Land
Since Miriam put on the first Woodstock
on the far side of a closing sea.

Arise arise Devorah!
We’ve got the best seats
in the house.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Ozomatli’s Bassist Funnels His Life Into Music

Ozomatli’s Wil-Dog Abers performs in Baltimore in October. Photo by Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez

Carved into the sidewalk outside Willy “Wil-Dog” Abers’ front door in Silver Lake is “OZO,” a large circle with a Z inside and an O on either side of the Z. It’s the abbreviated version of his band’s full name, “Ozomatli.”

Abers is the only Jewish member of the primarily Latino, six-member group, which for 22 years has fused multiple genres to create a sound reflecting the city. Take old-school hip-hop, classic rock and Latin music, mesh them together and Ozomatli is what you get.

The secret to the band’s success has been its ability to absorb its surroundings, Abers, who plays bass, said in an interview at his home recording studio, in advance of Ozomatli’s performance at the Saban Theatre on Dec. 9. His passion for music helps explain why Ozomatli continues to thrive, decades after its first concert in a building the musicians inherited in a legal agreement after attempting to unionize a group of marginalized workers.

Abers, 44, whose late father was Jewish and whose mother is not, describes himself as “half-Jewish, from the waist-down.” It’s a circumcision joke he picked up when he was young and hanging out with his paternal grandfather in Art’s and Canter’s delis.

“Years later, now I am using the joke,”
he said.

Abers has come a long way since he was a high school dropout, addicted to drugs and not always so vocal about being Jewish. Who would be, when raised in the MacArthur Park area surrounded by Catholic kids whose parents said Jews killed Jesus?

His parents, including his late Jewish father, were communists. Abers did not talk much about his Jewish roots until a formative experience at the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Brotherhood/Sisterhood Camp. The camp tackled anti-Semitism, among other topics, and today Abers is more comfortable in his Jewish skin.

“For me it’s culture … it’s comedy … it’s the friendships I have in life,” he said.

Ozomatli’s music showcases a commitment to social and political activism. The 1998 song “Coming War” addresses wealth disparity, the military-industrial complex and health care inequalities. The 2004 song “Believe” contains a rap verse with an anti-war, environmentalist message.

During the interview, Abers wore a baseball cap, eyeglasses, a T-shirt and black pants, and was surrounded by five keyboards, a piano and two computer monitors. He played back a demo he’s been working on with session musicians, which he will bring to his Ozomatli bandmates.

He said the demo’s sound reminds him of the 1980s music of the Thompson Twins, then segued into a history lesson of music from that era — the Pretenders, English Beat, the Clash —  bands that made an impression on him.

When he was 6, Abers saw the Clash in concert. That night, he said, he decided he wanted to become a musician.

About 18 years later, Ozomatli created its self-titled debut album (1998), which featured a stew of verses from an underground rapper as well as turntable-scratching, horns, danceable rhythms and bilingual lyrics representing street culture. They’re sounds Abers heard while frequenting break-dancing clubs in his youth, back when they called him “Breakdance Willy.”

Ozomatli has since released eight albums, including its Grammy-winning 2002
record, “Embrace the Chaos,” and the family-friendly 2012 album “Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz.” The group also has toured with Carlos Santana and served as the house band for stand-up comedian Gabriel Iglesias’ television show. An Iglesias action figure sits on a shelf in Abers’ studio.

Bandmates continue to fight for the underserved, promoting music education in lower-performing schools, including Ellen Ochoa Learning Center, a public school in Cudahy.

And Abers, whose wife is from Guatemala, expressed support for immigrants in the United States as debate continues over their status in this country.

“I think immigration has been happening since humans have been on Earth, and I fully support the migration of human beings for better opportunities for themselves and survival,” he said.

The band’s progressive politics are associated with the left. It performed at Occupy L.A. a few years ago. And on the topic of Israel, Abers isn’t anti-Israel, but he sympathizes with the Palestinians. In essence, his relationship with Israel, as it is with many Jews, is complicated.

“We can yell at each other all day but what’s going to come of that?” he asked, after several minutes of arguing about Israel’s place in the world.

The conversation veered to his hobbies. When a reporter showed up to Abers’ house, he was in the middle of researching RVs for sale. He explained he would like to buy one and hit the road with his wife, veterinarian Evelyn Sagastume, who runs Petsadena Animal Hospital.

Wherever he goes, though, Los Angeles will be his and his band’s home.

Ozomatli will perform Dec. 9 at the Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information, call (888) 645-5006.

Jewish pianist Mikhail Klein collapses, dies on stage

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

(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.