Quiet King of Orthodox Music
Yossi Green, the Satmar-raised composer who found inspiration in Roberta Flack, writes Jewish spirituals
At the age of 12, on his free Thursday nights in Borough Park, where he grew up, Green sat at a local YMHA with his long payos dancing down his head, watching neighborhood laypeople from the range of religious and nonreligious backgrounds learn Shostakovich’s famously challenging Fifth Symphony. He would steal snatches of time on a friend’s melodica, his first instrument, to play and teach himself music, creating his own idiosyncratic system of notation along the way. At the age of 17, as a yeshiva student in Manchester, United Kingdom, Green recalled hearing the first secular song to make an impact on him: Roberta Flack’s version of “Killing Me Softly,” out of the stereo of a red convertible. This moment, he said, launched Green on his composing career. His first composition, the enchanting Kol B’Ramah (“A voice is raised”) was built off Flack’s version of a soul tune.
To truly understand Green, though, you must listen to his music. Take his masterpiece, “Tanya,” for example. Written in July 1985 and popularized by Avraham Fried in 1988, this hit signifies a rare sort of experimental endeavor that represented a new direction in Jewish music. The lyrics were taken from an esoteric aggadah, a legend in Tractate Berachot that relates a somewhat unprecedented anthropomorphic—and borderline heretical—story. On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, at the most sacred time of the day—when the high priest enters into the holy of holies—Rabbi Yishmael, who according to rabbinic tradition was later martyred in a horrific manner by the Romans, tells us in that innermost sanctum he spoke to God through a mysterious angel named Akatriel, literally “the crown of God.” God, in a shockingly tender personified manner, requests a blessing from Rabbi Yishmael. Without hesitation at the absurd idea of a finite human blessing the Infinite, Rabbi Yishmael blesses God that his mercy may overcome his strict sense of judgment; God nods his head in assent.
This rare Talmudic gem confounded generations of commentators, leading them to sterilize the more controversial yet humane aspects of the tale. Mystics moved the anecdote into the hazy realm of divine emanations allowing true understanding only to the initiated, while rationalists sapped the story of any of its tenderness in churning out a simplistic lesson about the virtue of a righteous life. Green resuscitated the more human component of the legend through his melody of many parts, shifting rhythms, alternating styles, and abundant use of symphonic instruments. The song begins with a trembling minor tone mimicking the fear engendered by the proximity of God’s immanence, a holy fear brought upon by the immensity of his task. From there, once Rabbi Yishmael begins his blessing, the song turns into a jaunty tune in the major key meant to convey the joy of God’s intimacy with Man. Yet, ever attuned to the fluctuations of the religious experience, Green cuts back and forth between the mood of mercy and the mood of judgment, between trembling and rejoicing, to create an experience of the tortuous path of religious life.
A lover of lyrics, Green scours the endless world of biblical and rabbinical literature to find phrases and stories that require both experiential and intellectual engagement. After he finds his lyric, Green sits at his piano crafting a melody that fits the tenor of the words. Once he creates the basic skeleton of his song, he thinks of a specific singer to deliver his melody and together they work on arrangement and execution. Though he creates a song in mere minutes, it can take up to two years to perfect his compositions.
In a sense—though the ever-optimistic Green would disagree—he finds himself in the wrong era of Jewish life. In the pre-Holocaust generation, composers held a sacred place in the hierarchy of Jewish society. Composers represented a singular connection to the deepest spiritual realm of music, one venerated by the great Hasidic rabbis, and mythologized in legends. Today, Green must often curb his prowess as a thinker, historian of music, and storyteller to fit into the mold of his culture. When asked about his inability to fully display his boundless spirit, Green explains that he no longer feels slighted by the gap between his potential and its reception. Seeking intimacy more than fame he takes pride and consolation in the few that do understand him.
Nowadays, Green cares less about the flashiness of his performances at the Metropolitan or Paris opera houses and more about a chance for connection and personal expression, from hosting a roomful of billionaire oligarchs together with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar to child survivors of cancer and their families. On his latest album, released in August, titled Shades of Green III: Hartzik, Green now sees himself as a chosen and blessed conduit to the beauty of the divine song that permeates the world.
When I visited with Green recently, he stayed up past 1 in the morning, showing no signs of flagging, alternating back and forth between the piano and a stool against the wall, talking about music and Judaism. “One need only remove ego out of the equation,” he said, sagely, right before we parted, “to tune in to the divine muse.”
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