On a Sunday afternoon in mid-October, Temple Beth Elohim, in the tony Boston suburb of Wellesley, was packed with kids, parents, and a video crew, all there to see a concert by the family music band Josh & the Jamtones. Before the show, Josh Shriber, the group’s lanky frontman, knelt in an open area in front of the bimah, enthusiastically high-fiving the mosh pit of tots who crowded around him. Shriber, who runs a music school in town, greeted many of the kids by name.
The kids and their parents were then treated to a high-energy dance party, the band’s trademark style. Because of the venue, they played some Jewish-themed songs alongside their secular favorites. And Jewish-tinged humor was front and center throughout the show. When the band played “Artik Menta,” a bouncy song based on an Israeli ice cream commercial, Shriber asked the audience to shout out favorite ice cream flavors. “Wait, you didn’t just say bacon scallop ice cream in temple, did you?” he quipped, “Because that wouldn’t even be good!”
Josh & the Jamtones is always this upbeat—but right now they have extra reason for exuberance. On Dec. 17, they’re releasing their second Jewish-themed album, Jammin’ with Jew Volume 2: Holiday Explosion! Twenty thousand copies of a previous album, Jammin’ with Jew!, will be distributed later this month to families signed up with PJ Library, and on Dec. 7 they’re playing a major concert at the Jewish Museum in New York City.
Plus, the video crew was at Temple Beth Elohim for a very big (non-Jewish) reason—on Dec. 15, the band begins a yearlong deal with Chuck E. Cheese’s, in which its music and videos will play at 560 of the restaurant’s locations for 20 minutes out of every hour, every day.
Shriber, 36, is a father of three and the picture of a hipster dad, complete with colorful tattoos on both arms, an earring, and a beard trimmed to the same scruffy length as his buzz-cut head. He doesn’t at first glance look like a Jewish song leader—or even a nice Jewish boy.
But he’s both, and there’s no nastiness or snark to either Shriber’s stage presence or his personal affect. In fact, the coolness factor is part of his appeal both to kids and synagogue leaders who recognize that families will come for the dance-able songs and high-quality music, but they’ll stay for the Jewish content that’s skillfully intermingled with all the fun.
“There’s an authenticity that pours through his music, as well as his live performance, as well as Josh as a person,” said Rick Recht, the national celebrity spokesperson for PJ Library. “You get what you see.”
The Jewish content families get is solid, from the aleph-bet to the Hebrew names for the five Books of Moses to what happened on each of the days of creation. The Hebrew morning prayer Modeh Ani is included on Jammin’ with Jew!, set to the tune of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” The new album covers the full range of Jewish holidays. For Purim, kids are encouraged to shout down Haman, who’s called “a really mean man with a stinky, rotten, awful, nasty plan.”
Shriber’s Jewish message is almost always tinged with light-hearted irreverence. A number of rabbis told him they didn’t love the album title Jammin’ with Jew!, Shriber recalled, saying it sounded a bit casual to their ears. But humor is part of the teaching Shriber does in his songwriting. For example, in “1, 2, 3 Follow Me,” a Passover song on the new album, Shriber and bandmate Patrick Hanlin exchange banter in which Moses gets a text message from God that says, “OMG, Pharaoh changed his mind” as the music speeds up while the Jews run to safety.
Shriber is adamant that Jewish learning should be a positive, fun experience for the young children and their parents who make up his audience. These feelings took root during his upbringing in Worcester, Mass., where his mother was the educator at the Reform temple where he and his older brother and sister were bar and bat mitzvahed.
His siblings were very active in Jewish life—youth group president active—but the main thing that kept Shriber from abandoning Hebrew school in favor of sports was music. His mother, whose lesson plans included a vibrant partnership with an Israeli kibbutz, was a big influence on his outlook. “Everything was, how do we teach this stuff and make it fun?” he recalled. He learned to play guitar at age 13, and he was co-leading services at retreats by 16.
Shriber attended Jewish summer camp, where, he said, “90 percent is sports and music and swimming and friendship and 10 percent is Judaism—but that 10 percent is very strong. You sing the prayers after dinner, and it’s the most fun time. The birkat [grace after meals] at a camp is like the best concert that any performer would ever want.” But Shriber is fastidious about not putting himself out there as a rabbi or Jewish scholar. “I think the idea of fun versus serious spirituality is almost a layer of protection,” he said. “I’m not studied in the Bible and Torah study, and I can’t get up there and preach on the portion of the week. So I’m always looking for my angle, accessible things that we can still write fun songs about and bring families together.”
Shriber straddles the Jewish and the secular musical worlds with comfort. He is the only Jewish member of his six-member band, which includes his wife, the singer Patience Orobello. The couple, who met in college, were previously members of the popular Boston-based kid’s music group Flooky and the Beans, which the pair left in 2010.
Since he struck out on his own, Shriber’s company, Jammin’ with You!, has built a children’s music center in Wellesley that runs six different programs and dispatches teachers to lessons in 20 towns in Massachusetts. At any given time, around a thousand kids are getting music from Jammin’ with You!—and that doesn’t even count the fan base for Josh & the Jamtones or Shriber’s regular appearances at Jewish schools and synagogues.
Shriber is quick to identify differences between concerts where the band performs their secular dance party music and Jewish venues like the upcoming Jewish Museum concert. “I think you feel something a little bit more because we are in a Jewish place,” Shriber said. “A room full of ‘lai-la-lais,’ whether it’s a niggun or a prayer or a fun song, that’s a special moment.”
The connectedness of Jewish families and communities has made an impression on the non-Jewish members of the band, including Hanlin, who was raised in Indiana by Catholic and Quaker parents and said he “didn’t have a super incredible experience with my Christian religion.”
“From what I’ve seen, the foundation of the [Jewish] religion is this community where everyone cares about each other,” said Hanlin, adding that his lack of knowledge of Jewish concepts and Hebrew words has turned out to be an asset in the songwriting process. “When Josh is writing, sometimes he’ll bounce ideas off me as if I were a 4-year-old learning the exact same thing.”
The relationship between Shriber and Hanlin, who is also the band’s producer, is at the heart of what makes Josh & the Jamtones stand out among the ever-expanding landscape of family music artists, said Stefan Shepherd, the Phoenix-based creator of the kid’s music review website Zooglobble.com.
“They’re incredibly energetic in concert,” said Shepherd. “Kids’ music is no stranger to humor, but the silliness and especially Josh & Patrick’s banter amuses all ages.”
The local success and national exposure isn’t lost on Shriber, who soaked up every moment of the enthusiastic crowd at Temple Beth Elohim. “To get down on my knees there and give a million high fives to all the kids I know from a ton of different locations is really special to me,” he said, “I’ve always been grateful to walk out of my house with my guitar. Just doing what you love and connecting with as many people in as positive a way as possible, you can build something great.”
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