Full disclosure: I pitched this article just so I could meet Nefesh Mountain—specifically, Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, the brains and talent behind the bluegrass group that is making a stir in the world of Jewish music.
I’ve loved bluegrass music since a summer night in 2004, when a friend took me to a backwater roadhouse in Western New Jersey to dance among a throng of hippies to the music of Railroad Earth. Since then, I’ve added a number of bluegrass greats to my playlist—Norman Blake, The Carter Family, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Steve Martin, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, and every song on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack—and have fallen more and more deeply in love with the genre. Bluegrass music is an unlikely combination of influences: The wistful tunes of Scots and Irish immigrants making new lives in the mountains of North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, the timeless spirituals sung in churches throughout the deep south, and the ecstatic improvisation of jazz halls in the early 20th century. Together, they form a natural, woodsy, wholly American sound with unabashed spiritual undertones.
But despite the pleasure I took in the pulsing banjos, sweet fiddles, and perfect harmonies, something was missing. As a Jew, the deep, church-based spirituality of bluegrass music wasn’t my spirituality. I could relate with the message in many ways, but in others, I remained one step removed.
That is, until I heard Nefesh Mountain, the husband-and-wife team of bluegrass musicians from Montclair, NJ, who infuse their down-home music with Jewish liturgy, phrases from the Torah and psalms, and hearken to “our mothers and sisters,” Sarah and Miriam. Not only was their music sublime; these people were singing to me.
Zasloff and Lindberg say that their experience was similar to mine, which was what inspired them to form the band. Zasloff, a native of the Washington D.C. and Philadelphia areas, struggled to find Jewish music that spoke to her when she began teaching music at her daughter’s synagogue preschool. She began writing her own songs, and launched a performance and recording career as “Mama Doni.” Lindberg, meanwhile, grew up in Brooklyn but spent as much time as he could with his father’s family in Georgia. “They all played guitar,” he says, “and I’d go down, this Jewy kid from Brooklyn, to hang out with my uncles and play.” There, deep on the Appalachian trail, Lindberg’s love of bluegrass was kindled. “The heartland of America always a big thing for me. It’s the sound of natural world; it puts you in touch with something deeper than music and genre.”
When the couple began playing music together eight years ago, it was never their intention to write bluegrass songs; in fact, they were trying to create more material for “Mama Doni.” “But when we sat down to write music together, it always came out in a bluegrass way,” explains Zasloff. “It just felt so spiritual. This other side of us starting pouring out.” Somehow, the mash up bluegrass melodies and Jewish liturgy worked. At the same time, they happened to be falling in love. “We’d known each other a long time,” Zasloff says. We’d both had breakups. We were looking at each other and writing this music…” A request came for the couple to do a bluegrass shabbat service, after which they were asked to do a full concert. “The next thing you know, we’ve got a show. Then we realized we have enough songs to make an album. It all took off from there.” Four years later, they settled on a name and took their songs on the road, eventually transitioning from a duo to a full band with robust, fully-fleshed arrangements. And Lindberg and Zasloff, who has two children from a previous relationship, were married.
As he became a professional secular musician (he plays banjo, mandolin, and dobro), Lindberg moved farther away from his Jewish upbringing, but Zasloff’s enthusiasm for Jewish traditions inspired him to return. “I’ve always been on a spiritual adventure,” she says, citing her attendance at Jewish camps, day schools, and her degree from musical theater from Brandeis University. “My life is all about being an American girl and being Jewish.” Although traditional, Lindberg says, his wife is a “rebel cowgirl,” practicing Judaism in a way that is real and authentic for her. “Meeting her made me go, ‘Wow, I can be Jewish and appreciate my heritage in a different way.’”
Nefesh Mountain, while unique, are not the first to marry Jewish- and American root music. Banjoist Henry Sapoznik has recorded 35 albums of tunes combining both Yiddish and American elements, while clarinetist Margot Leverett has played with the Klezmer Mountain Boys and her own bluegrass band; Jerry Wicentowski, an Orthodox Jewish bluegrass musician, is well-known and highly lauded for his work on albums like “Shabbos in Nashville.” However, Nefesh Mountain are the first to stick to a purely Appalachian sound, and thus may be the first Jewish band to gain real “street cred” in the world of bluegrass. “A few people in Nashville found out about what we were doing and connected us with some of the biggest names in bluegrass: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka, and David Grier,” Zasloff says. “These people are our heroes. Here they are signing up and flying in to record with us. I was crying in the studio, it was so beautiful. When we were recording the songs in Hebrew, they asked us what it meant. So we got to share the beautiful messages of Judaism with these guys. At the heart of it is love, friendship, and being amazed at the world we live in.” The couple went down to Nashville to record two tracks on their upcoming album, “Beneath The Open Sky,” which debuts on March 2nd.
There is, of course, the rest of the Jewish world to convince. Overall, the response to Nefesh Mountain has been highly positive, yet there are plenty who are perplexed by what Zasloff and Lindberg are trying to do. “It sounds like it could be a shtick,” says Lindberg. “There’s a connotation [to bluegrass]; you think Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, The Beverly Hillbillies, and these kind of jokey things we have to fight through. But it’s many layers deeper than just ‘Jewish Bluegrass.’ It’s an honest, spiritual vehicle, and in this time in the world, it’s possible to make that work.” They also hope to break new ground in the world of Jewish music, building a bridge between the Jewish and secular worlds. “For the most part, [Jewish music] is not meant to exist outside of religion; you sing them in synagogue, in the Shlomo or Debbie Friedman tradition. But these songs exist twofold: you can sing them at a bluegrass festival and a Shabbat service.” In fact, Zasloff considers bluegrass music to be the ideal vehicle for Jewish prayer, as they are already rooted in prayer and spirituality. “The way that so many of us is to connect is through music and song. The sound of bluegrass is so authentic and pure, it’s the perfect match with what we were trying to say in these prayers. There are styles of bluegrass that are upbeat and have so much ruach. It’s the ultimate celebration, because you have to get up and dance. It also has lonesome, mountain-y sound, [which reflects] the pain we all feel – especially as Jews.”
Historically, what Lindberg and Zasloff are doing follows right in line with a long history of Jewish artists who have taken inspiration from their host cultures. “Jews have been playing the music of their societies for a long time,” explains Lindberg. “The reason we have Klezmer is because of diaspora jews in Eastern Europe.” The same goes for classical composers like Mendelssohn and Mahler, American artists like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein, who wrote jazz-inspired Broadway tunes that became fixtures of our culture. “The majority of jewish music today is folk or rock music or pop,” says Zasloff. “[Bluegrass] comes before all of it; it’s what inspired all these other waves of music. We hit rewind before Bob Dylan and the influence of so many others. It’s like Judaism, always going backward.”
With the new year rolling in, however, the Lindberg/Zasloff clan have much to look forward to, including the March release of “Beneath the Open Sky,” and a tour around the United States and beyond. “We’re lucky that the phone is ringing and people want us to come out to their communities,” says Lindberg. His stepchildren, 12 and 13, couldn’t agree more; they travel with the couple and take a cut of CD sales. “It’s adding a lot to our life as a family. We’re going to cool places and meeting wonderful people.” For both Zasloff and Lindberg, it is a life beyond their wildest dreams. “There were some tough moments, and a lot of pain,” Zasloff admits. “I never believed I would find a love like this, that I would have a best friend/writing partner/adventure partner/stepfather to the children. We don’t even notice that we spend all of our time together.” Lindberg agrees. “It’s a great relationship test for us. We have to trust the other in areas where we’re not good at excelling. And when we trust each other, we come up with some really truthful music. As an artist, this is all you can really hope for.”
Of course, it always comes back to their music, which the couple agrees has a message that is timely indeed. “I think music has the ability to strip us all down to the core,” says Lindberg. “It connects us with other people, other countries. In the last year, and the turmoil we’re in, it’s a good thing to come out and say, ‘Jews are about peace and love. We’re a complicated people, but it’s about celebrating this life.’ And that’s something that worth celebrating inside and outside the Jewish world.”
Rea Bochner is the author of the acclaimed memoir, “The Cape House.” Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times bestselling Small Miracles series. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, five children, and three cats.