One of the best concerts I’ve been to in recent years was my cousin Sammy’s wedding in London last winter, when an eight-piece band blazed through one Hebrew-language banger after another for a solid three hours. Jewish music can be jammy and operatic and punk rock all at the same time, yet many of us are only confronted with the true extent of its awesomeness at the occasional simcha or shul event or while, say, riding an Israeli inter-city bus. This is a shame, because Jewish music is as surprising and as seemingly boundless as anything else in our tradition—and probably a lot funner and easier to get into than say, Gemara study, when you get down to it. Luckily, the full richness of contemporary Jewish music could be experienced in a large-scale outdoor concert setting in New York last week, at the annual Yiddish Soul festival in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield, an event put on by the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.
The Wednesday-night concert resembled any other summer show in New York, only more, you know, Jewish: The smartphones came out when a capella icons The Maccabeats took the stage; a young man landed front-flips in the aisles as the Klezmatics summoned their whirlwind of clarinet and violins, his tzitzit turning in midair along with him; Chabadniks wrapped tefillin on the edges of the crowd; people davened Maariv during the (thankfully!) brief pauses between acts; and a man in the front row sat with a sefer on his lap, which turned out to be a volume of the Art Scroll edition of the Talmud (music shouldn’t come at the expense of Gemara study, after all).
The backstage area was a steady parade of concert people (I’m convinced every overworked show promoter, stage manager, and Sound Guy belongs to the same earth-spanning tribe), Jewish people, and some combination of Jewish concert people. Shlomo Gaisin, frontman of the deep-grooving Zusha, imparted some wisdom when he learned he was speaking to someone writing about the concert for Tablet. According to one tradition, he said, were two tablets in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the lanky, almost mystically soft-spoken Gaisin explained—a broken tablet, and a whole one, each reflecting opposite but coextensive realities of human nature, which is simultaneously broken and whole. He described his band, which performed a hard-to-categorize mystically-inspired Hasidic folk reggae and whose songs were already familiar to many of the younger members of the audience, as “a cholent of sounds.”
He likened a festival to the avodas avodah, the “service of services,” the less solemn and more populist adjunct to the official priestly service in the Temple, and an occasion during which every kind of music would be played by, and for, the masses that gathered there. “Tonight was definitely a unification of heaven and earth,” he said of Yiddish Soul.
Talking about a concert in these terms is not an exaggeration, as any dedicated music fan understands. It was an especially apt comment on Wednesday: The Klezmatics, who served as the night’s house band are such legends by now that I admit it had been awhile since I’d really stopped and listen to their music, which could be described as an overpowering Yiddish-language gypsy punk Phish hybrid, only played faster and harder than any of their most obvious analogues. Cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer belted to the heavens—although backstage, Lemmer was quick to note to me that tonight was “entertainment,” as opposed to his usual duties leading prayers at Lincoln Square Synagogue in the Upper West Side. For the finale, every musician joined together for a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” meeting with chills and possibly even tears across the crowd, before launching into a couple of more uptempo show closers that sent the younger audience members spinning into impromptu hora circles.
“Did you see how packed it was?” Moishe Rosenfeld, the head of the Jewish music booking agency Golden Land productions, asked me moments after the house-lights went back up. “Did you see how Jewish everyone felt?”
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.