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The Disturbed Sound of Silence

Disturbed frontman David Draiman was trained as a hazan. Now he’s given the metal treatment to a Simon and Garfunkel classic.

Jonathan Zalman
January 05, 2016

When I was a grungy teenager, music was fantastic. We’re talking Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam, Backstreet Boys, Busta Rhymes and Dru Hill. Then, in 1999, the metal band Disturbed dropped “Down With the Sickness.” Not 30 seconds into the song, lead singer David Draiman screams “ooh-wah-ah-ah-ah”—heavy metal’s version of a beat drop—and blows the roof off of everything. To a teenager, Draiman’s staccato vocals at the outset of the song provided a vicarious outlet for angst and, in my opinion, is one of the most memorable bits of vocal originality I’ve ever heard.

“I used to have, and I still do have, really bad acid reflux,” Draiman, who was raised Jewish, told MTV in 2012. “I had a surgical procedure done…that repaired a valve at the top of my stomach that had completely burned away.” This, said Draiman, increased his range and strengthened his vocals. “That noise,” he said, just kinda came one day. [The] beat is so tribal it made me feel like an animal.”

What I didn’t know then is that Draiman is a trained hazan who was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in the Midwest and Los Angeles. In a 2011 interview with The Jerusalem Post, Draiman talked about his childhood education during which he attended five Jewish schools, in part because he did not want to abide by the Yeshiva lifestyle:

My freshman year of high school was at WITS, the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study in Milwaukee. And I got asked to leave after my first year there. It wasn’t because of my studies – they were always way past the norm, I graduated with a 3.75 GPA and scored just under 1400 on my SATS. Academics were never the issue. The issue was suppression of normalcy. I couldn’t really stomach the rigorous religious requirements of the life, I just wanted to be a normal teenage kid, and here I was being shipped of to a yeshiva.

In an environment where you’re not allowed to watch television, you can’t read magazines or go to the movies, you can’t fraternize with the opposite sex whatsoever, you have to wear the uniform every day of tzitzit, the button- down the shirts, the dress slacks, the shoes, you have to make sure you’re not even wearing a kippa sruga, it was just stifling. So what did that end up turning into? I’d set my friends up on dates with girls that I knew, in defiance of the school. So I became the “pimp” of the school even though no such thing was happening Or I’d smoke a little bit of weed here and there, I‘d get my buddies high, so I was the drug dealer on campus even though that’s not what I was doing. I just rebelled against the conformity – the gag reflex worked.

When I got sent to Los Angeles, it wasn’t any better – it was easier to get away with it because I wasn’t in a dorm and living at the rabbi’s house. Unfortunately, during Pessah cleaning, the rabbi was searching for hametz in the drawers and he found a half empty box of condoms and a half empty bag of weed, and that was the end of my living in the rabbi’s house. I actually ended up graduating high school from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, which was the school I wanted to go to in the beginning.

And yet, Draiman, though resentful of his schooling, said that he brought religious observance to his family, especially Shabbat. “So we started down the path, only my father went further than I did. And today [my parents are] still modern Orthodox.”

Draiman also said that he encounters fans “who espouse anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi sentiments.” And how does he deal with it?

I’m incredibly defiant against neo-Nazis and skinheads.

In fact, here’s a true story that occurred in the band’s infancy when we were playing Southside Chicago clubs.

One of the guys who would come to see us was a skinhead, he had a swastika tattoo, the whole nine yards.

After he became a die-hard fan, the band was sitting down having drinks after a show and he comes in and starts going on about niggers and Jews, and I interrupted him and said, “Dude, I don’t know if you realize this but I’m Jewish.”

He responded, “You’re Jewish! This completely changes my whole idea of what a Jew is supposed to be.” And soon after that, he had his swastika removed, and denounced the skinhead culture.

I’ve always been very proud of my heritage and where I come from, and I’ve defended it to the extent of being bloodied on many occasions. In fact, most of the fights I’ve been in my life – and there have been many – have been because I was defending my family or my faith. And I don’t apologize for it.

There’s still anti-Semitism everywhere, and unfortunately, what has happened with our people no longer being the underdogs in this region, peoples’ perception of Israel has changed dramatically. I find myself more and more having to defend us, and I will continue to do so.

I wrote a song on our latest album Asylum called “Never Again” about the Holocaust and the people who deny it, like Ahmadinejad, that piece of shit. And part of our live show includes a video presentation depicting him as the new Hitler. Believe you me, I’ve always been direct about hits, I never pull any punches and I will never apologize for who I am or where I come from.

Disturbed released their sixth studio album, Immortalized, in July 2015. Track 11 on the album is a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” and the band released a video of the tune last month. A decade and a half since Draiman screamed “ooh-wah-ah-ah-ah,” he’s still got it. Maybe he should consider leading high holiday services soon. Check out Disturbed’s cover below. As one YouTube user put it: “I came for the metal, I got feels.”

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.