Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig - Still rocking and davening

You want to hear a track that rocked my world recently? Press play.

Now go read the story.

Wow. What an wonderfully simple, wonderfully intense recording and an immediate add to my playlist.

So who rocked my world? Reb. Yosil Rosenweig, my (handsome and modest) pal Benji's dad, and long time Jewish music fixture. I want to say icon, but can't quite. Reb. Yosil has written songs and made music with two of the most important folks in Jewish music in the 20th century; Chassidic rabbi and folk singer Shlomo Carlebach and Avraham Rosenblum, founder of the Diaspora Yeshiva band, the seminal Israeli Jewish rock group. But he, himself, never rose to the icon status of Carlebach or Rosenblum. But, icon or not, Reb Yosil has been making great Jewish music for a long time. And as evidenced by the track above, he's still doing it as well as anyone.

Pitchu Li album coverAbout a year ago Reb Yosil released Pitchu Li, his first solo album. It's a recording of Reb Yosil with his Kosher Gravy Company live in concert, with Reb Yosil telling stories, giving Torah, and singing some of his many songs. He's backed by a fine, bluesy jam-band. Doing a more detailed review of the album had been on my to do list for a while (sorry Benji), but I'd had trouble getting started. I'm not much of a fan of fine, bluesy jam-bands. Just not my style. And Reb Yosil's voice is a bit rough in spots. I bet I would have loved the show... but the album? Good, but not great.

But then I heard Reb Yosil's Rosh Chodesh recordings. Particularly the Mah Ne'Daber. And I was hooked. There's a fire to his solo recordings that I didn't get from Pitchu Li. Mah Ne'Daber is incandescent. I now look forward every month to his next Rosh Chodesh song. They're offered monthly for free download. If you've missed them, go get them. Or wait a couple weeks. Pretty soon they're going to get bundled up as Reb Yosil's next album. It'll be a great collection. Then he'll start the process over with a bunch of new songs, one per month.

I got the chance to sit down recently with Reb Yosil and hear a bit of his life story. I was really interested in finding out more about his relationship with Carlebach and Rosenblum and, given his obvious talent, why he ended up in their shadows. And why the new recordings now after all this time? The answer revolves around the life of a Canadian pulpit rabbi and musician who found himself in Israel in the late 1960's, a moment when North American ba'al teshuva were coming to Israel in waves and creating a new Jewish music scene that mixed rock music and spirituality, Zionism and Torah.

Reb Yosil and Shlomo CarlebachReb Yosil, far right with glasses and white yarlmuke, and Shlomo Carlebach, left with silver yarlmulke and guitar)

Reb Yosil moved to Israel in 1968 for "a four year summer." During that time he started composing music and met and played with Carlebach. Like Carlebach, Reb Yosil was interested in being able to use music as an emotional component of prayer. (And like everyone who knew Carlebach, he has some great Carlebach. Listen to the intro to Reb Yosil's Gam Ki Eilech for classic from the days of the Yom Kippor war.) At the same time he met and married his wife (whom he met at a Carlebach wedding) and opened a restaurant, and in 1971 started a band with Avraham Rosenblum called B'nai Tzion that included original material and popular Jewish song by The Rabbi's Sons and the Simchatones. B'nai Tzion played regularly on the stage in Reb Yosil's restaurant and at NCSY event. At that time he composed the songs Tzadik Katamar Yifrach and Pitchu Li, songs that went on to be hits for Rosenblum's next band, The Diaspora Yeshiva Band. Performed by DYB, Pitchu Li won Israel's 1976 Chassidic Song Festival. In 1978 DYB won again, this time with Reb Yosil's song Hu Yiftach Libeinu.

Reb Yosil (guitar, on right) Avraham Fried (the fellow with the beard who's standing and singing) and friends
Reb Yosil (guitar, on right) Avraham Fried (standing and singing) and friends

But DYB won these songfests without Reb Yosil, who was never a member of the band. Yosil wanted to be a rabbi, not a full time musician. Prompted by that and the opportunity to work with the Canadian Zionist organization, Yosil and his wife had already moved back to Canada when Pitchu Li won the festival. Yosil spent the next 30 years as a pulpit rabbi and raising a family, using music in his rabbinic work and playing community concerts and kumzitz. After a recent bout with illness, Reb Yosil retired from the pulpit and started playing music regularly again, putting together the Kosher Gravy Company band and playing concerts around Ontario and Detroit.

It's pretty exciting for a Jewish music geek like myself to see someone writing and performing new material in the style that was popular in Jewish music the late 1960's / early 1970's at that birth of Jewish rock. Particularly, it's exciting to see that music from someone who was there at the time and contributed classic songs to the repertoire.

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