Thursday, December 15, 2011

At URJ Biennial, Or… Can anyone can save us from Jewish Boomer Folk Pop?

Hi folks. I'm at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial. I'm serving on the board of trustees for my synagogue Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. It's been pretty interesting for a guy with a Conservative upbringing and Orthodox leanings to settle in a Reform temple, but it's been really great. TBE is just about the most wonderful congregation I can imagine. Any quibbles I have with theology or liturgy are very much secondary to that. The Biennial is the bi-annual conference for the the URJ, the Reform communities organizing body. This year over 6000 people have piled into Washington DC for the event. There will be lots of URJ committee meetings, lectures, hallway discussions, big speakers, and, of course music. I'm going to do my best to see as much music as possible and report in.

First a quick note....the URJ has put a lot of information about the musicians up on their Stage Page including schedules (for attendees), musician info and some videos. If you've ever wanted to get a real sense of what's going on in the Reform music community this is the page to visit.

Day 1

12:00 Noon The “URJ Books and Music” stage is kicking off with Beth Schafer, Julie Silver, Doug Cotler, and Rabbi Joe Black. They’re singing a funky, folky version of “Driedel, Dreidel.” Schafer, Silver, and Cotler are on guitar and Colter is playing keys. It's fun to see them live but I'm really hoping this isn't setting the tone for the week. They're playing into all my stereotypes of liberal Jewish pop-liturgical musicians (I have different stereotypes for Orthodox community musicians). One of the big challenges for me is that while I really appreciate what these folks are doing, I don’t love a lot of the music. I find a lot of it to be pretty shallow both lyrically and musically. I also find a lot of it very dated. I don’t know if this is me pointing out that the emperor’s got pretty shabby clothes or that I’m just a jerk. Probably both.

Before anyone takes me task, let me say..... I know. Lots of it is “family music” aka kids music. And I know… lots of it is intended for easy camp and congressional sing-alongs. And, I know… these folks are talented musicians. But most of what I hear is mediocre and forgettable, a baby-boomer pastiche of 1970’s folk pop with a few Hebrew (sometimes Torah) phrases wrapped in fuzzy good feelings. Like an oldie’s radio station in a Jewish twilight zone. Yawn.

I’m hoping to find a few gems, though. I want to hear some new voices and sounds. I want my world rocked like it when I first heard Girls In Trouble sing feminist midrash over an indie-pop electric guitar and looped violin. I want to hear songs with depth and substance that really speak deeply to Jewish beliefs and dreams.

Is Colter really asking us to sing “take a potato pat pat pat.” Sigh. At 41 I'm the youngest guy in the room at the moment. Why is he singing this?

Ok, now we’re into Rock of Ages. Classic, and a nice arrangement. I think this is Silver’s arrangement. I love her soft descant. Nice. (I really appreciate Silver's work, much more than Shafer’s which for me is vapid fuzzy good feelings and fairly uninteresting song structures). Joe Black is now singing his ‘hit’ “Judah Macabee.” He's got a wonderful voice and this is a well-written song, though I wish it didn’t sound like it was written 30 years ago.

12:30, Jay Rappaport.

I don’t know Rappaport. Let’s see what he’s got. The announcer is crediting him for being a Berklee College of Music grad and a Billie Joel sound-alike. Ok. A little light R&B piano action. He sings well, plays well, works the audience well and sounds like 1970’s R&B oldie radio station instead of a 70’s folk-pop station. Lyrics…. Hebrew chorus? Check. Explanatory English lyrics? Check. Yep. He sounds like a elementary Hebrew school class. So, would my kids dig it? My 9 year-old who’s crank’s Matisyahu on her nano probably would find it really boring. My 7 year old? Maybe, if it was presented in a class situation but not on her own. (She digs Lady Gaga. Let me tell you…she was “born this way” all right). We are Jews. Why? Our people are connected around the world? That’s it? We should do push-ups with Judaism on our back? Sigh. We’re definitely aiming for the 7 year old in all of us. So Rappaport’s a lot of fun. I could see a gang of really young kids really having fun with him, but his songs don’t measure up for me.

Opps. I just got scolded for poaching a power outlet in a dangerous spot. My bad. But they offered me a spot at a table that will later be home to Jewish Rock Radio. Thanks folks! I’ve promised to put in a plug for the convention’s Stage Page ( I’m not on wireless yet but will check it out as soon as I am. Maybe I can get press credentials and access to the press wireless connection tomorrow?

12: 55 Lisa Levine. (Cantor from Chevy Chase, MD)

Levine is a cantor from here in Maryland and is touted as having a lot of albums and her own song-book and visiting and performing for Jews in Cuba. She’s performing with members of her “inter-generational choir and band.” Yep. More 1970’s folk rock, complete with flute and cello this time. She’s got a good voice, though, and her music, while playing to all the songleader cliché’s, is more varied and better written than much of what I’ve heard from the community. I really dig her V’shamru. It’s up-tempo, but has a dark glimmer that gives it depth. I could easily see the kids’ choir at my synagogue nailing this one. Her “We will sing” is a powerhouse anthem. Listening to it reminds of a Gordon Lightfoot anthem (which is a pretty dated but still high praise, for those of you who don’t the guy.) All in all, Cantor Levine fits into all my preconceptions about songleader music, but there’s some real music here. I hope the folks listening are paying attention and take her songs back to their communities.

It’s frustrating that they’ve programmed music through the main conference lecture/panel sessions. The audience completely clears out. Only a few of us die-hards left. Lots of musicians I recognize wandering around. I see Todd Herzog, Jeff Klepper and Saul Kaye. I’ve got lots of folks to say howdy to.

1: 20 Sababa is next up. This show is getting better and better. In case you’re wondering…yes. more 1970’s liturgical folk-pop, this time with two guitars and a mandolin. Their sound is simple but tight, bright and glittery songleader rock with a bit of a country twang. Sababa’s lovely harmonizing and great control of their dynamics results in a very strong and engaging sound I could easily see on a main stage somewhere (hint hint Detroit JCC Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival). I really want to hear them with a drummer and maybe a horn section. I might just have to get their album. Yep that’s me clapping along. Funny, they’re closing with a anthem with the chorus “God made it and it’s all good.” Very apropos of my Lady Gaga reference earlier. (She’s Jewish, after all).

Yikes. The audience is getting really thin. This is almost as bad as when I gave a Jewish music talk to 4 people at the Detroit JCC recently. Being in the wrong time slot is a real drag.

1:45 Larry Midler. Oops. I missed Rabbi Midler’s intro and will have to look him up later. He’s playing some goofy, happy-clappy, tune and not impressing me yet. Hang on. He’s busting out some serious country flat-picking guitar lines. That’s better. He’s got some action after all. I’m digging this tune about Noah. I wonder if he’s got a video of it I can post? Oy. He’s singing his “hit” “Where I go there’s someone Jewish” which rhymes Jewish and Newish. Cute but oy. At least the remaining audience members are singing along. I guess this is a hit after all. I’d rather hear the flat-picking. Now he’s singing about bar mitzvah’s. I really don’t love songs about Jewish set pieces (bar mitzvah's, dreidles, candles, Torah scrolls, matzoh....). Not that they’re not important, they’re just easy to write and easy to forget. It’s really hard to make them wonderful. Ok, he’s doing more flat-picking, this time a song about Sampson…I love this just like I loved his Noah song. Do more of this and skip the goofy stuff.

One thing that’s clear to me is that I really don’t know this community very well. I’ll need to check in with my friend David, who’s been a part of this community for years. He’ll know Midler’s story.

In case your curious.... Here’s the Teruah guide to music for URJ musicians. (this is tongue in cheek folks.)

1. Play 1970’s folk pop (or R&B) because the history of music ended then.

2. Make sure you have one, and only one, Hebrew phrase in your chorus. Reform Jews like to spice things up. But only so much.

a. If you’re a performer, not a song-leader feel free to replace the one line of Hebrew with Yiddish, Ladino, Russian or whatever comes to mind.

3. Draw your lyrics inspiration from a Shabbat prayer with additional English lyrics that may or may not relate to the prayer. Non-Shabbat prayers are discouraged because no one remembers them and Lenoard Cohen’s already done the Unetanneh Tokef.

4. Skip the English lyrics and just sing the prayer lyrics in a new, uptempo, folk-pop arrangement because no one has done that yet.

5. Write something silly about one of the great Jewish set pieces (e.g. driedles, bar-mitzvah’s)

6. Make sure you write kids songs and then sing them to adults. Because they're cute. And maybe we won't notice there are no kids in the room.

Will I come up with new rules as the Biennial progresses? Inquiring minds want to know.

2:15 Todd Herzog. I’ve blogged about Herzog before. He’s a really strong singer/songwriter with a lot implicit and explicit Jewish themes in his lyrics. (and yes, he sometimes does the one line of Hebrew thing). Definitely a performer and not a songleader, though he got some nice call and response from the audience at times. And not stuck in a formulaic 1970’s folk pop vibe, though his warm voice and guitar playing is very accessible to the Biennial audience. The great thing about Herzog is that doesn’t fall into a lot of the cliché’s of Jewish pop music (see Teruah’s Rules above). He’s a storyteller with a lot of spiritual depth. His song Tree of Live, which he’s playing right now, is wonderful and deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten. (Ok. It does have the ‘one Hebrew phrase” cliché). I had Herzog’s previous album in heavy rotation when it came out and seeing him play live reminds me why. (Hmm. Bring Herzog to Detroit? What a good idea)

Great. I just ran into Miriam from the Biblepop band Stereo Sinai. They rocked the house last year at the Detroit JCC Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival. They’re huge crowd pleasers. Miriam is here representing the non-profit DarimOnline and the URJ funded social media bootcamp for URJ synagogues. (

2:30 The Levins. I’m not familiar with The Levins. They’re a duo (keys and guitar, both on vocals), with some lovely warm harmonies. And yes, they’re following Teruah’s Rules. But like Herzog, they’re performers not songleaders, and play with a lot of style and much more interesting songs. (Bring The Levin’s to Detroit? They played the SF Jewish Festival Family Stage). Wow I’m digging these folks. Their song “Let me see you as myself” is pretty awesome. Ok. Now not digging them so much. Now they're getting goofy. Are they seriously singing The Who in Yiddish. Yes. Yes they are. They don’t have Herzog’s deep spirituality and probably won’t end in heavy rotation but are a lot of fun. I’d go see them live again.

3:00 Noah Aronson. Aronson hit the stage with four guys… two acoustic guitars, a six-string bass, a keyboard and a percussionist. Clearly a performer not a songleader, though it appears Teruah’s Rules are being followed to the letter. The songs happily alternate between English and liturgical Hebrew in a uptempo strummy arrangements. Credit should be given…Aronson’s music draws as much on mid 90’s alterna-pop guitar as from 1970’s folk-pop. Whew. Aronson’s a young guy with a solid, driving voice. This song rocks and I could see high-school NIFTY kids who normally groove on Rick Recht and Dan Nichols loving him. (Another possible for Detroit… perfect for the Progressive Jewish Music Showcase?). Yum. Love the Spanish rhythms and the spacey keys under the second song. The percussionist needs a full kit but is doing his best with the drum box he’s got. Ha! He just pulled a bunch of NFTY Leadership Program kids up on stage with him to sing harmonies and just said “I’m going to break it down Dan Nichols style.” And then did. And here comes a closing pop version of the Shehikanu. grin. nice work. Jewish rawk.

Speaking of which, the Jewish Rock Radio gang including Rick Recht is setting up shop behind me. And the conference session must be over because the audience is filling up again.

3:25 Max Jared Einsohn. Whew. Quick stage swap. Max was playing rhythm guitar for Noah and now Noah is playing keys for Max. (And Noah is killing the keys). Max is also a Jewish rawk performer but with a softer and funkier sound. Finally, someone’s ignoring Teruah’s Rules entirely. About time. And of course, since he’s not taking the easy road the Jewish content of the music becomes harder to hear. With songs with titles like “We’re all connected” I get the positive messages that he’s interested in, but are these Jewish positive messages or American progressive pluralistic positive messages? (There is a difference, people.) That aside, this is a fun set. I’m going to need to talk to Einsohn and get more of his story.

3:45 Mikey Pauker. Ok, so clearly there’s Jewish Rock cabal here. Pauker’s got Aronson on piano and Einsohn on guitar. But Teruah’s Rules are back in play, at least to a degree. He’s leading off with arrangements of Sim Shalom and Hinea Matov, but there’s no 70’s folk-pop in sight. Strummy, but with more of a 90’s acoustic rock bite and a languid jam-band presentation. Hinei Matov? How great it is for brothers and sister to hang out on this day? Pretty great. Thanks for asking. Pauker’s is playing a song he wrote at Hava Nashira that’s been picked up for a reality TV show on OWN. It’s a great tune, I see why they picked it up. Let it rain! Strong, dreamy, impressionist lyrics but with a surprising Jewish liturgical hook in the middle. Avhat v’simcha v’shalom! At the end of his set, he talked about how he’s influenced by going to Hava Nashira and playing at camps. Clearly Pauker, Aronson, and Einsohn are the story of the day. It’s great to see that a younger generation is defying Teruah’s Rules. Note. I talked with Pauker after the set and he plays gigs at camps, Jewish festivals, and rock clubs and is building a career in all these places. He's opened for Matisyahu and the Moshav band, but also for a lot of prominent LA area bands.

4:15 Mark Bloom. This is my second time seeing Bloom. He played last year at the Detroit JCC Stephen Gottlieb Music Festival. He’s a jazzy piano player guy who plays some originals and lots of Jewish standards. He’s a fine musician but I find his set tedious…. a Jewish lounge nostalgia fest. Very much not my thing. Not much to say here.

Ok…the URJ saved the best for last.

4:40 Saul Kaye. Ok, I’ve been waiting for this show all day. I’ve seen Kaye on YouTube but not live and his music has been in heavy rotation lately. He plays a mean blues guitar and has a strong bluesy voice. “Let my people go!” “Some one please call my brother!” Metal slide grinding …. giving me chills. His song “Two Wolves,” which was based a concept from the Tanya regarding on the ideas of Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Hara, was Dan Akroyd’s “Blues Breaker of the Work” on the House of Blues radio show last October. It’s a fantastic song. And yes…it has the terms Yetzer Tov and Hara in it. This is, in my opinion, what we need. Musicians who deeply understand the Jewish tradition making new music that picks up those ideas and makes seriously good new music out of them.

Saul Kaye is married to Elana Jagoda? Jagoda is a fine family music performer (and up next.) How cool.

Yikes. I may not get talk to Saul and Elana…I have to get to evening T’filah (in the Cherry Blossom Ballroom. Just in case you were wondering.)

5:15 Elana Jagoda. Ok. Teruah's Rules are reinstated, Jagoda is leading off with her own Sim Shalom. And that’s followed by a classic Jewish music set piece… the Hanukkah candles. But I dig her contemporary folk sound and where she goes with her lyrics. Go check out her Hanukkah track on the Craig and Co Hanukkah sampler on Amazon. Double yikes. Jagoda just explained that the version on the sampler was uploaded at the wrong speed and she sounds like a man. Ouch. It’s being fixed today. Ok. I've got to run and didn't get to hear all of Jagoda's set. Bummer.

10:30 Colter, Black, Silver, and Schafer. It's late and the late show is starting. The openers Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Doug Colter, and Beth Schafer are back on for a full set. I'm watching the show with Saul Kaye and comparing notes. Once again I'm struck with how this music seems dislocated in all sounds like a baby boomer nostalgia fest. Which, considering the audience, it pretty much is. And don't get me wrong... they're all fine musicians. I particularly love Julie Silver. I'm just bored. I think what bugs me isn't that the music style is dated. I love 1800's klezmer music right? It's that there's no acknowledgement that the music is a period piece. It's being presented throughout the community as if this was the best of current music. Which it's not. My other bug became clear to me when we were celebrating Debbie Freedman earlier in the evening. Freedman deeply knew her Judaism, the texts, the ideas, the liturgy and her music and lyrics resonated with it. The musicians that follow after her? Not so much. Too much of it is empty of any real Jewish depth. So I'm at a late night, very average, folk-pop concert.

By the way..I'm well aware that these folks are mainstays of the community, have been loved for years and that this show is as much about the community enjoy itself as it is about anything else. And I haven't been part of the community so I just don't get it. Yep. Pretty much.


Cantor Robbi Sherwin said...

So, as 1/3 of Sababa (the girl with the blue mandolin) I really appreciate your review - thanks for coming and for blogging about us. We have played at Beth Emeth, Ann Arbor, by the way, with Annie Rose's amazing kids bands with us - loved it! And, we've been trying to get to the Detroit fest with no luck for years. So, I'll send your love their way when we try again. Thank you for your kind words - and if you didn't get one of our CDs, let me know. Cantor Robbi Sherwin, for Sababa.

Eric Komar said...

Thanks for the real time review. As someone who normally shares the stage with the "cabal" but couldn't make it to Biennial, you helped bring me into the room.

Keith Kahn-Harris said...

Great critique!

Robbie Gringras said...

fantastic critique! I am endlessly saddened at the way the Biennial by-passes all the incredible sharp cutting-edge musically hip and Jewishly sharp music coming out of Israel these days... such a loss! While US Jewish assumptions about Israeli music may also be stuck in the 70s, the Israeli musicians certainly haven't.

Los Desterrados said...

Why not try something *really* upbeat, crowdpleasing, musically interesting and nothing whatsoever to do with 70s folk-pop or English lyrics?

Welcome to the British Sephardic New Wave... and introducing Los Desterrados!

We'd love to visit the US for any of these festivals.

Daniel Duberstein said...

Really interesting - and pretty spot on critique. Maybe it's because I'm a Brit that I can't quite get into so much of the American cheesey 1970s pop stuff as much as some people can.

One place where I've been pretty impressed in recent years with their approach to showcasing Jewish music from across the spectrum is Limmud. I've only been to the UK events, but I understand from what I've read it's pretty much the same at others, including those Limmud's in the States.

In recent years I've been to gigs, workshops and discussions with/by bands and singers including SoCalled, Etti Ankri, Ha DagNachash, Joshua Nelson ('kosher gospel'), Shotei HaNevua, FunkNStein, Coolooloosh, The Apples (outstanding gigs - one of my favourites), GhettoPlotz (UK modern klezmer mash-up collective), Jewdysee (German crazy housey-klezmer group), Kobi Oz (one of the most memorable), Naomi Less (very American, but more rocky than popy, with a bit of edge), Boom Pam (great fun), Los Desterados (who someone mentioned in the responses and who you really need to look out for) and Alma Zohar. Lots more that I can't remember off the top of my head, so maybe made less of a lasting impression?

Next week I'm going to the latest Limmud Conference and amongst other things looking forward to catching Joshua Nelson again and the wonderful Girls In Trouble who you mentioned in your piece. Also looking forward to seeing Payazan! who I'd never heard of but who look great (from Holland).

Oh, and Limmud does get some of the cheesier American-Reform 70s, style pop performers too. And there's always a couple of cantors doing their thing too. These all seem to get decent audiences and have a following. Not me personally, but I know people who surprise me by really enjoying those gigs as they are very different from what we have here in the UK.

Anyway, respect to Limmud for helping introduce lots of people like me to really diverse expressions of Jewish music.

bikelovejones said...

Girls In Trouble is one of the most amazing acts to come along in years -- Jewish or otherwise.
They came to Portland and played a late-night Shavuot show in a club that was a former funeral home -- and blew the room away.

As for Jewish music festivals, well, they all seem to be happening too far from where I live. So for now I'll hang out at your blog and other Jewish music web sites and try to pick up what I can by osmosis. Thanks for a highly interesting read.

CantorDebbie said...

I appreciate your candor. You're not alone! I listen to each ruach collection and feel mostly disappointed. Reworked old or new folk rock indie music with enthusiasm and not much. depth. I rarely find something moving or profound.

Justice Milsom said...

Rambam in Hilchot Deot Chapter 10:3 says:

There is a mitzvah to love every Jew as oneself... therefore a person should praise his friend and prevent any financial loss that may accrue to them just as one is careful of ones own money and ones own honor. A person who derives honor through his friend's disgrace has no portion in the world to come.

I have had the privilege of playing with Beth on several occasions and vapid or shallow certainly would not be how I would describe her music. Inspiring and upbeat is what I think of. As an aside I also love playing klezmer and many other styles from the rich tradition of Jewish music. Keep rocking Beth!

Ann Z. Kimball said...

I wasn't able to go this year and missed the music, thanks so much. And 2 of the musicians you enjoyed; Max Jared and Saul Kaye are now touring throughout the 13 state southern region with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life!
Ann Zivitz Kimball
Director of Programming

Jack said...

Justice... bug off. I'm happy that you enjoy Beth Schafer. She's a great lady and a fine musician. I'm well aware of the Jewish tradition of Loshan Hora and don't need you quoting Rambam at me. Anyone who's a Beth Shafer fan is clearly not a frum Jew with any standing to make such a claim. And even if you were, it's still false logic. My post, and my previous post about Beth which was even more critical, have done nothing to negatively impact her career or livelihood. Given the absolute lack of information about Jewish music available to the average American Jew, any comment I make, whether positive or negative, about an artists does more to help them than my silence would. Also, if you read my blog at all you'd realize how rare such comments from me are at all. There's plenty of crap in Jewish music and I usually just ignore it altogether.

So bottom line... bug off. If you disagree, great. Rally to your favorite artist. But keep your pompous scolding to yourself.

Jack said...

Daneil... I agree. Limmud has done a much better job covering the range of Jewish music. Someday I hope to get to one.

Jack said...

Anne, that's great to hear. I'm personally lukewarm on Max, though it's clear he puts on a good show. Saul Kaye is outstanding.

Jack said... the way. Did you get to see Girls in Trouble? I am a huge fan and saw them live 2 years a go in a tiny coffee house in one of the Detroit suburbs. I was blown away.

Jack said...

Cantor Debbie (and Erik and Keith and Robbie and Daniel and... ) Thanks for the feedback. I didn't go with the expectation of writing a big critique but it sort of just happened.

Cantor Debbie... by the way and fair is fair, this isn't just a URJ thing. The Conservative moment put out a CD series a couple of years back called the "Spirit Of" series and included Spirit of Shabbat and so on. It was pretty terrible too, trying to enliven some traditional Conservative liturgy and turning into a weird pastiche in the process.

Jack said...

BLJ..just saw your comment about Girls in Trouble. I'm so with you. They are on my "you must listen to this NOW" list.