Adoring crowds, all-night waits at exotic airports, roadies, guitars, synthesizers and a steady diet of junk food. That’s the life of a rock and roll band – but is it any life for a nice Jewish boy from Queens, now living here with his wife and four kids?
It is if you’re Lenny Solomon, the creative genius behind Shlock Rock, one of the longest-running and most successful acts in Jewish music. Shlock Rock, which Solomon formed in 1985, has played more than 2,000 concerts in 37 US states and 250 cities around the world, and has sold more than 200,000 copies of the 31 albums the band has released. It’s a record any rocker would envy, but for Solomon, it’s about more than the music.
“My job is to make people feel good about Judaism through my music,” he says. “I guess it’s more of a calling than a job, but either way, it’s a lot of fun.”
Shlock Rock takes top pop hits and “Jewish-izes” them – changing the lyrics to imbue them with Jewish content, focused on a specific Jewish holiday, ritual or concept. So, for example, the song “Summer Nights” from the Broadway musical/movie Grease
becomes “Succot Nights” in the hands of Solomon, with the lyrics telling about the autumn holiday’s obligations and events. The classic rock hit “Good Lovin’” becomes “Teshuva,” a song appropriate to the High Holy Day season; Richie Valens’s “La Bamba” becomes ‘My Menora,” and Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” becomes – “All Shook Up” (it’s a song about shaking the lulav on Succot).
He’s also sung several albums aimed at kids, using nursery rhymes, with songs like “Bang Goes the Gregger,” a Purim takeoff on “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
It’s all perfectly legal. “Copyright law allows the use of music and reflective parodies and/or education use of creative works, and there are no royalty fees involved,” Solomon says, citing other well-known parody singers, like “Weird Al” Yankovic and Ray Stevens, who do the same thing. “Shlock Rock is actually the right name for this kind of music,” says Solomon. “Shlock means ‘second-hand,’ which is exactly what this music is when we turn it into our music.”
But Solomon’s take on parody is far different than Weird Al’s; he uses parodies to promote Jewish education and identity. “I get letters from people around the world, telling me how Shlock Rock music helped them get in touch with their Jewish roots,” Solomon says. “We play concerts in the United States, England, South Africa, Canada, Australia – basically everywhere in the English-speaking world where there are substantial Jewish populations, and even in places where the populations aren’t so substantial.”
Those nonsubstantial population places would include venues like Anchorage, Alaska (where, Solomon says, there are actually about 5,000-6,000 Jews); Perth, Australia; Bournemouth, England; Edmonton, Canada; and even Birmingham, Alabama, where the band once played at the bat mitzva of the daughter of the then-lieutenant-governor (and a short time later governor) of the state. “He wasn’t Jewish, but his wife – and daughter – were, and his daughter was a big fan, so we spent a Shabbat in Birmingham, and played the gig on Saturday night,” Solomon says – describing a town so “remote” to Jewish geography that “back then it didn’t even a Chabad House (it does now, though). We spent Shabbat at the hotel, and Saturday night the Secret Service picked us up and whisked us off to the party site. Overall a very cool experience.”
SOLOMON KNOWS he’s having an effect from the hundreds of letters he gets from fans, who describe the impact Shlock Rock’s music has on them or on their friends and family. One inspiring letter, he said, came from “a hassid now living in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood, who was not born Jewish and converted. He wrote that our music was one of the three things that inspired him and his family to convert.”
Another amazing letter comes from a former Jew for Jesus, who picked up a copy of one of his CDs at a prayer meeting. “He listened to the music, got inspired, and today is living as an Orthodox Jew,” says Solomon.
Solomon, 49, spends at least three or four months of the year on the road, playing concerts around the world – many of them in the US. But about 15 years ago, he decided it was time to move from Queens, where he grew up, to Israel. “Israel is the place for every Jew – I should know, because I have about 15 songs with exactly that message. I decided I had to make aliya, if for no other reason that I wouldn’t feel like a hypocrite when singing those songs.”
And things have worked out just fine for Solomon here; his career has flourished, and he is set to break into the local music scene in a big way. But it is to his upbringing in Kew Gardens Hills that he attributes his passion for using Jewish music as a tool to bring people closer to Judaism. “I grew up in a great community, where being Jewish was a positive, fun experience. We never looked at observance as a burden or a problem, and that’s what I try to communicate with my music – a love of God, Torah, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel.”
On his frequent trips back to the New York area, he tries to catch a Mets or Rangers game (“Sports, and maybe a good deli sandwich and a Carvel cone, are the only things I can’t get on a regular basis in Israel,” he says), but otherwise, “we have everything we need right here in Beit Shemesh, where I live now.”
Solomon got into the Shlock Rock business in 1985, cutting his first album in December of that year – and a few months later, it was topping the Jewish music charts. “I never expected it to last – I thought this was going to be a one-shot deal, but the demand was so great I cut another album, and started playing some concerts – and here I am, nearly 25 years later,” he says.
Where did he get the idea for Shlock Rock? “I used to be the house band
for the New York region of the National Council of Synagogue Youth, the
youth branch of the Orthodox Union,” he says, “and at Shabbat seminars,
I would see the group leaders using parodies of popular songs – like
the theme from Gilligan’s Island
– to inspire the
kids. I figured it was worth an album,” he says.
Looking back at his career, Solomon says he counts himself lucky on two
counts – one, because he’s one of the few people who can make a living
playing Jewish music, and two, because he has a chance to do something
positive for the Jewish people. “Like one of my mentors, Rabbi David
Orlofsky, is fond of saying, it’s a free world today,” says Solomon.
“Anybody who doesn’t like Judaism is free to leave it. One of the
things we as Jews need to do today is inspire others to want to stay,
and that’s what I try to do.”