Whoever coined the phrase ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ never met Yehudah Katz. At the age of 59, the one-time mainstay of the Jewish Hassidic rockers Reva L’Sheva, is releasing his debut solo album Not Without You (Biladech Lo Avo) and embarking on a musical path that is both familiar and brand new.
In the 15 years since Katz founded Reva L’Sheva, which effortlessly combined the spiritual and musical loves of his life – Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and The Grateful Dead – the Jewish rock scene has exploded.
Everyone from The Moshav Band to Soul Farm to Matisyahu have updated the classic hassidic rock sound with their own footprints, and Katz, one of the pioneers in the field, is energized by the possibilities.
“I’m surprisingly excited about the new music I’m making. I didn’t realize when the process began just how exciting it would be for me,” said Katz this week on his way to rehearsals for two upcoming album release shows – on Saturday night at the Yellow Submarine with special guests Shaanan Street and Koby Oz, and Monday night at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv with guests Oz and Roi Levy.
He was talking about songs like “Hodu,” the album’s first single, a
spirited acoustic sing-along that jumpstarts folk and world music
elements into the crisp production aura of the 21st century. According
to Katz, that was the goal of the project when he returned to the studio
after many years, and he thanks producer Gilad Vatal, once of Shotei
Nevua (Fools of Prophecy) for creating the fusion between new and old
that permeates the album.
“Carmi Wurtman [music promoter and manager] said to me when we started
recording, let’s bring in a younger guy who can take the rawness and
spiritual feeling of your folk rock and make it ‘achshavi’ (current),”
said Katz, who immigrated to Israel with his wife in 1993 from Los
“So we brought in Gilad and played him 23 songs I had ready and he put
them into his cooking pot and really twisted them around without losing
their true essence, directing them to a real modern context and the
album is what came out. I think he really succeeded in his task.
He was not only being respectful of me as an artist, but the music spoke
to him and he wanted the music to speak to everyone, so he broadened
The songs include many Katz originals, two co-written with Shotei
Hanevua’s Roi Levy, some Carlebachinspired tunes and four songs by
Katz’s friend and the album’s executive producer Bob Stark which got the
whole project rolling.
WHILE NEVER giving up his music career entirely, Katz spent the last few
years concentrating on running Project Neshima under the auspices of
Artists and Musicians for Israel (AMI), which offers creative
educational workshops using music and art to help strengthen Jewish
identity and promote unity among Israeli youth.
“I was spending most of my time teaching the workshops, but I would do a
fair amount of solo acoustic shows, sometimes with my percussionist
Nadav Serling,” said Katz.
“Then Bob, who’s a businessman in Cleveland, came to me a couple years
ago and said he had some songs he wanted me to hear. I finally heard
them and said, ‘ok, what do you want me to do with them?’ He said ‘I
want you to Katz-ify them.’” It took some time, but Katz finally went
into the studio and recorded four of the songs.
“I added in bridge sections, and rearranged the songs totally taken them
from a 1960s Hassidic song festival vibe to the kind of music I play.”
Later on, Stark presented Katz with one more song, the blueprint for “Hodu” whose traditional lyrics Stark had added music to.
“I didn’t really connect to it at first – it sounded kind of like a Four
Seasons song. But then Bob told me he had written the music while
undergoing treatment for cancer, and I said, ‘ok, I’ll find a way to
connect to it.’” He finally found the groove he was looking for when
Serling played him a video of the Peter Gabriel song “In Your Eyes” that
he performed with Poppa Wemba.
“I listened to it and said ‘that’s it!’ Obviously, we changed it a lot
but the song inspired up to feel how our song was supposed to feel,”
For the spirited video of the song, Stark suggested that Katz recruits a
group of Ethiopian immigrants to appear, an idea Katz adopted after
reading the story earlier this year of how Ethiopian students were not
being allowed to attend a school in Petah Tikva “I told Gilad that we’re
going to bring in a bunch of Ethiopian guys and show the world how
beautiful they are and how proud we are of our Ethiopian brothers,” said
“Bob flew in for the shoot, and we had these four Ethiopian guys, and
they were kind of shy at first. They come walking down a little path
outside on camera and Bob yells out, ‘ok, everybody come here!’ “The
director looks to me as if to say ‘who’s this guy?’ I kept quiet and
listened to Bob say, ‘You know, I wrote this song when I was dying of
cancer, and was so weak I had to crawl out of bed. I was in a pit.’ He
looked in each of their eyes and said, ‘Do you know what it’s like to be
in a pit and then get out?’ “With trepidation and commitment at the
same time, they shook their heads. And he said, ‘well, start showing it
to the world how you feel.’ And from then on, there was fire. The scene
at the end of all of us dancing and rejoicing is so real and natural. I
was so honored to be part of something like that, where Kibbutz Galyulot
(the ingathering of the exiles) was taking place right there.”
THE UPCOMING shows highlighting the new album may have a similar feel to
them, with disparate talents like Hadag Nahash’s Street and cultural
icon Oz sharing the stage with Katz and his crack world music band. For
Katz, political views and world outlooks take a back seat to the purity
of the music and the people making them.
“Shaanan and I have very different outlooks on many different aspects of
life,” said Katz. “I live in Tekoa, and he won’t travel to the shtachim
[territories] but the thing I love about him is that he’s a real person
and he really cares. For example, when I called him to participate in
Project Neshima, I said to him, ‘I don’t know if you heard but 37% of
Israeli teens don’t identify themselves as Jewish.’ He asked what he
could do, and I explained what we were doing in the schools and he said
‘I’m in.’ “I know that Shaanan cares about the world, and whatever he’s
writing about, he cares deeply. Maybe it’s easier for him to get on a
stage with me than for me to appear with his group, but when I asked, he
right away said yes.
The same with Kobi Oz, who’s a real professional and a great talent. We
worked together before on the Ani Yehudi project earlier this year which
had 15 religious and secular performers singing with each other.”
The concept of reconciliation and closing gaps is at the forefront of
Katz’s music and emerges as the theme of the new album. And he hopes the
album and his shows, which will continue past the album release events,
will do its small part in achieving some repair to Israel’s fractious
“This band and style of music affords me with the opportunity to have a
deeper relationship with the audience - not just having them come for a
good time – but to go deeper,” he said. “I’m hoping people will come
away saying ‘wow! We can all be celebrating and elevating under the same
roof, even though I can look around and see that you’re really
different than I am.”
If that message spread, it would indeed be something to thankful for.