You only have to spend a minute or so in the company of Yehudah Katz to get a sense of a river running deep.
At first glance, the sixty-something American-born oleh of 25 years’ standing looks like your typical Modern Orthodox settler-type, with a discernible whiff of something of a New Age-y leaning. The luxurious beard and voluminous wooly-looking kippah are front and center and, with the weather in Jerusalem on the day we met being decidedly on the fresh side, a poncho-like outer clothing layer not only kept the chills at bay they also neatly completed the aesthetic set.
We last met 16 years ago, when Katz was frontman for Reva L’Sheva, a rock group he founded, and with which he toured the world and put out half a dozen releases. That act owed as much to Shlomo Carlebach as the Grateful Dead. Both have had a formative influence on Katz’s personal and musical learning curve.
“Shlomo showed me that music could bring people together, with joy, and the Grateful Dead was also about more than the music,” says Katz. “There are two things about the Grateful Dead that still stays with me. There was the hevratiyut (togetherness), and I know if he was alive he would probably deny it, but there was an aura around [Grateful Dead leader] Jerry Garcia. For me, that came from humility. Back in those days, for three and half dollars you could get into a rock show, and we were going to a lot of shows. You’d see all these guys flaunting their ‘greatness.’” But not Garcia. “You had this guy, just standing there and smiling – that was an important element. I think he was connecting with a spiritual sphere, even if he would probably deny it.”
There is another string to Katz’s peace-mongering bow. For him, the Lord’s Rest Day comes into the unison equation. “The one other thing that has been bringing people together is Shabbat,” he says. “Shabbat has been bringing people together in this country, all the time. I meet people who will be defiant about their hiloniyut (secularism), but if you look for them on a Friday night, you’ll find them with their parents or grandparents, having Shabbat dinner. What they do afterwards I don’t know, but Shabbat has always brought people together in this country.”
That may be a little less cut and dried than Katz suggests. You only have to talk to, say, a secular student at Hebrew University who is more than a little disgruntled about not being able to get downtown by public transport on a Friday night, for an evening out, to get another side to the consensus coin.
Katz’s, accurate or perceived, picture of the pan-Israeli Shabbat anchor led him to consider trying to get the most of out of the weekly spiritual confluence, and keeping it going for a while longer than the strict temporal bounds. “I thought, let’s find a way to take this magic of Shabbat and the magic of music, and bring them together every motsei Shabbat (Saturday evening) and say, ‘OK, I’m going to hang on to this magic of Shabbat for a few more minutes.’ I want to get the strength to have a great week and I want to do that bringing people together – singing together and hanging out together.”
All that adds up to a magical mystery melaveh malka experience – the Saturday evening, post-Shabbat, so-called “fourth meal,” which generally involves a generous dosage of singing and merrymaking. Traditionally, it is a way of bidding farewell to Shabbat hamalkah – the Shabbat queen – ahead of the new week.
“Someone said to me, oh, melaveh malka, that’s not a new thing,” Katz observes. “I said it’s not a new thing, but it’s been forgotten.”
Katz has a celebrated role model. “Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hassidism) went to his students and he said, ‘We need to do melaveh malka.’ And they said, ‘Rebbe, we already know about that from the Talmud,’ and he said, ‘Nobody’s doing it!’
“You could say I’m a revivalist,” Katz adds with a chuckle.
Enter Hamaagal, a quintet with Katz on guitar and lead vocals, Niv Klil Hachoresh on flutes and vocals, percussionist-vocalist Yoni Sharon, bassist Opher Schneider and Gil Shapira on guitar and vocals. Together the troupe has been doing the rounds of the country, presenting its Motsash (an abbreviation of motsei Shabbat) Live soulful and animated music show to keep the Shabbat vibes alive, kicking and smiling.
That has also taken it to gigs in the Nahlaot district of Jerusalem, with more weekly slots lined up in the coming months. Katz wants to keep spreading the word, as far and as wide as humanly possible, and envisages having three, four or even more groups performing and appealing to the more cheerful side of human nature, on Saturday evenings, at different locations.
Katz notes that he and his cohorts had to put in the hours to find their own, musical, interface. “We came together – there were only four us to begin with – as an ethnic music percussionist, a classical flute player, a jazz bass player, and a rock-and-roll acoustic, folk-rock guitarist-singer. We worked for a year to find common ground.” Clearly, however, Katz and the rest must have seen the potential for a harmonious professional pursuit. “We saw right away that we could play together, but we had to figure out how, instead of each of us drawing it to their place, taking their thing and [meeting] in the center.”
Sounds more than a little like an allegorical take on Katz’s peacemaking philosophy.
“That’s why the group’s called Hamaagal,” which means the circle, he adds.
But, for Katz, who has mixed it on stage with some of the leaders members of the Israeli pop and rock pantheon – the likes of Ehud Banai and Kobi Oz – it is not just about the music.
“I have dreams,” he says, owning up to harboring a “covert” intent behind his current vehicle of musical expression. “I still dream we can make peace among ourselves.”
AS KATZ is a resident of Tekoa, in Gush Etzion, I wondered whether the rapprochement idea extended to his Palestinian neighbors too. For Katz charity starts at home, before spreading out to wider hinterlands. “I want to start [making peace] with the Jews. I am a hundred percent sure – that may be chutzpah, I don’t want to sound haughty – but I believe in my heart of hearts that, if we make peace among ourselves, the Arabs will want to be at peace with us too.”
“This single we just put out, it’s all about the same thing, about us all being together,” he notes. The number in question is called “Libi Uvsari” – “My Heart and Flesh.” The core for the lyric comes from Psalm 84, the second verse of which reads: “My heart and flesh are dancing and rejoicing with the living God.” Katz’s complement to the Biblical text continues: “Still hanging on the fence, wondering if I am a [good] friend. Have I learned to love? It’s tough to commit/ give me your hand, friend/ come on up with me. That way I am not afraid or scared.”
Hamaagal is his current vehicle of spreading the word. The group has been putting out positive toe-tapping vibes up and down the country for the past two-and-a-half years. Katz is keeping up the good fight across the airwaves too. “This single we just put out – it is all about the same thing, about us being together, that I can’t be without you, without you I am nothing.”
That’s a stirring and heartwarming sentiment, and Katz feels he has to keep pushing the boat out there until it catches on. “People keep asking me when I am going to stop writing about that stuff. And I tell them, when it happens, then I won’t have a need to write about it anymore.”
That, and playing and singing about it. “My ‘ulterior’ motive is that I believe that the only thing that really has the potential to bring us together is music.” Then again there are those who feel that sitting around a negotiating table also has its palliative benefits. Katz prefers his words to be underscored by music. “As soon as you start talking, we’ll find something to disagree on.”
I ventured that people squabble over music too. “That’s true, but not when we’re singing,” he comes right back at me with a smile.
Katz is doing his best to keep the spiritual beacon of interpersonal harmony shining as brightly as possible. He has organized Shlomo Carlebach memorial concerts at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyenei Ha’uma) for almost two decades, and he runs workshops and seminars in Hebrew and English on themes such as “The Power of Music and Melody,” “Music Composition: Roots and Influences,” and “Music and Spirituality: An Individual and Communal Journey.”
At the end of the day, Katz wants us all in on the act, not just him and his four pals in the band. “There has to be a place for everyone in the show. Without an audience, there is no show.” It’s a two-way street. “[Eighteenth century Hassidic leader] Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev says, ‘When you bring a gift to somebody you’re not doing it for yourself. If you’re doing it for yourself, it’s not a gift.
It’s ego.’ This is what’s going on with the band and the audience all the time. If it’s real, we’re just emulating life. It’s about simplicity and togetherness.” For more information: http://www.facebook.com/yehudahkatz
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