Synthesizing the spiritual and the secular

“I remember being one of the first people to go on the Kotel tunnel tours. I had an uncle who was one of the excavators. That left an impression on me,” Ziegler recalled.

By RIVKAH LAMBERT ADLER
July 4, 2019 13:06
Synthesizing the spiritual and the secular

Yerachmiel Ziegler, 37. (photo credit: TZIPORA LIFCHITZ PHOTOGRAPHY)

Yerachmiel Ziegler finally found his happy place in Israel. But it wasn’t a smooth ride to his current destination.

Born and raised Orthodox in Monsey, NY, Ziegler first visited Israel on a family trip when he was seven. “I remember being one of the first people to go on the Kotel tunnel tours. I had an uncle who was one of the excavators. That left an impression on me,” he recalled.

He has visceral memories of Bnei Brak as a child. “It smelled like a different country. The old buildings were on stilts. Everything there reminded me [that] I was in a different world.”

Ziegler started his musical career early in life. Inspired by older brothers who auditioned for the Tzlil V’zemer Boy’s Choir, Ziegler joined at age seven, two years younger than the choir’s minimum age.

“I started traveling the world with this choir.” One bitter experience still resonates, decades later. “My parents took the choir for a week to Switzerland, but the yeshiva didn’t let me go for the whole week. That was the beginning of having resentment of the yeshiva. Then there was the trip to Israel. The yeshiva said they would throw me out of school if I went and I was only eight years old at the time. They didn’t let me go, even though it was a free trip and I worked really hard for it.”

That experience helped Ziegler connect his music with Israel. “I think I had such resentment that I became a strong Zionist after that. It was really hurtful, as a kid, that the school said I couldn’t go.”

His transition from child vocalist to guitar player and songwriter began at age 14. “One day, I found my mother’s beat-up old guitar. I started without knowing any chords and realized that I really wanted to play this instrument.

“It felt very rigid learning piano and Beethoven. I was more inclined to free expression. I asked a friend of my mother’s to teach me. Pretty soon, I surpassed him.”

Songwriting followed quickly. “Once I put a hand on the guitar, I started songwriting. The guitar was a tool I could use to express myself.”

As his career developed, he worked with a number of Jewish bands. Most notably, he was one of Uncle Moishy’s Mitzvah Man and part of the Chamsa Boys, “a Jewish boy band around time NSYNC was popular.”

AT 16, Ziegler left his American yeshiva and enrolled at Ner Yaakov in Jerusalem. Reflecting on that time, Ziegler said, “For a kid who grew up in an Orthodox community, Israel is the Biblical homeland, but it’s also the place you go for vacation. You don’t live there. I thought Israel was some kind of Torah fantasy. When I came as a teenager, I realized there was a whole world here.”

While studying at Ner Yaakov, Israel got real. “I’d go off for a week and lose myself in the streets of Tzfat. I’d just meet people and do crazy things. At that point I didn’t have any fear.”

One meeting made a deep impression on young Ziegler. “Before Sukkos, I decided to walk through the Arab Quarter. I left the Kotel and started walking there. I came to a shop called Off The Wall. I met Dov Shurin, famous radio personality. He was a news correspondent, musician and grandson of [well-known American Orthodox rabbi] Rav Kamenetsky.

“He was sitting in a 2x2 sukkah in East Jerusalem. I had never met rabbis who played the guitar. He tells me, ‘Wait a minute. I have to go on the radio.’ He called into the radio station from his phone.

“He invited me for Simchat Torah in Kiryat Arba. That meeting led to two years of playing music with this guy.”

Despite the fact that he fell in love with Israel during his two years at Ner Yaakov, Ziegler went back to America, understanding that he “was too young to make the move alone.”

The next few years were spent doing concerts and events in the Jewish community while studying to become an audio engineer. Between the ages of 18 and 21, he was “jumping back and forth between the US and Israel. It was a separation process that happened over time.”

At 21, he returned to Israel and then officially made aliyah at 25.

More than a decade after committing his life to Israel, Ziegler has carved out a niche that works for him both professionally and spiritually.

He’s the front man for a band called Ruach Hakodesh. No longer strictly observant, he teamed up with band mates who are mostly Haredi musicians who came to Judaism later in life. Ziegler calls Ruach Hakodesh “a really unique wedding band. We play original, interesting music. We’re not a cookie-cutter wedding band.

“It makes for interesting situations, as well as interesting music. Like if a kallah (bride) starts dancing with the chatan (groom) and people start letting loose, then I get more excited, but some of the band members get more nervous and consider stopping playing. It’s a point of contention, but part of what makes us unique.”

RUACH HAKODESH also plays music festivals and live shows to promote Ziegler’s newest album.

Off the Derech is his sixth studio album, scheduled for release this summer. The new album is all original English music, and includes “a lot of songs based on religious, Jewish themes and also some secular themes – heartbreak, politics, the world in general. It has 21 songs, so there’s something for everyone.”

Ziegler ruminated about the spiritual journey that brought him to this new level of musical expression.

“I’m of the idea that we need to find our individuality. We need to put more individuality in our avodah, the way you think and the way you connect to Hashem (God). I don’t put as much emphasis on Halacha (Jewish law) and ritual as I once did, but Jewish identity and Torah are very important to me.

“When you’re afraid to go off the path, you never really find yourself. When you’re surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, you don’t have a real identity of your own. Music has always been prayer, a way of expressing connection to something higher. Prayer can be done alone or in a community. Music has the same function and has some advantages. I get to express my individuality in my unique niggun (wordless melody) or words unique to me.”

Ziegler has strong convictions about women in the Jewish music world.

“Jewish women should be empowered to sing. It was always important to me to include female expression as much as I could. Suppressing women shows the fear of religious men, fear of losing control. Men have been in control for a long time. Everybody has their own sensitivities, and I respect all the opinions, but that’s where I am today.”

His previous albums were “much more liturgical music in a unique style – jazz and rock influenced by and based on verses that moved me. All along, I was writing original English music that was never released. I wasn’t able to combine the two worlds. All this other music was building up on the side, but it had no outlet.”

Now it does, and Ziegler has big plans for this new album. “I want Off the Derech to be the greatest kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God) album of all time.”


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