Soul music

Eliezer Blumen and his band Yood are breaking down stereotypes with their spirituality infused R'n'R.

By
November 13, 2008 09:37
Soul music

Eliezer Blumen 88 248. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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When Eliezer Blumen enters the zone onstage, his eyes close tightly and he begins a peculiar dance - partly Tevye in the shtetl, partly psychedelic free form shuffle. He handles his guitar like it was an extension of his lanky but sturdy body, and the glorious noise that it emits sounds like wails and squeals emerging directly from his soul. He's lost in the moment. When you first drive into Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, it looks like most other suburban neighborhoods that dot Israel's landscape: nondescript apartment buildings, a stunning panorama, some nice parks and trees, just a few kilometers away from mothership Beit Shemesh. Only on closer inspection does a visitor realize he's entered one of the most serious haredi enclaves in the country - call it Mea She'arim with a view. It's here that Eliezer Blumen has chosen to make his home. While he's religiously observant and a devout follower of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, he doesn't look much like any of his neighbors who run the gamut from Satmar to Eda Haredit to hassidic. Sure, he sports a long beard, but his tzitziot are hanging out of an untucked flannel shirt, and the beard is complemented by a ragged black hat atop his head that could have been borrowed from Jed Clampett. By day, Blumen joins his fellow Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighbors at a local shtiebel, where he davens, studies and shmoozes. By night, he plays incendiary primal rock with his power trio Yood before audiences at secular bastions like Mike's Place in Tel Aviv. They've been referred to as a haredi ZZ Top, due to their high energy music and prominent facial hair, which shares a resemblance with the veteran Texas southern rockers. But that's just a facile reference point, because, in reality, it sort of short-circuits the brain's synapses witnessing Blumen, drummer Moshe Yankovsky and bassist Yaakov Lefcoe standing onstage - proud and devout hassidim - playing music that would sound natural onstage at the Fillmore East in 1969. And dominating the proceedings is Blumen, who has followed his muse to some unlikely places in his 42 years. As important as his religion is to him, a strong rival is the music he makes with his guitar - a sonic bluesy rock-and-roll guitar based on the tones and stylings of heroes Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, a guitar he plays better and more passionately than practically anyone in Israel. Blumen sees no contradiction in his contrasting lifestyles, and in fact uses the religious philosophy of Chabad rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson to confirm the direction he's taken is the right one. "What we're doing with Yood is very connected to what the Rebbe taught," says the jovial Blumen, standing outside the shtiebel one sunny October morning. "His whole thing - and he's the real Jimi Hendrix of rebbes - is that sometimes the most powerful things in the world have the potential to be both good and bad, and our job as Jews is to be holy - to be tapped into these things and make it into good. "I love rock and roll, but at the same time, I'm not blind. The '60s did some good things for the world, but at the same time, it morally brought down the world, the standards came tumbling down. Our music is trying to build it back up. We'll take the flak from religious people who disagree with that, but we're not closing ourselves off to the world. The whole world is good and godly, and you have to learn to be in it. For us, on the stage, we feel like it's something that's way beyond our control." Blumen walks around to the back of the shtiebel to kasher some pots his wife, Elana, had left for him that morning. He had the rest of the morning free until he was supposed to pick up his daughter, the youngest of five children, at her nursery school. It's a far cry from the life Blumen was leading less than 20 years ago. ONCE UPON a time, Eliezer Blumen was Lloyd Blumen, a long-haired guitar virtuoso burning up New York City nightclubs with his blues-rock power trio The Last Mavericks and destined for rock-and-roll stardom. He had grown up in suburban Connecticut to liberal parents with a staunch liberal/beatnik streak to them. "My father played folk guitar when he was in college - he used to hang out in New York with people like Simon and Garfunkel. So growing up, there was always music in the house. My parents were a little older than hippies, but were into the jazz and blues and folk," he says, sitting a few days earlier at a Jerusalem cafe where, despite its kashrut certificate, he sticks with water. Even though Blumen had a bar mitzva, his Jewish upbringing was based more up on a sense of social justice than religious observance. "My mother would drop me off at Sunday school, and my father would come get me in the middle to take me to the New York Giants football game at the Yale Bowl," he says with a hearty laugh. "But I knew that my house was different from my non-Jewish friends' homes. It was always very warm and open; the house was always filled with people. My parents were always inviting down-and-out people to stay with us." When Blumen was 15 in 1981, his father took him to his first concert - a show by jazz/pop guitarist George Benson at Radio City Music Hall, which had a profound impact on the impressionable teen. "Until then I was fiddling with the guitar, but after seeing Benson, that was it. I was just blown away. I saw the power of what the guitar could do, so I started taking it a little more seriously." Subsequent shows featuring guitarists Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughn further cemented Blumen's desire to create music and forged a lifelong love of electric blues. By the time he was 17, he was playing in clubs and bars with his high-school band Legacy, focusing on 1950s rock and roll like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Blumen's father even managed the band, supporting his son in his musical endeavors, but upon high school graduation Blumen faced the legend of the blues, the crossroads. "I didn't want to go to college, I wanted to keep playing guitar. My parents said they understood I wanted to be a blues guitarist, but they advised me to get an education first," he says. Blumen took his parents' advice and attended Skidmore College in upstate New York, where he studied music for four years. Upon his return home, Blumen was even more intent on pursuing music as a career, and within a few weeks, had formed The Last Mavericks, who quickly gained a growing reputation for their inspired shows - so much so that in the early 1990s, a representative from Atlantic Records contacted the band about recording a demo. "It was like a miracle story - a one-in-a-million shot," says Blumen. "At the beginning, I thought, 'Oh great, next week we're going to be famous,' but then I started realizing that it was only the beginning. We did one demo, I had just moved in to New York City to be closer to the music scene there, and it was costing me a lot of money." Atlantic suggested that he travel on his own to Nashville to record some more demos with Garry Tallent, the once and future bass player in the E Street Band, who was undertaking a production career following the breakup of the band by Bruce Springsteen earlier that year. However, Blumen was hesitant, both about leaving his band behind, and about his own songwriting capabilities. "I remembered one thing a guy at Atlantic told me when he heard the demo, and he was so right in retrospective. He said he loved the music and you could be big, but you have to decide who you are. He said your words aren't the normal words you'd associate with rock and roll. Even back then, there was this spiritual thing coming out. There was something there when I go listen back - there was some neshama there looking for answers." While Blumen was deliberating the offer to go to Nashville, one of those serendipitous, life-altering events took place that permanently shifted Blumen's balance off his axis. He was asked to perform with Shlomo Carlebach. "I was in this limbo period, putting off Atlantic and hanging around in New York, when someone asked me to accompany Shlomo at a synagogue in the middle of Manhattan. I hadn't even heard of him, but said sure," says Blumen. The encounter with the famed hippie "singing rabbi" was akin to running into a Mack truck with a beard and tzitzit. "That was it. I couldn't, after playing with him and seeing how real it was, go back to what I was doing. I wasn't really given a choice. It's kind of like what they say about God on Mount Sinai - He took the mountain and put it over the Children of Israel. It wasn't literal, but the revelation was so awesome, the Jews just didn't have a choice," he recalls. For Blumen, it was a dual awakening of his Jewish soul and his true musical voice. While he had found no problems singing blues songs derived from the black American experience, he admitted he had never felt a personal connection with the lyrics. "But when I heard Shlomo and what he was doing, I felt for the first time that I had discovered my own blues, the Jewish blues," he says, adding that subsequently he had been delighted to find a common musical thread between traditional blues music and the nigunim of the hassidim, the blues and the Jews. "I found this note - it's a stretch note of yearning - both in early blues music and in a nigun of the Ba'al Shem Tov," he says, bursting into an example highlighted by a string of "ay-ay-ays." "For the black person, it was a yearning of figurative and literal freedom of the body. For the rebbes writing these nigunim, it was a yearning for a freedom of the soul, from the body." Loaded up with a batch of Carlebach CDs and an open invitation to "come play with me in Israel," Blumen went back to his rock-and-roll world, but a seed had been planted that was impossible to ignore. "I didn't realize until later on that this is what Shlomo would do with a lot of people. He wouldn't preach about Torah and God, he would say, 'You gotta go to Israel.' But going to Israel had never crossed my mind - my only connotations with Israel were desert and war." He recalls in the ensuing weeks driving from Connecticut to New York for band rehearsals and listening to the tapes Carlebach had given him. "I would have to pull over to the side of the road because I was crying listening to his music - he was singing in one song in Yiddish about the Holocaust. It just broke my heart." Within two months from the time he met Carlebach, Blumen was in Israel. As Yood plays a scorching version of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," members of the audience, consisting mostly of national religious teens, begin dancing in circles and on each other's shoulders. Blumen sings about downtrodden kids never getting "to be cool," and the teens, most of whom don't know what they're singing, scream out the chorus "Keep on rockin' in the free world." Blumen smiles and cranks up the volume on his guitar solo. "I didn't say anything, I just left. It was an upheaval, in the middle of this whole Atlantic Records thing, but I just felt the need to come here," says Blumen about his decision to go to Israel. "I had always been somewhat spiritual, and had studied Buddhism in college, but I had never thought of Judaism as a viable option." Unlike many potential ba'alei tshuva, however, Blumen had no intention of rejecting at least one huge element of his previous life - music. Through Carlebach's help, he found himself in a tolerant Jerusalem yeshiva catering to Jews returning to Judaism called Dvar Yerushalayim, where he was encouraged to keep playing music even as he learned about his Jewish heritage. He admitted that this period of soul-searching often led to a stripping away of the rose-tinted glasses that had colored his expectations. "When you hear Reb Shlomo's stories about what it's like in Jerusalem, and then you go to a haredi neighborhood for the first time, it's not always the same thing," he says with a laugh. Eventually, Blumen went to study at Kfar Chabad, where he fell in love with the hassidic lifestyle and gradually American rocker Lloyd Blumen evolved into Israeli rocker Eliezer Lazar Blumen. In 1995, he married Elana, a traditionally observant woman from a Sephardi family in Beit Shemesh. "I always knew that the music was going to be part of my life, even as I became religious. I have to admit there were a few irrational moments, like when I was really getting into studying - and learning at Kfar Chabad, and my shipment came with my lift. It had all my vintage guitars. I thought to myself, I only need one cheap guitar, I don't need all these guitars. So I sold them all. At the moment, it didn't hurt. It only hurt later when I woke up." Blumen gradually hooked up with local musicians mining the Jewish soul vein, including flutist Avi Piamenta, brother of guitarist Yossi Piamenta who first nabbed the moniker of the Hassidic Hendrix. Then through his Carlebach connection, Blumen ended up joining the popular spiritual jam band Reva L'Sheva. "That was a very good learning experience. It was the Shlomo connection and the music was cool. But it still wasn't exactly the groove that I was looking for, it's a different groove. I still had the Jimi Hendrix-Stevie Ray thing going," he said. Fortunately for him, he found two kindred souls in the unlikely location of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, where he and Elana had moved in 2000. Russian-American drummer Yankovsky and Canadian bassist Lefcoe had also chosen Chabad lifestyles, but still shared a love of secular '70s power blues. They dubbed themselves Yood - named for the smallest but mightiest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. They jammed frequently, played a few shows and there was a special chemistry they all felt. "We clicked right away," says Yankovsky, who's been drumming since he was a kid in Moscow before moving to New York at 15. However, given Blumen's work with Reva L'Sheva, the outbreak of the second intifada and hesitancy over the ability for the band to generate an income for the three - all raising families - their music was put on a back burner. But after a few more years of playing weddings and Jewish music, while yearning to play the heavy rock close to his soul, Blumen had a change of heart, recruited Yankovsky and Lefcoe, and began writing songs. And Yood was reborn. Manager Jonty Zwebner, a veteran Jewish music promoter who also managed Reva L'Sheva while Blumen was with them, said he was taken aback when he first heard the group. "I had already been working with Eliezer, but I had never heard his own music. When I first heard Yood, I thought, 'This is the real Eliezer,'" says Zwebner. "He was made to play this music; it's what he does best." The band's debut in 2006 - at an open mike night at Mike's Place in Tel Aviv before an audience of secular beer drinkers - blew away the club's proprietor Assaf Ganzman. "The audience loved them," Ganzman recalls. "It was a little weird at first. A lot of the Mike's Place audience isn't even Jewish, and I think most people went through a transformation. At first, they thought they were a regular band looking like ZZ Top, then they realized they're hassidic Jews. Then they realized, boy, these guys can play. I told them they need to come and play regularly." "From the second we started playing - there was this strange vibe. We weren't saying any Torah on stage, but all of a sudden people caught this real, deep musical thing happening," adds Blumen. Free to write his own songs, Blumen said he makes it a point not to write overtly religious lyrics, but claims there's still a spiritual element to all of his music, due to his outlook formed by his religious beliefs. "I think if you asked an average religious person, they would say no, there's no spiritual content to the songs," says Blumen. "But as a hassid, we don't separate things. All parts of your makeup are connected. The songs are about feelings, but I don't try to specifically tie in the concept of religion. We have a song called 'Wasted Away' about Gilad Schalit which focuses on desperation. From the way I understand Judaism, it's much wider than the terms by which the religious community defines it. It's much deeper, much more connected to the rest of the world." THERE DOESN'T seem to be much connection to the rest of the world at Blumen's Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet shtiebel one morning between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The Eastern European vibe, enhanced by the language of choice - Yiddish - gives it a step-back-in-time atmosphere. Nobody pays Blumen much attention, despite his out of step appearance, until a Jerusalem Post reporter and photographer show up. "Why are you taking his picture?" asks a burly teen wearing the traditional Satmar garb in Eastern European-inflected Hebrew, as the photographer snaps shots of Blumen inside a beit midrash and on the steps outside the building. It was unclear whether he was curious, or about to grab the camera and stomp it into the ground. Luckily, he wasn't offended by a secular presence and was just interested in who Blumen was, when he was told that his co-congregant was the subject of a future magazine story. "Why are you writing about him?" "What kind of music do you play?" "You live around here?" - the questions to us were coming fast and furious as more young bochers gathered around, despite the fact that Blumen has lived in the neighborhood for almost 10 years and spends on the average of three hours daily at the shtiebel. According to Blumen, nobody offered any criticisms of the guitarist's lifestyle or choice of profession, because most of the community has no idea what he does. "I don't know a lot of what goes on here, because I don't speak Yiddish. My friends here say I'm lucky," he laughs, sitting later with Yankovsky in the living room of his modest apartment. "But if something is out of the ordinary, they let the people know. I've never been bothered by anyone. I walk around like this [rootsy religious hippie look] and nobody says anything." While Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet has received more than its share of negative publicity recently due to altercations with police over which roads are open on Shabbat, and the small "burka" cult of women covering their bodies and the child abuse case concerning one mother, Blumen says that like in any neighborhood, the outrageous are going to get the attention. "I feel very comfortable here because there's a lot a lot of nice, happy people here. You have to know the streets here. That street we were just on where the shtiebel is, they wouldn't let me live on that street. I could, but it would make my life miserable. That's an only Satmar street. And these two streets, there's more ba'alei tshuva, Sephardim, Chabad population. I got blessed with really good neighbors in my building, a lot of sweet people. For me it's like an oasis away from the realities of the world. "No place is perfect, and you have to decide what are the real important things you want. I like here that's there not the financial pressure of keeping up with the Joneses. People here worry about their succa, and going from Shabbes to Shabbes. As a musician, it works out for me. It wouldn't be easy living in a neighborhood with doctors and lawyers and businessmen. There's a hassidic saying that you shouldn't be the richest person in the neighborhood and not the poorest." MAKING A living is getting gradually easier for Yood as their reputation grows. The group is blessed with the ability to play before both secular venues like their monthly appearances at Mike's Place and clubs in Haifa and Jerusalem, as well as at shows geared to an observant crowd, like the Beit Shemesh Festival which took place over Succot. "I think one reason they like playing a non-religious place like Mike's Place is that there's a wide variety of people, and they're not playing for their own following," says Ganzman. "There's a lot of tourists, people from different embassies, and that's what makes it interesting." Blumen agreed that one of his delights is interacting with the secular segment of Israeli society, an opportunity that most of his Ramat Beit Shemesh neighbors either aren't afforded or deliberately avoid. "When I play on kibbutz, at a beer-and-wine festival for instance, the people there don't know alef bet about Judaism, but they're the sweetest people. You learn that it's not all black and white. I'm still in a process of trying to understand, I don't accept everything hands down. For so many religious people, it's a closed issue, they've already shut the gates." For that reason, Blumen, while enjoying performing for religious audiences, said he feels a stronger connection with a secular crowd. "We create music on the spot. Usually two-thirds of the concert is organized and near the end we leave for magical moments. We were playing at this club in Haifa called the Rodeo Bar - it's always a great crowd of half Israelis and half Russians, and this one girl comes up at the end and says, 'You guys were making that up on the spot, right?' She felt it - she was open to that. "Unfortunately, some religious people wouldn't get that - they're not as spiritual. I find that secular people are really yearning for something. Religious people have found what they were yearning for, so there's no more yearning; they don't want to be taken somewhere." Just before Rosh Hashana, Yood traveled to the US for a two-week tour of college campuses and clubs that, despite being organized by Chabad, saw them play before decidedly non-Jewish audiences in non-Jewish locations like Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. "It was an amazing experience, playing in quads on campus and playing in a bar in Oklahoma. These guys come in after the football games and want to hear rock and roll - yeah! They loved it," says Blumen. "It wasn't advertised as Jewish music; I don't want to play to just Jewish audiences; I don't want to be limited that way. "No one specifically came up to us and asked us about our appearance or religion. But we're onstage, and it's obvious we're Jewish - we're really Jewish - so we speak a little bit about God, about Israel's view of the world, and you can see the non-Jews are really into it, really vibrant about it. "When I first made tshuva, it was hard, I was a little nervous about how I would be perceived by the world as a visible Jew. But the Rebbe always used to say, listen, people really love us when we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. When we feel good about what we're doing and what we believe in, the world wants to be with us. And that's just what we felt the whole trip." Manager Zwebner said that American labels are interested in the band and that another tour to the US is slated for November. He said the sky's the limit for the band. "A number of things make Yood unique," he says. "First is their sound - you don't hear much of that today, that classic vintage rock of the '70s. Then there's the natural makeup of the band - just that core trio, without any flowery stuff or cushioning. They all need to be phenomenally good. "Then there's the gimmick of how they look - the Israeli ZZ Top, or Hendrix with tzitzit. But that's just the way they are, we didn't dress them up like that and say, 'Let's have their tzitzit hanging out and have them wear Chabad hats.' It was not an intentional proactive gimmick, they just happen to be like that and dress like that. And third, I think Eliezer is one of the best guitarists in Israel, and not only in Israel. What [US Orthodox reggae singer] Matisyahu has done with reggae and hip hop, Yood is doing with classic rock." However, Gunzman from Mike's Place thought that the band might be wiser to concentrate on a narrower audience in the US, cautioning that making it in the music business is fraught with pitfalls even if you're not waving your tzitzit in the wind. "But what is making it? Making a living and being well known on the Jewish music scene around the world is also making it. You don't have to be on MTV or in Billboard. If every other Jewish family knows who you are, that's making it too," he says. The band, which just released its second album, is taking things in stride, especially Blumen who's already had more than a taste what it's like to be a rock star. "I know the music business pretty well, and we want to be out there. At the same time, in this power trio, we have 18 kids among us, baruch hashem. I was out of the country a lot this year, and it's hard. But I think that this is my thing in the world. If God wants it to be, then I'm hoping it will be," he says. "You get a lot of dreams in life, and sometimes God shows you other dreams that are even bigger. And sometimes, you get to realize those dreams - having a wife, children, living in Israel - that's the Jewish dream. And on top of that is playing the music that I always wanted to play. So it really does feel like realizing a dream." That thought was echoed by drummer Yankovsky. "Basically, it's my life, but it's also my profession. I'm really happy and thankful to Hashem [God] that I'm able to love my job." There are certain types of music that soothe the soul and other types that ignite the soul, explains Blumen, trying to verbalize his connection to the blues. "For me, there's nothing that fixes the soul like playing the blues. I can't get it anywhere else." Blumen leads Yood into their final song of the night, ignoring the promotor's plea that they've already gone past their allotted time. It's a riff-driven instrumental that enables him to solo incessantly over the rock bottom groove laid out by Yankovsky and Lefcoe. As the song builds in intensity, Blumen begins to sweat and his glasses begin to slide off his nose. Annoyed at the distraction, in one motion he flings them onto the floor and moves his fingers even higher up the fretboard. He raises his head up to the sky, and smiles in ecstasy as his soul spreads over him.

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