Music as a coping mechanism: Naftali Kalfa is in an uphill battle

"I am a proud, recovering addict, recovering from various addictions, including food to substances to gambling."

Sober in the Holy Land (photo credit: MEIR LAVI)
Sober in the Holy Land
(photo credit: MEIR LAVI)
 April 27 will mark six years since musician Naftali Kalfa got clean.
After recording four studio albums of Hebrew music based on verses from the Hebrew Bible or on Jewish prayer, Kalfa just released his first all-English, all original music album, filled with spiritual messages about his journey. 
“It’s not typical pop music. It’s very raw, real and vulnerable,” Kalfa said.
Named for the computer folder where he originally stored the unfinished material, In Progress is also a statement of where Kalfa sees himself just weeks before turning 40. 
“What I was looking for was right there in front of me. That’s also what life is. It’s one big project that’s in progress. 
“Being real and open and vulnerable is the starting and ending messages of the music. The first song is called Running; it’s about the difficulty in being with myself, running away from myself and how we distract ourselves from being alone with ourselves,” he commented.
The album release during corona times is not coincidental. 
“A lot of us found ourselves forced to be alone at home and present with ourselves. The distractions were gone and that forced us to be present, which is not always comfortable.”
Kalfa wants his new music to be heard by “every human being that is dealing with life. The target audience is people who enjoy the music and who are doing some soul searching. All the messages in this album are Jewish, but the music is not exclusively for Jews,” he said. 
Rather, the music expresses Jewish concepts in simple English as part of the universal wisdom of Torah. 
“Sometimes it’s just easier to internalize these messages when they are in common-speak.”
Kalfa is the eldest of 11 children and works as an entrepreneur when he’s not making music. He had no formal musical training, but got his start by “hanging out with Yosi Piamenta,” an innovative Orthodox musician who passed away in 2015. 
Influenced by Piamenta, Kalfa started composing music on guitar and singing. 
“Music has become an important part of my life. Everyone has their song that they want to sing. Some put it out through music, others through other forms of creativity. We all have something we want to give and say. At one point, I started to compose new melodies. I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I compose my own words?’ There is something very personal and intimate in writing music and lyrics that are 100% my truth, waiting for me to put it in a song.”
Kalfa says that he’s totally comfortable singing and sharing about things he’s gone through or is currently going through that others are embarrassed to speak about. 
“A lot of the challenges or obstacles I deal with in this album are not that cool to speak about. In social media, everyone looks like life is perfect all the time.”
He’s encouraged by what he called “the most special, intimate feedback from listeners.” One fan told Kalfa “how much this music makes him cringe, because it’s such a mirror to him for what he’s going through in life.”
A PRE-RECOVERY night that Kalfa (second from left) doesn’t remember – with musicians/singers (from left) Gad Elbaz, Roy Edri and Ishay Ribo.
THE MUSIC on In Progress comes from Kalfa’s own dark past. 
“I’ll break the taboo. I am a proud, recovering addict, recovering from various addictions, including food to substances to gambling. It took me many years before I was able to come to terms with saying this. I’m a very resourceful guy. I was able to not hit a rock bottom in the classic sense for a long time. It took me a long time to reach a place where I was ready to ask for help. I tried many things in life before I was willing to admit that I was an addict and to seek the help I needed. It’s not something you just get cured from. It’s a lifetime of dealing with it, one day at a time.
“My struggle first emerged when I was younger; it was the struggle of overeating, of binge eating. Gambling came in my late teens. It would come and go over the years. At various points, I was hit with different levels of consequences and pain. There are times when I’d wake up in the morning during my active addictions and I wouldn’t remember what city I was in. That’s a sign of an unhealthy lifestyle.
“I feel comfortable enough to discuss things that made me uncomfortable. I have an ease talking about the dis-ease. It’s not the dark thing in a closet anymore. It’s here and out in the open.” 
Kalfa poured this willingness to be open into the music of In Progress.
“In my life, I see people who are in recovery and they are ashamed about it. I’m proud of being sober and in recovery today. I am super proud of my recovery. It doesn’t mean I do everything right in life. I want to be really clear about that. Recovery is like Judaism. Some days in my recovery are better than others.”
Kalfa likened recovery to a balloon. 
“By the time a balloon is about to explode, it’s hard to stop it,” he said, enumerating some of the things he needs to attend to in order to avoid getting to the point where he feels like a balloon about to pop. “Am I letting resentments build? I must be in tune with daily maintenance. Am I exercising and taking care of my body? If I don’t sleep well or eat right or resolve issues with people, it’s a short road” to a desire to use.
“Dishonesty, secrets, shame corrode from within and feed the fire of addiction. These things feed the discomfort that we don’t want to sit with, to be with. People turn to things that will give them temporary comfort. But there is something so liberating in being who we are, warts and all,” he explained. 
“I’m here to help remove some of the stigma of that struggle. It doesn’t matter what your social standing, your marital standing is. None of that matters. All of us go through this in one variation or another. I want to tell anyone struggling with addictions, our struggle as humans is to feel secure, it’s something we all go through. We all want to know we’re good enough, that we’re lovable. 
“It was a process and a journey. I used to go to meetings and be afraid of who was going to see me there. It took time to build the figurative muscle to be comfortable talking about these things openly. It’s a scar that I’m proud of. It’s no longer a dark secret.”
NOW KALFA is sharing his journey with others, to “keep the path illuminated for them and for me as well,” he said.
“If we all sing our song, if we play our tune in a more real and honest and vulnerable way, the end result is a lot more beauty. I’m happy to share of myself with anybody I can help. It’s all about giving. It’s a lyric in one of the songs. ‘I get to keep what I have by giving it away.’ The more I share, the more it strengthens me. If it connects with one person, dayenu (that would be enough).” 
At the end of the day, it’s also a music album, and what Kalfa also wants his listeners to know about In Progress is, “It’s a lot of good rock and roll.”
Learn more at
It’s not you, it’s me
My own insecurity
Still cuts as deep
I cry I weep
Tired of running,
running from myself
Wherever I run,
there’s no one
Nobody else
Who am I running away from
What is it I am afraid of
Who am I running away from
Running away from me
Why do I feel insignificance
About the things that are significant
And what is it that I’m feeling
By desensitizing any feeling
Don’t feel at home in my own skin
Escaping anywhere but within
What would it take to feel comfortable
Will it happen? Am I capable?
Who am I running away from
What is it I am afraid of
Who am I running away from
Running away from me
Trying to pass time
Drinking fine wine
Time stands still
Thinking too much
Doing without thought
My soul paying the bills
Planning the great escape day 
after day
But there’s no escaping this cell
Gotta be happy right where I am
It’s the escape that is the hell
Composed by Naftali Kalfa
Lyrics: Naftali Kalfa
Vocals: Naftali Kalfa
Drums: Avi Avidani
Bass: Arie Volinez
Guitars: Shlomo Langer
Piano and keyboard: David Ada
Backup vocals: Lenny Solomon, Gad Elbaz, Shlomo Langer
Production & arrangement: Amit Golan
Recorded, mixed & mastered at SuperSonicStudios: Amit Golan
Addictions specialists weigh in
Robbie Sassoon is a social worker, therapist and director of Crossroads Jerusalem, which specializes in “essential prevention and intervention programs for Anglo teens and young adults.”
While emphasizing that “each population and subpopulation struggles with addiction,” Sassoon noted, “the English-speaking immigrant population does have singular struggles here in Israel as immigrants [dealing with] all the unique challenges that come along with that. I wouldn’t say this directly causes addiction struggles, but it definitely brings about many challenges. How those challenges express themselves and are dealt with can range from healthy to unhealthy.”
Tracey Shipley, who has worked in the field of addictions for over 30 years, asserted that she is one of only a few English-speaking addictions counselors in Israel. She commented, “Many parents send their [troubled] teens to Israel, particularly to Jerusalem, to get ‘fixed’ since it is the Holy Land.” Today, with bars closed because of corona, fewer teens and young adults are seen on the streets downtown, “but the drug use has gotten more extreme,” according to Shipley.
Resources for English speakers to get help with addictions issues include Retorno, a kosher addictions treatment center near Beit Shemesh that offers services in English. Villa Matrix is a private rehab center located in Herzliya that also offers services in English. Sassoon commented that there are English-speaking 12-step groups as well as “sober living facilities” that function in English. Shipley added that there are hundreds of English-speaking 12-step group meetings now held online, due to corona. 
Sassoon credited the contributions of Anglo addictions specialist Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski for “taking away the taboo and making sure people got the help they needed.” Twerski, who passed away in Israel earlier this month from COVID-19, co-founded Gateway Rehabilitation Center in the US in 1972. He was an internationally respected authority on the treatment of addictions and the author of more than 60 books, many related to his life’s work. 
Sassoon called on “the government and the government systems that support vulnerable populations in Israel to acknowledge that the Anglo population also struggles with addictions and mental health challenges. Once this is done, the support and outreach to this community would be even stronger and more effective.”
He referenced a special session of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, held in 2017, in which then-Committee chairman MK Avraham Neguise said, “There are outdated views in ministries that immigrants from English-speaking countries are rich and don’t need help. The truth is there are some who are really suffering.”
Sassoon echoed this: “It is often news for people in Israel to hear that there are at-risk populations among the Anglo community. We constantly have to educate the public and help them understand the challenges facing immigrants from English-speaking countries.”
Shipley called for the establishment of “day treatment programs for those not yet in need of full-time rehab,” and for making it possible for English-speakers to be trained to work in addictions treatments without requiring them to first study social work in Hebrew. 
She stressed, “I believe the most important action is always prevention. Instead of trying to get our kids to avoid hanging out downtown, we must provide alternative forums, events and spaces where they can find excitement in all the right ways.” Shipley is known in the field for opening Sobar, an alcohol and drug-free live music center which had to close after six months due to a lack of financial support. She is currently investigating other ways to provide “music evenings with teens and young adults [that are] free of alcohol, cigarettes and, of course, drugs.”