Reconnecting Roots

The development in Kobi Oz’s persona has paralleled the development of his music.

Kobi Oz is very nice. That’s the first thing that you notice during a conversation. But is that really a compliment for this popular singer, songwriter, producer, poet and author, who has for decades been on the cutting edge of popular Israeli music? In an extensive telephone interview with The Jerusalem Report, Oz reveals that his aspirations are much, much loftier.
Oz, 41, has just released his newest CD, “Psalms of the Perplexed.” More than 10 months in the making, “Psalms” is based on Oz’s performance in September 2009 at the Piyyutim (liturgical poetry) Festival, during which Oz, one of the key figures on the local rock scene, walked firmly onto the stage of the growing trend of artists who are reconnecting to their Jewish roots.
He was born in 1969 in Sderot, the dusty, neglected development town at the northern edge of the Negev desert. Improbably, Sderot, which in the past decade has become known primarily because it is the main target for Hamas rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, is also one of the key locations on the local music scene, where many leading rock musicians got their first start. Oz began playing music as a teenager, first for Sfatayim, a band that performed traditional Moroccan music.
In the early 1990s, he formed Teapacks, widely viewed as the group that paved the way towards the legitimization of Middle Eastern music in Israel. Flamboyant and happy to be the bad boys on the music scene, Teapacks infamously participated in the Eurovision Song Contest that took place in Helsinki in May 2007 with their rowdy, wacky and controversial “Push the Button” that mocks global jihad and nuclear proliferation. Performing in French, Hebrew and English, Teapacks came in 24th out of 28 competitors in the semi-finals, proving that international audiences don’t always appreciate Israeli chutzpa.
Teapacks broke up in 2009, and Oz has continued to make his name as a performer and as a leading producer who has discovered many new artists, including the popular rap group Hadag Nachash (Snake Fish) and produced several breakthrough albums. Clearly an artist who is able to sense upcoming trends, Oz has recognized that Israelis are hungry for significance and meaning in their popular music and for relevance to the issues that are increasingly engaging the public – poverty, corruption, lack of political leadership and the role of religion.
But popular culture seeks simple statements of traditional wisdom that are neither arrogant nor complex, a kind of white-bread Judaism and philosophy-lite, and a breed of musicians has been ready to provide them with just that. Oz insists that his music has set higher goals.
After his appearance at the festival last fall, Oz and his musicians traveled the length and breadth of the country with the show, and only after he came to feel that he was in complete control of the artistic medium and its messages, was he willing to begin to record. The CD is also the culmination of five years of study at various institutions, including the Alma Institute for Cultural Judaism and the Hillel organizations on Israeli campuses – “soaking in the rich marinade of Judaism,” as he refers to his personal process.
Yet, he admits, he had concerns about “Psalms for the Perplexed” before it was released. “I was afraid I’d be branded,” he tells The Report. “That I’d be considered one of those musicians who’s becoming religious, or something like that, but, fortunately, that did not happen. The audiences and the critics both understand that this is something much deeper than merely becoming religious – I’m talking with the greats, and when I sing the “Prayer of the Poor,” I mean the real poor, those that we all see here, in Tel Aviv, not thousands of years ago.
“We received the best reviews you could imagine,” he continues. “And the audiences were mixed, and took in our performance lovingly. I’m proud to be part of this audience that’s reconnecting to its Jewish roots, and I know that there are lots of others who are doing the same thing
The music is easy on the ears – sometimes so easy that it all seems the same. On the first track, “Nissim’s Traffic Jam,” Oz sings, “Let’s just stop, next to each other, we’ll be friends, we’re not alone, it’ll be nice.” In “My God,” the second track, when Oz sings, “But despite everything, tolerance is foaming just beneath the surface, and people are slowly de-stressing,” stressed out Israelis sometimes feel like asking him what planet he was inhabiting when he wrote those words – and, at the same time, feel comforted. It was a planet, it appears, where God was very present. On most of “Psalms for the Perplexed,” God is a sort of bro from the ‘hood, to whom you can talk to easily, as in “Secular Prayer,” where Oz sings, “Daddy, oh merciful father, be my loyal spiritual soulmate, pad my heart with faith in you… bless all your children, religious and secular.”
“Psalms for the Perplexed” is largely filled with simple, soothing words, easy rhymes, soft rhythms and an occasional charmingly provocative quip. With typical mischievousness, he sings to God, but admits that he doesn’t know what to call him, Elohim or Elokim (God or G-d).
And yet, somehow, the connection to traditional Jewish sources seems neither forced nor fake. His Sephardi-style rendition of the traditional memorial prayer, the Kaddish, plays sincerely, and the “Cry of the Poor,” based entirely on traditional texts and sources, including the Sabbath morning prayers and the 35th psalm, seems to genuinely want to wake up the crowds to do something about growing poverty in this country.
“Being Jewish is sababa [cool],” Oz declares in au courante Israeli slang, making the connection between Jewish sources and current events seem natural and even necessary. On the cover, next to a generic picture of poor people milling about, Oz writes, “A contribution to charity does not replace the need for a struggle for social justice.”
More critical listenings to “Psalms for the Perplexed” reveal that Oz has brought strength and sincerity to his music that go far deeper than nice and aspire to significant statements regarding Israel and Judaism.
There is an almost obligatory surprise track on most Israeli CDs, and Oz doesn’t disappoint. Yet it is here that Oz is clearest and deepest. In “My God,” he performs a duet with his dead grandfather, Rabbi Nissim Messika, who was a payytan and well-beloved rabbi in his congregation in Tunis. Not long after his grandfather’s death, Oz discovered old cassettes that Messika had recorded, and he integrates them sensitively and artfully.
Against the background of his grandfather’s chanting, Oz sings:I have so much to tell you,
Yet you know everything,
I have so many requests of you,
But anyway you want the best for me.
I give you a little smile,
For everything of beauty I notice,      impressive or delicate
I have so so so so many thank-yous     standing in line
At your door
But my thank-yous always come out corny
I have so so so many requests to ask of you
Though I’m basically fine.
If you hear my prayer
Maybe you can send my love to my     grandfather…
Oz used to appear in slight-ly ridiculous and costume-like getups and his highly publicized two marriages and divorces were hardly less flashy. But the revolution – or perhaps it would be more appropriate for the new Oz to use the term, development – in his persona has paralleled the development of his music. The witty sarcasm that characterized so many of Teapacks songs – a biting put-down of vapid consumerism about a young woman who just “sits in her fancy jeep,” or singing that “people are like newsprint” – have been replaced with a calm, moderate innocence that is not afraid to reveal its fears and confusion.
In “Psalms of the Perplexed,” there are no enlightened texts of the newly religious or political statements by someone who finally realizes which side of the conflict he’s on. Oz, who grew up in a warm Tunisian family that had always been comfortable with its Jewish roots, had never taken the Jewish books off his bookshelf, and when he was ready and the public time was right, he came back to reading them again.
“Teapacks wanted to bring different sounds and voices into Israeliness, but today I feel that I am more Jewish than Israeli,” Oz tells The Report. “I haven’t become religious, nothing dramatic has happened. But facing the colonialism that has tried to control us through branding, I stick to my Judaism, and I won’t be branded as ‘religious’ or as anything else. This is an artistic development, not a trend. Sure, some people are thumbing a ride on this, but I don’t care.
“Saying this is a trend is like asking a Brit if taking an interest in Shakespeare is a trend – of course it isn’t,” he continues. “For the Brit, it’s something natural, and it’s natural for me too. It just wasn’t accessible for a long time, because the Jewish state had been taken captive by its Israeliness, and now the new reconnection will bring us back to our Jewish space.
“My Israeliness could not contain people like me and my family. Israeliness has been around for no more than 100 or 200 years of our history. ‘Psalms for the Perplexed’ is connected to Judaism, which is more than 2,000 years old, and, from my point of view, I feel like someone who’s left the aquarium and moved back into the ocean.”
He continues forcefully, “I am not against Zionism or Israeli-ism. But they are limiting. Zionism has to become broader and to make the state suitable for Judaism.”
He believes that Sephardim have a crucial role in this movement. Unlike Ashkenazim, he says, the Sephardim never “disconnected ourselves from our history, and never lost a generation. Maybe we are the medicine that can cure society’s ills. Maybe that is our job, now, to bring this medication so that we can all feel comfortable with our Judaism.”
He refers to that unique blend of faith and moderation that characterized Sephardi Judaism, especially in North Africa, for generations. In the track, “My God,” he asks God to tell his grandfather,… that the Sephardi moderation     he maintained     has been replaced by zealotry    and  extremismHe tells The Report, “Judaism can’t be measured by the amount of mitzvot (commandments) that we observe – but by the moderation of our very lives, the way my family would act in Tunisia – when they would go to the synagogue and afterwards go to a coffee shop, drink a bit of bukha (Tunisian arak) and pay for it on Sunday after Shabbat.
“I think this is the right time for the Jewish Sephardim to make their statements, whether in music or in other ways and other fields.”
He sings,
“People just want to be united
In this great synagogue called
The Land of Israel
Where everyone is welcome
To look up at the heavens
To pray for rain
And to fear the missiles”
But he concludes with a typical Oz-like enigmatic quip, “Maybe it’s allbecause I live in Tel Aviv, which is really just a big province of NewYork.”   
This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on March 1, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.