No mercy

Religious musicians claim very few venues will allow them to play. The main problem? Lower income from teetotalling Orthodox Jews.

Though Jerusalem is often juxtaposed with Tel Aviv as the epitome of the religious-secular divide, religious musicians in the capital say they have a hard time finding venues to play if their lyrics are predominantly from the Torah or Jewish prayer. A number of musicians who did not want to be named cited several local establishments, including the now defunct Syndrome on Rehov Hillel that closed in September due to dwindling earnings, where they were turned away because their genre was religious music. One musician even recalled walking away from the Syndrome after being told the word "Hashem" would scare away all the customers. When asked about the incident, Syndrome's former owner Amihai Katz, a religious Jew himself, says factors such as kashrut, Shabbat observance and whether to allow religious, secular, or both styles of music to be played have ramifications for the types of consumers that attend events. "What we didn't really care for was the Jewish version of Christian rock - Jewish rock, the kind that sounded like missionary music - because the people who came [to hear this type of music] hardly bought a drink and we found there would be problems if waitresses were dressed immodestly, whether drinks were kosher, or women were sitting with men, and it was too much of a headache for us," explains Katz. "Even if there were 100 religious people, usually only a few are buying drinks and the band is drinking like camels - how could I break even?" adds Katz. "We had to fight those people but they always had the winning card saying it's not kosher, and there was nothing we could do." However, Yehuda Solomon of the US-based Moshav Band and an artist who has played at the Syndrome, views the problem differently. "I think a lot of these secular bars are talking about the actual music and are not so stuck on the types of people who show up," Solomon said during a recent tour in Israel. "If owners say 'don't play music with Hashem in it,' I think Hashem would rather his name be taken out of some of these bad songs. "If it's good music, like Matisyahu, where I turn on a major radio station in New York and I hear him sing "Ask Hashem for mercy" or "I want Mashiach," it blows my mind that it came right after the Nirvana hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but that's because it's good music." Yehuda Melamed of the Kubiyah 18, near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, has similar sentiments. "I try to make sure that there is both secular and religious music but I also try not to mix propaganda with business," says Melamed. "We had 150 shows here in the last year-and-a-half and 50 percent of them had two or three songs from the Bible or with words from the Bible. "I think it's OK because first of all it's part of our culture and we can't avoid or escape it," he explains. "Second, people are connected [to the religious material] on a certain level and even if they aren't, it's only a few songs out of the night." Still, Melamed says he understands the situation other pub owners face when a predominantly religious crowd gathers. "A business is a business. If most of your clientele is secular and they don't want to hear a certain kind of music, you can't be bothered with it," he says. "At the Kubiyah we want to make sure that even religious artists have a place to play, but we make sure they know what kind of audience they are playing for," he continues. "However, religious music and the crowd it brings is a big issue," Melamed adds, noting that his establishment has a kosher certificate from the Chief Rabbinate. "Once a place fills with a religious audience, as a club owner you are shooting yourself in the foot because 10% may eat your food or drink your drinks, but the other 90% are going to wonder whether there is a Shabbat-observing person opening the wine? Is this place closed on Shabbat? Is the food kosher and what level of kashrut does the place have?" Jerusalem-based producer and technician Gil Stein has worked with many religious musicians over the past 15 years - a segment of the population, he says, that offers the city something different that must be embraced. "We have a combination of unique music here with musicians mixing rock and soul influences into hassidic and other genres," Stein says. While he acknowledges the challenges of negotiating secular and religious sensibilities, he says the issue only needs to be nurtured properly. "When I worked in a studio with religious people, the most fun for me was not to see what divided us, but to try to understand their needs," says Stein. "I think if people would approach religious people like that, maybe things could work out better because even though they [religious people] may not drink a lot of alcohol they would surely drink a lot of juice!" Uri Amedi, former director of the Lev Ha'ir Community Center for 28 years, says that there is one segment of the religious musician sector that is particularly in need of support: those who were once secular and have returned to their tradition but preserve their previous musical influences. "We need to embrace this group because today in Jerusalem they do not have a home - neither the haredi community nor the secular world accepts them," he says. - A.Z