Jewish music’s crusader

Yossi Green is one of the most formidable composers of Jewish music and hopes to keep the younger generation interested in Judaism.

Glasses sheet music 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Glasses sheet music 311
(photo credit: MCT)
Even a journey of hundreds of songs begins with one tune. Ask Yossi Green, leading composer of Jewish music, whose hits, such as “Tanya,” “Aderaba” and “Anovim Anovim” have become immortal standards.
“I’ve been writing music since I was 18 years old – 37 years by now – and I was very lucky, since my first song became a massive world hit – ‘Kol Berama.’ It happened by mistake,” says Green. “I was sitting by the piano with Yigal Calek, who was saying that he needed new material. ‘Didn’t you ever try to write a song?’” he recalled Calek, of the London School of Jewish Music, asking him.
Actually Green just had, and played the melody for him. That was “Kol Berama.”
“Yigal jumped,” Green remembers with a smile, “and later asked if I had anything else. I told him I could try.”
Not only did he try, he established himself as one of the top composers of what he calls Jewish music – in contrast to “hassidic music” – recording nearly 600 of his songs over the years. He has worked closely with the genre’s leading singers, including Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried, and in recent years has begun nurturing young composers seeking to enter the field.
An inspired and inspiring Green spoke with The Jerusalem Post earlier this week after a rehearsal, ahead of the festive Jerusalem Day concert for which he flew in from the US. The Tuesday night event will see Green joining forces with cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot and singer Ohad Moskowitz, with singer Yishai Lapidot emceeing the performance on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus.
The proceeds for the show, which was organized by the Israeli branch of the Orthodox Union (OU), will be going to the organization’s Outreach “Zula” Center in Support of Jerusalem’s Teens at Risk. Some 400 teens reach Zula a month, which OU Israel director-general Rabbi Avi Berman says “serves as a warm home for thousands of youth who entered a phase of crises and confusion in life.” A team of counselors and mental health professionals is part of the center’s staff.
While making a living from Jewish music and self-expression, Green – unlike the typical successful composer – was far from pushed toward music as a child and youth.
“It is pure gift, no work,” he puts it frankly.
He did, however, always love music, and recalled how his older sisters chipped in to buy him a tape recorder for his bar mitzva for what, in those days, was a small fortune. Thrilled with the new apparatus, he spent the day after the celebrations home from school recording a song. But when he told his father – a Satmar Hassid and Holocaust survivor – how he’d spent his first day as a young Jewish man, the response was, “You think you’re going to be a Yossele Rosenblatt [the famed early-20th-century cantor]? Enough with it.”
GREEN DOES not define his music as “hassidic,” the common term used for Jewish compositions with religious or religiously themed texts.
“That is an appellation given to us by someone else,” he said. “Hassidic music is what they write for [hassidic] courts. What I write is Jewish music, with lyrics that are not secular... we don’t talk about breakups and so forth.”
Green takes pride in shifting the emphasis in Jewish music to a meaningful, text-centered experience.
“One of the biggest problems we had before I began to write music was that lyrics were chosen randomly from the siddur [prayer book],” and in the context of the composed song, “lost their meaning,” he says. “The first big hit was ‘Tanya,’ which made the people think about the words.”
According to Green, “a 16-year-old girl consuming pop music learns the melody to get the lyrics. By us, our melodies had to be killer ones, so that they’d remember the words.”
He notes that Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was different in that manner, since in his folky style of music he would tell the song, explain the words and their deeper meaning.
“Now, we have words that make people think,” says Green. “When I began and was young, I wrote melodies, and then would struggle to find lyrics that fit. As years went by, I got more into studying, learning,” and when he encountered a meaningful text, “I would find the tone to convey it.”
This eventually came to be true of his voice as well as his compositions. Only in recent years has Green come to the front of the stage as a singer.
“If a composer is lucky enough that his career lasts long enough, a mature audience can appreciate a composer singing his own song. We sing with our hearts, not our voices,” he says. “The question is if we allow our voice to get in the way. I’m not the dancing chorus, rather sitting by the piano, talking about the music.”
THAT’S PROBABLY why Green has not been subject to pressures from rabbis, such as Bnei Brak-based Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, crusading against Jewish-music artists who perform for mixed audiences.
“I didn’t have any of these issues, as I am not known as a performer,” Green says, but notes the danger in trying to prevent “families going out to do things Jewish.”
“Jewish music is what was the only legitimate entertainment – this was our TV, our Internet, our YouTube,” he contends. “If you squeeze the youth out of it, young people will find other ways to be entertained. We have the London School of Jewish Music instead of Justin Bieber. This is a genre that must continue. We have to provide our younger people with a way to enjoy themselves in a Jewish way. This is important to me, almost a crusade.”
Making music, he says, is also what summer camps are about, “raising your voices together, singing to God. The first healthy emotion a young child feels is when singing together, it is like an emotional prayers.”
The arrangements of Green’s music reflect the changing times and sounds of our world – British Airways even recently selected his album The 8th Note as a world music selection on its flights – but while in past years Green might have found himself distraught over what an arranger did with his song, now it is he who calls the shots.
“In the beginning, the arranger was king. He’d have learnt music. As years went by, more and more of my music didn’t come out as I intended it to, so the last few albums I did on my own. I wouldn’t sell a song until I knew who would arrange it. Now I have enough clout to direct younger people, work with arrangers, and do so only with those with respect [for] the work.”
Green has also set up a composers’ workshop in the US for 12 young men.
“I work with them, teach them, empower them. Go through all the problems I encountered as a young composer. There are many young composers who are promising,” he says, and in many areas.
“What happened in the last eight years is that the market became very fragmented,” he notes. In the past, the “music came through the parents, you’d have three generations listening to Mordechai Ben David, each generation validated that he’s a great singer. But the younger generation rebelled, they want young singers. The market split into different singers, composers, styles. The advantage is that the music is spreading, but it’s still a small market to begin with.”
While Green had no formal training when he began writing music, his upbringing was immersed in music ranging from Broadway musicals to classical composers to cantors and Satmar niggunim.
“My mother was a renaissance woman who would listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Lerner and Loewe – the greatest,” said Green. “My father was a Satmar Hassid who knew all the hassidic songs from before the Holocaust. There were 10 different tunes to ‘Shalom Aleichem,’ and he’d sing them week after week so that I knew them all.”
Green was also exposed to classical music – his family would purchase albums that were on sale – noting Beethoven as a favorite. Such a musical wealth and variety no doubt enabled his musical talent to develop, and he agrees it is highly unlikely that a person growing up solely on Jewish music would become a good composer, though exceptions can exist.
To Green, good music is not only spiritually uplifting, but a clear manifestation of divinity.
“There is no way a human being comes down, closes his eyes and writes music without God potching him,” he says, using the Yiddish word for a slap. “I start crying when I hear Mozart. People want to see and experience God all the time – just open your ears and listen to Mozart. It’s crazy. Can a six-year-old write like that?”