Still 'uncool' in Israel

It's as if the audiences and/or the industry decision-makers see a kippa and immediately think "uncool."

shotei hanevuah 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
shotei hanevuah 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Israel is the heart and soul of the Jewish world, and spirituality is certainly "in" when it comes to pop culture here. With a significant percentage of the population having returned from soul-searching sojourns in India, meditative and metaphysically inclined acts like Sheva, Shotei Hanevuah, Mook-E and Idan Raichel are resonating here in a major way. But when it comes to spiritual rock with a Jewish message, for some reason, the mainstream mechanisms become unavailable. It's as if the audiences and/or the industry decision-makers see a kippa and immediately think "uncool" - which is ironically the opposite of what's happening in the Diaspora. "The idea is that this is the kind of music that people can connect to," says Moshe Cornfeld, the manager of Aharit Hayamim, a world beat-reggae jam band based in Jerusalem. "There's a fear that religious bands will try to make everyone religious. The way they often talk, it's 'us vs them.'" Over its four years gigging together, Aharit Hayamim has played sets at the huge Boombamella live music festival and at secular reggae festivals around the country; it's even been featured on Channel 10, but still receive limited airplay on secular radio and no distribution at major retail outlets. Despite Cornfeld's difficulties in garnering the band more attention, he's not giving up. "Religious bands are closed in their own world, and we're trying to get something out there which is authentic," he says. "From what I've noticed, the non-religious people at concerts are enjoying Aharit Hayamim at least as much as the religious are, if not more." The Moshav Band relocated from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's Moshav Mevo Modi'im to the US in 1999 to find audiences that are more open and larger. Jewish Music Group's affiliations with big-name booking agents are beginning to yield the band club gigs across America - "more than in the past two years," says bassist Yosef Solomon - yet it continues to hunt for elusive mainstream fame in Israel. Despite the band's accomplishments here from its early years (a residence gig at Jerusalem's mid-sized Yellow Submarine club, television appearances) until today (headlining twice a year at the Ma'abada theater and at the Beit Shemesh Festival), Moshav is hoping that becoming big in the US will be the key to more attention in its homeland. "If you can do something there, people here will say, 'Oh, from America,'" says Solomon wryly of the plan. Jonty Zwebner's Pirsumei Nisa concert production and artist management organization represents some of the country's most prominent religious music stars, and when the big names in international Jewish rock visit, they almost always work with Pirsumei Nisa too. Zwebner believes that his artists are not part of a separate niche from the mainstream, but rather another genre within the greater scene of Israeli music. "We go straight for mainstream," he says. "Our focus isn't going to religious channels." THE PROBLEMS come when the mainstream misunderstands music with theological content and tries to put it in the same tidy category as oy yoy yoy-saturated hassidic pop. "But that's not our vantage point," says Zwebner. However "the future is opening up," he believes, noting that a somewhat proportionate representation of secular people can be seen at Pirsumei Nisa concerts. Moreover, Zwebner has helped to organize several recent on-stage collaborations between Jewish-minded and increasingly spiritual secular-minded Israeli pop artists. In the past year, Pirsumei Nisa has staged shows combining the talents of Etti Ankri and Neshama Carlebach, Gilad from Shotei Hanevuah with Soulfarm, Shlomo Gronich and Reva L'Sheva, and Ariel Zilber and Aaron Razel. "We don't have to beg anyone - it's a joint feeling," he adds. Based in Jerusalem, trance-grunge jam band Hamakor plays as many concerts as it can and has taken many steps toward earning a devoted following. But having just returned from a successful mini-tour of the American Northeast (its first-ever jaunt west of Tel Aviv), the band got a taste of how much easier things are in the New World. "We had a lot of great response," says Hamakor's manager, Israel Frenkel. Hamakor played six shows for nearly 1,200 people, including three New York club appearances, and sold all of the copies of its debut album's preliminary sampler that it brought along. "The New York scene is a reflection of the bigger business scene in New York," says Frenkel. "The Jewish market is small, so there's going to be some competition. Even though that is there, I felt made very welcome there," with shows drawing mixed crowds of non-Jews, Yeshiva University types and even haredim - "There were a whole bunch of penguins there," Frenkel says. But unsure of what kind of identity posturing will garner the greatest attention among which audiences, Hamakor doesn't necessarily want to be perceived as a Jewish band. "We're Jewish, so our music is Jewish," muses Yakir Hyman, the band's lead guitarist. "I don't know what that label means." The band members may wear kippot and tzitzit on stage, "but we don't play mostly songs based on biblical verses," echoes Nachman Solomon, the lead singer. As motivated as he and his clients may be, "I don't know what to do with this band," admits Frenkel of the strange place he's in. "Is it Israeli? Is it Jewish? Can we just be a band that plays shows?"