Saluting soldiers

Jerusalem-born, Brooklyn-bred Yaakov Shwekey is performing an IDF tribute "to unite all different backgrounds."

Yaakov Shwekey (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yaakov Shwekey
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yaakov Shwekey may live on the other side of the pond, but his heart appears to be right here in Israel. On January 1, the 35-year-old haredi singer will have the Nokia Hall in Yad Eliyahu, Tel Aviv, rocking with possibly the biggest concert format this country has ever seen in what he terms as a tribute to the IDF and a token of appreciation of the efforts of our boys and girls in khaki.
Shwekey was born in Jerusalem, but his family moved to the US when he was eight years old. He was raised in Brooklyn and now lives with his wife and four children in Deal, New Jersey.
He has been performing to large audiences worldwide and recording topselling albums for a dozen years now, but he says that the upcoming gig is a special event for him for all sorts of reasons.
“One of my missions has been to travel around to perform; besides inspiring Jews all over the world and just seeing the amazing things that music can do, uniting Jews from many different backgrounds, music is a common language no matter what background you come from,” he says.
Even so, he is aware of the fissures that often exist in Israel between religious and secular Jews. He is also fully cognizant of the ongoing tensions over the issue of haredim serving in the army.
“I have the privilege to come into contact with all sorts of Jews, religious and non-religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazi – my father’s Syrian and my mother’s Ashkenazi – but I believe that the more religious you are, the more gratitude you should have for soldiers,” he says.
One of his principal motives for the Nokia Hall show is to help to defuse what he terms “misunderstandings” between the religious and secular Jewish communities.
“Unfortunately, because we [religious Jews] have a debate about children doing the army, we are looked at as people who don’t really care. But, speaking for myself and the people I am involved with, it’s really not like that,” he says. “That’s why I am doing this concert, to unite all different backgrounds and to say thank-you, and to say that whether you agree or not – with the government or whatever – and whether you have issues with your children serving in the army, whatever the issue is, you should say ‘thankyou’ and have gratitude. I come to Israel, and I can be a part of Israel because of the soldiers who put their lives on the line. The point is, we should unite as one and say ‘thank-you’; that’s the mission of this concert.”
Shwekey is certainly putting his money where his mouth is. The January 1 show is scheduled to be the largest Jewish music event ever, with no fewer than 160 musicians due to perform on stage – including IDF chief cantor Lt.- Col. Shai Abramson and some heavyweight entertainment presence in the form of veteran local singer Shlomi Shabbat.
“Shlomi Shabbat is such a soulful person and singer,” says Shwekey, “and I think he will add a lot to what we are going to do.”
The enormous scale of the IDF tribute show, which some 2,000 soldiers are being invited to attend, naturally involves some tricky logistics.
“We have been working on this concert for a while now,” he says. “We are building our own stage and we are bringing in some music stands from China because I don’t think they have enough of the music stands we were looking for in Israel.”
Shwekey has been pounding the global circuits for some time now. He started out at the age of 23, although he showed promise well before that. True to his religious ethos, he sought sage advice before making a career decision.
“I spoke to a lot of rabbis about it beforehand, rabbis who are not only educated in the Torah, but also educated in the world that we live in today. They always told me that if Hashem [God] gave you a gift, or a skill or whatever it is, which you can use to fire people up, to help people, you should use it the best way you can. I was given a gift by God, and I didn’t want to say after 120 years on Earth that I wasted the gift Hashem gave me.”
He says he is not sorry he delayed the start of his stage and recording career, and that waiting offered him invaluable benefits.
“My rabbis told me I should wait until I got married and settled down and that I should first amass some knowledge and be in the right frame of mind,” he says.
“You start to realize, a little bit, what life is all about. When people start [a career] so early, it can lead them in the wrong direction, even in music. I sang at weddings and that sort of thing, but I waited until I got married at the age of 23 before I started recording my own albums.”
Since making it to a studio, he has maintained a prolific recording pace, with 13 titles in his burgeoning discography under his own name to date and plenty of high-profile collaborations with other acts, including haredi troubadour Rav Shmuel Brazil and the Miami Boys Choir. He began singing in public with the latter on the choir’s 2002 release, Miami 25, along with his brother Yisroel Meir. More recently, he joined forces with religious Jerusalemite singersongwriter Yonatan Razel on an acclaimed rendition of “V’hi She’amda.”
But for Shwekey, it is all about the bigger picture.
“My main concern is that this concert should be successful, because of the mission it is about,” he states. “The mission is greater than anything, and we owe the IDF our gratitude.”