36 Under 36, Next Wave of Jewish Innovators
March 3, 2009
by The Editors
They’re the community’s new young guns forward-looking rabbis, social-justice junkies, campus crusaders, arts entrepreneurs, bridge-builders, new media mavericks and hedge-funders with heart who are reshaping the landscape of Jewish life. They’re all grass-roots, bottom-up thinkers and doers who are (mostly) bypassing the Establishment and pushing for change now. Brace yourselves.
Joey Weisenberg, 26
Reviving ancient nigunim in Sabbath services
For years, young Jewish musicians in search of an aural history have turned to klezmer. Weisenberg, a mandolin player, is no exception. He plays in several klezmer revival groups today (good ones too: Michael Winograd Klezmer Ensemble; The Amazing Frosen String Quartet). But, Miller says, the klezmer revivalists “kind of gave it all to us. We didn’t have to work so hard.”
So he looked for a deeper musical tradition, and found it in centuries’-old rabbinic hymns. Now, as music director for Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, he incorporates these hymns into Sabbath services centered on group participation. He calls his service “Joey Weisenberg’s Spontaneous Jewish Choir,” and has been expanding the practice by visits to synagogues throughout New York City. He also leads courses at the Jewish Theologocial Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania. “I want Jews to be comfortable dancing. I want them to be comfortable singing,” he says.
Just don’t call him Sholomo Carlebach, the storied American rabbi who also revived communal songs. “He came along and developed melodies that were so beautiful that people forgot the old ones,” Weisenberg says of Carlebach.
Weisenberg’s own service “takes melodies that are far older.” Chiefly, he uses nigunim, wordless melodies chanted in repetition. They date as least as far back as the early-1700s, with many tunes attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism; “songs that transcend syllables and sound,” is how the rabbi described them. To be sure, Weisenberg’s service isn’t just old melodies. He includes plenty of prayer service classics Adon Olam, Eliyahu Hanavi but puts them to forgotten tunes. “Sometimes, people need the words to hang on to,” Weisenberg says.
Musical inspiration: Ferus Mustafov, a Macedonian clarinetist Favorite childhood memory growing up in Milwaukee: Watching car demolitions at the Miller Compressing pound with his grandfather.
In Shul, a Different Drum
By Rahel Musleah
Joey Weisenberg, 32, music director at Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue and founder and creative director of the new Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music in New York, encourages people to find their voice in Jewish music by singing together unaided by instruments. He reaches both to musical modes like klezmer,niggunim (wordless melodies) and nusah and to contemporary expressions like jazz, blues, flamenco and soul.
A mandolinist, guitarist, singer and percussionist who has performed and recorded with dozens of bands, Weisenberg became bored with traditional performance styles and realized there was a parallel in American synagogues. “Big shuls served a big purpose: to show we were strong and powerful,” he says. “My generation is spoiled by that acceptance.”
In Building Singing Communities: A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer, published by Mechon Hadar (an educational institution that grew out of an independent egalitarian minyan), Weisenberg suggests changing the architecture of the davening space to maximize physical proximity. Instead of a high bima with a remote prayer leader, he clears away extraneous chairs and places the leader in the center. His purpose is not only to unify individuals, but also to foster a musical tikkun olam: “We literally need to reclaim people from the four corners of the shul. If we can model it in shul we can do it on a larger basis—the earth.” Being in tune with others on a micro level can lead to global harmony, he posits.
Weisenberg grew up in a conservative home in Milwaukee. In his teens, his grandfather took him to the Shabbat table of Hasidic Rabbi Michel Twerski, where niggunim and songs were interspersed with words of Torah. That profound experience of singing together is what Weisenberg hopes to transfer to an egalitarian setting. “I’m trying to work toward the ‘re-shtetlization’ of our collective mentality—to learn how to come closer together and reclaim the intimacy of our tradition.”
Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle
Weisenberg Emerges as Innovator
By Andrea Waxman
January 8th, 2009
New York musician Joey Weisenberg, 27, wants Jews to become comfortable with singing and dancing again. But the Milwaukee native is not sitting quietly on the sidelines hoping for a revolution; he’s in the center of the room working for change.
And his work is receiving recognition. He was featured as one of “36 Under 36: The Next Wave of Jewish Innovators” in the May 21, 2008, issue of the New York Jewish Week.
Weisenberg was selected for the influence he is exerting through song on synagogue worship in New York City.
He recently visited his hometown with his wife, Milwaukee native Molly Weingrod, and their four-month-old son, Lev Boaz Weisenberg. The Chronicle caught up with him at City Market in Shorewood on the last day of the year.
Handsome, self-effacing and warm, in a quiet way, Weisenberg talked about getting involved in klezmer music and studying the mandolin while a student at Columbia University; his travels in Eastern Europe in pursuit of old music; his work as a guitarist performing in some 100 concerts a year with 10 bands in the city.
And he explained how he has developed “Joey Weisenberg’s Spontaneous Jewish Choir.”
Lead from the center
As the part-time musical enrichment director at the Kane Street Synagogue, “the oldest Jewish congregation in Brooklyn still serving the community in which it was founded,” according to its Web site, Weisenberg has made some interesting discoveries.
He was primarily involved in instrumental music at the time; but when he started leading services, he found that congregants really wanted to sing and that “you could have powerful musical experiences with amateur singers.”
He soon realized he would much rather lead from the center of the room, than from the front, he said, meaning that he did not want to perform, but rather to facilitate participation. And he became interested in breaking down the barriers between performer and audience.
“I walk into a room and I imagine that the service or event will be most powerful if every voice is included,” he said. And he understood that participation enhanced kavannah or spiritual consciousness.
“What we end up creating is not a perfect performance, rather it’s a powerful exaltation,” he said. “You sacrifice the performance in order to create the spiritual energy.”
According to an article in “CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism” by journalist Sarah Schmerler, a member of his shul, Weisenberg has become indispensable to the congregation since he took the newly created position in fall 2007.
He “began by giving short simple musical instructions at various times during the year,” she wrote. Then he introduced, in services and at many other events, a tune that he called “The Kane Street Niggun” (a niggun is a wordless song), that enabled members to share a sense of ownership and comfort.
Within months he was leading an hour-long Shabbat alternative singers service “with tunes ranging from wordless Chasidic melodies to traditional Shabbat songs.”
Schmerler credits Weisenberg with revitalizing the shul’s Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony, changing it from a “low-key service averaging 20 attendees into the robust, loud, buzz-generating one that draws as many as 75.”
Weisenberg is also taking his way of guiding congregations to sing, his Spontaneous Jewish Choir, on the road as he has received many requests to lead workshops at other synagogues and institutions around the city.
Connecting old, new
One matter of importance to Weisenberg is connecting the old and the new to create continuity with the past, he said. “Be informed by the old traditions and create new ones to hand down to our children,” he said. “It’s absolutely what we do in other realms, such as Torah study and food traditions….”
Weisenberg has spent a lot of time and energy in pursuit of old knowledge. He traveled around Eastern Europe and the Balkans seeking out traditional Jewish and other ethnic music.
“You just walk into town and ask who the oldest musician is and then you buy them a bottle of vodka. And they are happy to stay up all night playing music,” he said.
In Lithuania, he befriended Marija Krupoves, a singer who speaks 14 languages including Yiddish and Roma (Gypsy). Together they recorded “Without a Country, Songs of Stateless Peoples.”
Weisenberg has also recorded five other albums with the Gerard Edery Ensemble, Ansamble Mastika, Romashka, Michael Winograd and “The Amazing Frozen String Quartet.”
In addition to his synagogue work and performance schedule, Weisenberg teaches guitar, mandolin and bass to private students. He has taught developmentally disabled children, klezmer musicians and rabbinical and cantorial students at Jewish Theological Seminary.
He is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar, a new egalitarian yeshiva in Manhattan, and does workshops for a variety of Jewish institutions.
He said he is always learning from every musician and group he plays with. And he studies traditional Jewish nusach (prayer service style and melody) with Cantor Noach Schall.
Weisenberg said he treasures his upbringing in Milwaukee. He said he does not feel identified with any one denomination of Judaism, but seeks to learn from all of the traditions.
“My grandfather, Milton Ettenheim, belonged to probably all nine shuls in the city. And he taught me to learn from all sides,” he said.
With musically talented parents his father plays flamenco guitar and his mother piano Weisenberg was naturally inclined to music. He took up the electric guitar at 12 and “grew up playing blues,” he said.
He credits the Milwaukee influences of Hazzan Carey Cohen, Rabbi Michel and Rebbetzin Feige Twerksi and the Milwaukee Jewish Day School Shabbat Sings for his initial love of Jewish music.
“Carey taught me how to read Torah and lead services and he was a real mensch,” he said. “And the Twerskis also inspired me. From them I learned so much about Jewish spirituality and the togetherness of a community.”
‘Without a Country’ Finds a Musical Home
Jim Bessman, Reuters NEW YORK
April 2, 2005
Maria Krupoves understands the fundamental importance of words and music in our lives.
The internationally acclaimed singer/folklorist, who teaches at the Center for Stateless Cultures at Vilnius University in Lithuania, has just released “Without a Country: Songs of Stateless Peoples.”
The disc (which follows her fully orchestrated “Songs of the Vilna Ghetto”) features her trio: her vocal and guitar work backed by New York klezmer mandolinist Joey Weisenberg and bassist Travis DiRuzza.
“These cultures belong to the weakest minorities, but they were still able to create new philosophical systems, mystical movements and, of course, songs,” says Krupoves, who recently fronted her trio at New York world music nitery Satalla before returning to Lithuania. Such songs, she notes, naturally tend to express “hope beyond hope, and longing for some place of rest and fulfillment.”
Also naturally, songs of stateless peoples are little known outside of stateless communities.
“Some I heard on CDs. Some I took from publications, like the Yiddish Hasidic song ‘Fun Kosev,’ from Yosl and Chana Mlotek’s ‘Pearls of Yiddish Song.’ Some I found from other folk singers or folklorists,” Krupoves says. “The Crimean Tatar song ‘Guzel Khirim’ I found in the archive of Lithuanian Radio, from an interview of the author, the Muslim mufti Nurij Mustafayev.”
Besides “cultural and humanitarian reasons,” Krupoves selected the songs “first of all for their beauty and powerful meaning, and also for my deep emotional attachment for some of these cultures — especially Jewish and Belarusian. When I sing them I feel as if I belonged to these cultures and share their destiny.”
Krupoves, who sings in 15 languages, is now preparing a program of songs in Ladino, the Spanish Jewish dialect dating from the Middle Ages.
The Gypsies Pitch Up
Times Online May 06, 2005
Wild Balkan music is electrifying the New York club scene
THE Bulgarian Bar, on the corner of Broadway at Canal Street, looks like an Eastern Bloc rec room gone mad. Every Thursday night, under dim coloured lights and a disco ball, people loose themselves on the packed dance floor to New York City’s most unusual dance rhythms.
Romanian Balkan brass is cut into Mano Negra, streamed into flamenco dub, slapped into raggeaton, Fanfare Ciocarlia, mixed with the Bad Brains, eased into Turkish guitars, with some Fugazi stabs.
…..Romashka and Slavic Soul Party! are two bands that play traditional gypsy and Balkan dance party music with various combinations of sax, percussion, clarinet, violin, accordion, trumpet and tuba. During a break at a recent Romashka show, Inna Barmash, 26, a singer from Lithuania says: “There is something about gypsy music that people just respond to, whether it’s flamenco, Hungarian gypsy or Russian gypsy it catches people’s souls in a very immediate way. People seem to know how to dance to it intuitively.”
Indeed they do. With a few stomps of Inna’s high-heeled boot, the band furiously launches into Mariana. Diners at the East Village Turkish restaurant abandon their tables, and dance in the tiny space in front of the band, oblivious to the grumpy waiters who get jostled by the crowd…..
Q&A: Joey Weisenberg and the Hazan of the Future
June 15, 2011
by Renee Ghert-Zand
Weisenberg recently spoke to The Arty Semite about his passion for Jewish communal singing and how it fits into a larger vision for Jewish music.
Joey Weisenberg, 29, is the musical director at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn and is in charge of musical education at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan. He plays guitar, mandolin and percussion and sings in 10 different bands, is an artist-fellow at the 14th Street Y’s LABA program and a faculty member at KlezKanada. He also teaches music privately. He does all this, and still spends half or more of his time teaching congregations around the country how to build singing communities and conduct spontaneous choirs.
Having spent the past eight years honing his techniques, Weisenberg is now sharing them in the recently published “Building Singing Communities: A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer” (Mechon Hadar, 2011). The book, which provides advice on everything from melody acquisition to room set-up to shul politics, is accompanied by a CD of a spontaneous choir, directed by Weisenberg, singing 15 nigunim based on the Shabbat liturgy.
Weisenberg recently spoke to The Arty Semite about his passion for Jewish communal singing and how it fits into a larger vision for Jewish music.
Renee Ghert-Zand: Is the interest in communal singing a recent phenomenon, or is it a revival of an older one?
Joey Weisenberg: Well, it’s a little bit of each. A lot of the things that I am trying to get across are traditional notions. For example, I advocate putting the amud, the table from which the prayers are led, in the middle of the room, instead of having a frontally oriented bimah. That’s really the way the shul was set up for hundreds and hundreds of years. It makes sense to do it that way because you’re close to everybody. On the other hand, historically there might not have been as much communal singing as there is today. It used to be that the cantor and his choir were located in the center of the room, and now I advocate that the entire shul should be the choir.
Why do you emphasize wordless nigunim of the 19th and 20th centuries, and some even as old as the 17th and 18th centuries?
It’s a visceral response to what I find deeply beautiful and moving in these old melodies. Even the new melodies I write sound like they’re old. You study the tradition and then open yourself up to all of the new possibilities. The first priority is to spend years and years studying the material, studying the old things. So, I spent a lot of time studying hazanut (cantorial music), old nigunim and old settings of liturgical music — mostly in the Ashkenazic tradition, because that’s where I’m from. I spend a lot of time immersing myself in the old music and that gives me a depth from which to create new music.
Is there a relationship between your musical background growing up and your interest in building singing communities now?
I grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Milwaukee, Wis. We went to a Conservative shul and our hazan did most of the work, but he taught me all the stuff I know about leading Musaf, and other things. At some point I started going out to the west side of Milwaukee, where the Twerski shul was. Rabbi Twerski, a famous Hasidic rebbe, is an amazing composer and singer. He would sing the most beautiful melodies and they captivated me. When I would see how he would sing and how everyone else would sing with him, I saw what a tremendous potential there was in this kind of process, and I wondered why this didn’t happen everywhere.
Are there any other musical influences on your compositions?
I grew up in a world music kind of way. My father’s a flamenco guitarist. My mother played Bach. I grew up playing blues. All kinds of music have been moving through my head and my family and the world I’m in. On the CD you’ll hear elements of blues, flamenco, Macedonian brass band music, bluegrass, African choirs, gospel and Bach. But all of these things are disguised within the spirit and musical structures of old nigunim.
What are the difficulties of introducing communal singing to synagogues and independent minyanim?
The hard part is dealing with the institutions. Most of our shuls have been doing the same thing for 30 or 40 years and there’s all kinds of resistance to making changes. This is an ongoing challenge and it will be for a long time.
With the independent minyanim it’s a tremendous opportunity because you get all kinds of young people coming in who are looking to create something beautiful, deep and meaningful. But what’s been pleasantly surprising is that there’s also a big proportion of people in shuls who are looking for this kind of experience. Not everybody. But it’s been a very pleasant surprise to get to meet all these people and to work with them.
How does communal singing fit into your larger vision for music and musicians in the Jewish community?
It’s been something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a teenager, wondering how I could break down the walls between performers and participants. While I do enjoy getting up on stage and performing, I’ve always felt that I’m missing something when everyone else in the room is passively watching. I’ve also wondered about ways to make more use of creative musical talent that I experience in the Jewish music scene. I often find that the greatest Jewish musicians feel alienated from the Jewish community and they’re underutilized from a teaching point of view.
What I’m trying to design is a profession in which musically inclined people can become resources and teachers for the community. I imagine that the hazan of the future can be more of a teacher. I imagine that hazanim can be the people who carry the songs and who everyone in the community wants to learn music from.
Weisenberg seeks to ‘reinvigorate the Jewish world through song’
November 1st, 2013
by Leon Cohen
In 2005, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of New York City was leading a Shavuot retreat in upstate New York. He and his group were completing an all-night learning session, as is the custom for Shavuot, and it was 4 a.m.
Among the participants was Milwaukee-born musician and music teacher Joey Weisenberg. Kaunfer asked Weisenberg to teach a music class at 4 a.m., hoping to keep people going until the morning service at 5 a.m.
What happened was “the most incredible experience I’d ever been to,” Kaunfer told The Chronicle in a telephone interview Oct. 16. Weisenberg “took one nigun and had us sing it for an hour.
“The way he was able to engage people around that melody, to have us stamp our feet, clap our hands, get us out of our chairs… Everybody was so energized and excited. And I thought, ‘This guy has an incredible amount of talent.’”
Weisenberg, 32, has more than the talent that has led him to be an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, composer, recording studio musician, band-leader and music educator.
He also has a vision of how music can not only keep people awake, but can awaken a Jewish community that he believes has fallen into a slumber.
“I think that there’s a sort of a cultural hibernation that set in perhaps 40 years ago,” Weisenberg said in a telephone interview on Oct. 15. “We as Jews are sort of like a sleeping bear that’s getting ready to wake up after a long, long winter.”
For the past 10 years, he has been trying to bring this vision to synagogues and communities around the country with “Spontaneous Jewish Choir” workshops. He will be doing this in the Beth Israel Center, Madison’s Conservative synagogue, beginning Nov. 8-9 and returning in January and May.
Elissa Pollack, the synagogue’s executive director, said bringing Weisenberg was the idea of the center’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon.
“This is definitely an extension of something we told this rabbi we wanted” when the synagogue hired him about five years ago, “to bring more points of connection to davening and the ritual experience overall,” said Pollack. (Rabbi Ben-Gideon was out of the country and not available by deadline.)
Moreover, the Shavuot experience was only the beginning of collaborations between Weisenberg and Kaunfer. Not only did Weisenberg become the music teacher at Kaunfer’s retreats for eight years in a row, but when Kaunfer helped create the Mechon Hadar, which operates an egalitarian yeshiva for adults, Weisenberg joined the faculty.
In addition, this year, Weisenberg and the organization have launched the Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music, in which Weisenberg has the title creative director.
“Our mission is to reinvigorate the Jewish world through song,” Weisenberg said. Through the Hadar Center he hopes to “enlarge the scope and impact of this work. Ultimately, part of the goal will be to train other people to do this work as well.”
And he is having an effect. Leonard Felson wrote an article about him featured in the Tablet online Jewish magazine headlined “A Brooklyn-Based Prayer Leader Heralds a Revolution in Jewish Music,” and expressed the view that “in terms of potential impact, he may be the next Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman,” two Jewish-music-world-changing singer-songwriters.
On YouTube, there is a video that shows Weisenberg entering a synagogue’s sanctuary where he will lead one of his workshops. He doesn’t just look around, but starts beating rhythms on the seats, the walls, the lectern and elsewhere.
He does this to test the room’s acoustics and to see what things will sound like when people will beat rhythms on them.
Weisenberg said that synagogue architecture is part of the problem that he struggles with.
“I think that many shuls are struggling with their architecture that they have inherited, which is generally way too big and often way too comfortable,” he said. “And it has allowed people to spread out very far away from each other to such an extent that the warmth has gone out of places.
“When you get too far apart, you can’t feel the warmth of other people, you can’t hear each other very well, you can’t communicate very clearly or instantly or with nuance.”
Moreover, “if we sit very far away from the leader , it’s very hard to follow,” he continued. “At the same time, if the leader is very far away from the community, it is very hard to lead.
“It is sort of like inviting a bunch of guests over to dinner, and then sitting 40 feet away from them and then trying to have a nuanced conversation. It doesn’t work. And hence we have a whole culture of shouting at each other.”
Weisenberg believes “if we can come closer together then we might learn how to hear each other better – and I’m speaking physically, musically and spiritually – and we might be able to create nuanced moments of beauty.”
“What I’m trying to do,” he explained further, “is to help us all take stock of what is actually valuable about being Jewish. It is not survival and continuity just for continuity’s sake… At this point, there has to be an affirmative, positive contribution to our communities and the world. That manifests culturally as well as in acts of kindness and communal outreach.”
These ideas are not only the themes of his workshops and of his book “Building Singing Communities: A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer” (2011, Segula Press). They have also shaped his approach to being a performing musician.
“Ultimately, I feel that I might have gotten a little bit bored with frontal performance, where the performer is on the stage and everybody else is in chairs kind of far away watching things happen in front of them,” he said.
“My vision for my own performing and for the community on the whole is to work toward blurring the lines between performer and audience, such that the audience ceases to be an audience and begins to be active participants in their own musical culture,” he said.
Weisenberg’s newest recording is born of this vision. He is the prayer leader at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, and that building has an old choir loft.
Every Tuesday night, his band, named Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble, goes into that choir loft and brings a small audience in there with them. “So we have a small, intimate performance, where we’re sitting in the middle of a group of people and often people join us in the singing,” he said.
A group of such live performances involving Weisenberg’s own melodies took place May 5-8 and was recorded, resulting in the new CD “Nigunim Vol. III: Live in the Choir Loft.”
Weisenberg said that the resulting music both fulfills his interest in “recording real music in real time with awesome musicians” and embodies the musical influences that have shaped him and his partners – not only synagogue melodies and nigunim, but jazz, blues, soul music, “Balkan brass band music, Flamenco rhythms, elements of Bach and Mozart – you’ll hear all of these types of sounds in this recording.”
A lot of these types of sounds came to Weisenberg from his Milwaukee background. He is the son of two accomplished avocational musicians: Nancy (Bruce Harvey) Ettenheim, a classical pianist with a particular fondness for the music of J. S. Bach, and Robert (Jane Elizabeth Marko) Weisenberg, a Flamenco guitarist who has made recordings. (Full disclosure: This writer is a clarinetist, and he and Ettenheim have been chamber music partners and friends for many years.)
Weisenberg also credits Milwaukeeans Rabbi Michel Twerski — himself a gifted composer — and Cantor Carey Cohen with having “laid the groundwork for a lot of the Jewish music I’ve been pursuing since then.”
Weisenberg primarily plays guitar and mandolin, but “often I play bass or drums; I’ve also shown up playing gigs on clarinet, fiddle, harmonica and various other things.”
He majored in music at Columbia University and started the Columbia Klezmer Band. He has done ethnomusicology field work in Eastern Europe, has been an active studio musician and has performed in concerts all over the U.S. and in other countries.
He is married to Molly Weingrod and they have three children, Lev Boaz, 5, Moshe Zeev, 3, and Bina, 9 months. It was the need to put the oldest child to sleep that led to Weisenberg starting to compose, he said.
“I’d be in this room with him, trying to put him to sleep for two hours at a time, and at the end of that I’d come out having written three or four new nigunim that I’d been singing to him,” he said.
But Weisenberg said that he has been devoting increasingly less time to performing and recording and more to realizing his vision.
“I’m finding that what I really want to do is to help open up the overall cultural landscape of musical life, especially in the Jewish world where I think it is direly needed,” he said.
“Jews are sitting on top of a treasure trove of musical heritage and creativity,” he said. “We just have to allow ourselves to reclaim it. That goes for all of our other treasured heritages as well, such as Torah and spiritual thinking and learning in general.”
More information about Weisenberg, his book, his recordings and Mechon Hadar is available at www.joeyweisenberg.com and www.mechonhadar.org. For more information about his appearances in Madison, contact Beth Israel Center, 608-256-7763 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Jewish Week
Getting the Jews Up and Singing
by George Robinson
Kane Street’s Joey Weisenberg wants a synagogue based on music and spontaneity.
It’s a most unlikely place for a musical revolution, a studio tucked into an apartment building in a quiet block in Carroll Gardens, at the intersection of a residential neighborhood and a string of mom-and-pop stores of the sort Brooklyn still has in its quieter corners.
Joey Weisenberg, whose studio (along with the dozens and dozens of musical instruments it contains) this is, is an unlikely revolutionary; he’s a sweet-faced young man who is celebrating is 31st birthday by speaking to a journalist about his vision of a more user-friendly 21st-century synagogue, one built around singing and spontaneity, combining two millennia of Jewish and liturgy with the modern energies of an actively participating congregation.
It’s not hard to get a glimpse of Weisenberg’s musical manifesto. Unlike most guerrilla warriors, he’s delightfully generous with his agenda. He’ll be playing with his band on October 21 at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. He has two lively CDs, “Joey’s Nigunim” and “Transformation of a Nigun: Nigunim, Vol. II,” and has authored a smart brief for his cause, “Building Singing Communities.”
The program is simple: all Weisenberg wants is to get Jews of any denomination to get up and sing in shul.
Weisenberg’s ‘eureka’ moment crept up on him slowly.
Like most multi-instrumentalists with very eclectic taste and a performing background that runs from klezmer to country, blues to flamenco, he has earned his living playing in a veritable army of wildly variegated musical groups. Born and raised in Milwaukee, he is the offspring of musicians, his mother a classical pianist with a particular affinity for Johann Sebastian Bach, his father an ardent flamenco guitarist. He began his own musical career as a harmonica and guitar prodigy in the blues clubs that proliferated in his hometown.
“I spend a lot of years as a full-time musician,” he says, his ever-present smile widening. “I was playing an average of three gigs a night, totally different kinds of events, concerts, weddings, club dates. It’s a great way to learn about what music means in the world.”
As the old saying goes, it’s a hard living but a heck of a life. But gradually, one aspect of the routine began to grate on his nerves.
“At some point I began to be bored with the frontal aspect of performing,” he says. “I mean, I began to ask why weren’t the people watching us getting more involved. I was becoming uncomfortable with the proscenium arch theatrical aspect of the experience.”
Raised as a Conservative Jew, Weisenberg has always maintained an active involvement in Jewish music. He has studied with several cantors, was an early student at Yeshivat Hadar, the small but influential independent institution on the Upper West Side.
“It’s always been a part of the fabric of my life,” he notes.
Because of the very nature of music for worship, Weisenberg realized, this was the fertile ground for his decision to move down from the stage (or the bimah) and into the midst of his audience, transforming listeners into band-mates, so to speak.
“I wanted to be in the middle of everybody; I wanted to be more of a facilitator,” he explains. “Let’s empower everybody to make music.”
He’s certainly well positioned to make that happen, at least gradually. Weisenberg is on the faculty at Yeshivat Hadar and he’s the musical director at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn.
“I was raised in a Conservative shul, but I feel non-denominational,” he says. “My grandfather belonged to all nine of the synagogues in Milwaukee when he was alive, and he told me that you could learn something from each of them.”
So he now divides his time between being a husband and father, teaching at Yeshivat Hadar, planning services at Kane Street, studying hazonos with older cantors, running workshops on the creation of what he calls “Spontaneous Jewish Choirs,” working with the occasional private student, writing new nigunim and recording. (No wonder he spent part of his birthday with a journalist.)
The reason for this spectacular commitment to Jewish music is clear in his mind.
“With music I am a believer, I never question music,” he says.
But how does music relate us to the spiritual realm?
Weisenberg’s eyes narrow and he is quiet for a moment. Then his smile slowly returns.
“For me, music teaches us how to listen,” he says. “In listening we start to hear things that are outside of ourselves, yet also deeply inside too. people are interacting with one another, with the room they are in. As we learn to hear other people and hear space we begin to sense the energy around us and we start to sense the divine energy of the world.”
He pauses for a moment.
“It forges a connection between elements of our experience that have been disparate up to that point, and that’s the essence of the Sh’ma,” he says with a quiet passion. “It’s the central credo of Judaism. We cover our eyes when we recite the Sh’ma, so we’re not distracted by visual stimuli. The prayer itself links hearing and God’s oneness. If we can learn how to listen we can learn how to discover unity.”
The Joey Weisenberg Ensemble will be performing “Transformation of a Nigun” on Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. at the Museum at the Eldridge Street Synagogue (12 Eldridge St.). For information call (212) 219-0888, or go to http://www.eldridgestreet.org. To buy Joey Weisenberg’s CDs and book and to learn more about his workshops, go to http://joeyweisenberg.com.
The Jewish Week
…Old-Time Prayer Meets New Needs
by Elise Bernhardt
I have seen the Jewish future and it is small…
Compact, shoulder to shoulder — young and old, preschoolers, high schoolers, singles, same sex couples with their toddlers, middle-aged parents whose disaffected teens find themselves tapping along in spite of themselves, grandparents with their grandchildren.
No high ceilinged church-like space required. No sound systems or balconies.
Some of the lay leaders (men and women) have been to day school but not all. Many are under 30 and in spite of being part of the most technologically advanced generation in history, they unplug and hit the floor in white kittels for the priestly Aleinu. They bring their kids close to the shtender , letting them soak up the electricity and power of voices in uncomposed harmonies, voices of all kinds, trained, not, in key and not, praying.
In brokering a now three-year-old experiment of synagogue (Kane Street) meets alternative minyan (Altshul) for the high holidays, music leader Joey Weisenberg has hit upon a key to the future. Here, 32-year-old Jewish educator Amanda Pogany can deliver a drash with the same authority and reception as Rabbis Josh Gutoff and Simcha Weintraub and physics teacher Bob Marx . Here, young passionate Jews, educated or educating at places like Mechon Hadar, are sparking a renewal in the music and liturgy of their great-grandfathers’ synagogues.
As this alternative service has grown to bursting, it is clear that this combination of alternative minyanaires and lifetime synagogue members hungry for an intense, visceral, spiritual experience is a potent combination.
One way Federations and Jewish foundations can help grow the Jewish people is to help synagogues hire this young crew. They are in the process of transforming spiritual practice, in part by bringing it back to old-fashioned roots. Their key is participatory, not performative.
Help synagogues give them a platform and give them serious paid positions so they can help grow this spirit and practice, not once a year but throughout the year. They have a passion that is so infectious that “renewal” will walk through the door.
But the process must be given time. Synagogue culture has to adapt as young people grow comfortable with being part of an institution (for the record, some of the altschulers have become members of Kane Street).
Make grants to enable synagogues to repurpose their spaces to a more ‘shtieble-like” atmosphere and the reverberations may well result in stronger synagogues and a newfound recognition that the communal Jewish world has something to offer young and old alike.
While much is made about culture replacing religion as a doorway to the “unaffiliated,” there’s nothing like source material to give people a primal experience of where they come from.
If you hear it often enough, when you’re young enough, cantillation, niggunim, and the rest of the close to the bone music that has carried our people through thousands of years will start to feel like home.
That comfort might inspire some folks to study more. Who knows, the joy of the experience might stay for life.
Culture is always strengthened when a new generation digs deep into source material. Let at least one Petri dish be situated in the original gathering place. Let these young ones help reshape and reinvent our tradition in our midst.
Elise Bernhardt is president and CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Journal of Synagogue Music, Vol 37
Book Review of Joey Weisenberg’s Building Singing Communities
by Shoshana Brown
This book, launched together with an accompanying CD (Joey’s Nigunim: Spontaneous Jewish Choir) which is sold separately, is timely and much needed. To use it, however, you have to be willing to take a plunge, for Weisenberg—Music Director at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, NY and Music Faculty member at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan—describes a vision of synagogue-singing/praying that most of us have never witnessed. I had heard Weisenberg give a presentation at an Independent Minyan Conference, and so, was not surprised at what he describes in his book. But I suspect that neither hearing nor reading about it can give one a true grasp of what it’s like.
One probably needs to attend either a service at his synagogue or a class at his Yeshiva in order to understand the essence of his approach: “…every congregation that aims to take its singing energy to the next level must develop a core group of singers who stand close together, directly surrounding the ba’al t’fillah. I like to call this group the “Spontaneous Jewish Choir” and its participants “musical gabba’im. But this singing core is not a new idea at all. In many ways, it’s actually a return to a centuries old synagogue practice whereby choristers (m’shor’rim) would stand near the hazzan to sing spontaneous harmonized responses.”
Yes, I had heard of m’shor’rim (and seen them on Youtube), but Weisenberg is not really endorsing a return this late medieval set-up. We are not talking about a handful of grown men with a sprinkling of young boys here. We are talking about a much larger group of adult layfolk, men and women, clustered around the sh’liah tsibbur at a floor-level, centralized prayeramud (he stresses the importance of not having prayer led from a frontal, raised bimah) for the duration of the service—who would support the prayer-leader’s singing, and simultaneously take their cues from him/her—and most importantly, encourage lustier singing/davening from the rest of the congregation. At least that’s the best I can figure it out from Weisenberg’s self-described “manifesto.”
Here too, there is a caveat for anyone teaching the “spontaneous singing choir” a congregational melody in preparation for an actual service. Weisenberg’s well-taken advice is to avoid introducing harmonies until people have mastered the tune by singing it together in unison some 30 times. Once they really know it, harmonies will develop on their own.
The centralized-amud concept also raises certain logistical questions and may require some reconstruction of our sanctuaries. (In my home shul we do have a floor-level amud, but there is no room there for such a large singing-group crowding around it for most of the service). It is also difficult to understand the logistics of this arrangement. Do all the “spontaneous choir” members remain standing the whole time the hazzan is davening? Are we meant to hear the sh’liah tsibbur’s voice above the crowd as the distinct leader, or are all these folks, in a sense, “leading”? Once the congregation is able to carry a particular melody, can the hazzan harmonize with them?
These are just some of the questions that are bound to arise in readers’ minds as they try to imagine putting Weisenberg’s ideas into practice. It is beyond question today that increased participation and enthusiasm by members of the congregation during a service is the sine qua non of their engagement in prayer; it will also enhance their ease with the language of t’fillah. But what about the “ease” of the prayer leader? Will the hazzan feel comfortable with so many people hemming him/her in so closely, awaiting their cue for the next congregational melody? How will the rest of the congregation feel if they cannot see—and possibly be unable to hear—him/her? Might the harmonies so overwhelm the melody line that some daveners would not be able to recognize what the basic tune of the prayer is?
Certainly a field trip to Joey’s kahal in Brooklyn, or to Mechon Hadar in Manhattan, might help one to understand how all this works. Most of our congregants have not yet attained the same level of Jewish knowledge and engagement as Joey Weisenberg’s regular worshipers or students. It strikes me that just as he came to his methods in an organic way while leading/teaching worship, so too, his readers might have to discover through their own process of trial and error exactly which of his suggestions will work most effectively for them—and perhaps along the way develop additional methods of their own. I vividly remember Craig Taubman’s visit to the CA convention in Los Angeles a number of years ago. He did not have his whole band; it was just Craig and his guitar, and still he had the whole room in the palm of his hand, singing with fervor. Afterwards one of the cantors asked him, “But what do I do about the fact that I am not you?” Taubman answered: “You are not supposed to be Craig Taubman. You have to be the you that God meant you to be!”
Indeed, those who share Joey’s goal of taking their people’s “singing energy to the next level” will ultimately have to find their own ways to achieve it. With a willingness to experiment (and with support from the rabbi and synagogue lay leadership), perhaps Weisenberg’s recipes will work better than most of us can imagine. Yet, it might also be prudent to gradually feel our way in developing a “spontaneous Jewish choir” as we discover what seems “right” to the rest of the congregation whose leadership in prayer is our responsibility. (It is worth noting that at Kane Street this more intensely participatory approach to davening was first developed in an alternate minyan before gradually entering the main service.)
Weisenberg includes many other “recipes for success” in his slim book, including tips for how to learn and retain a new melody and how to teach it to others. His suggestions for a novice ba’al t’fillah in how to lead services are excellent, and chapters on “Politics and Diplomacy” and “Expanding the Musical Culture of the Community” are indispensable for our brave new world.
I greatly enjoyed listening to the companion CD of Joey’s Nigunim, (the author’s spelling; all melodies composed by him as well), but I suspect that for many congregants, this kind of music would only be an acquired taste. Weisenberg’s melodies gravitate towards the plaintive; even his faster ones share this quality. In that sense they resemble meditative hasidic d’veikut niggunim, particularly those of Lubavitch. I happen to be a fan of this musical genre, but I don’t think the same is true for the American Jewish mainstream. Nonetheless, whether we choose to enrich our davening with Joey’s melodies, with Debbie Friedman’s, Solomon Sulzer’s, or Mizrahi piyyutim tunes, the aim is to bring enthusiastic congregational involvement to our t’fillah b’tsibbur.
Joey Weisenberg is doing his part in pointing the way—but he needs our help. And we need his. Buy the book. Read it. Listen to the CD. Then, with your mitpall’lim, take the plunge. Join the good fight to transform our synagogues into arenas of engagement and commitment, aided by the power of music to elevate our prayer as—more and more—we become “singing communities.”
Shoshana Brown received her cantorial s’mikhah from the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2011. Her article, “Nothing New under the Sun: What’s Still Wrong with our Synagogues?,” appeared in JSM 2008; and her interview, “The Amidah and Atsilut: A Dialogue with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” appeared in JSM 2009. She has served as hazzan or Jewish music teacher at Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Unaffiliated congregations, and currently resides in Huntington, New York.
All About Jazz
A Balkan beat, gypsy fire, a Serbian brass band, a sexy vocalist, a dazzling show. There is a big Balkan music scene in New York City, and it is best experienced at local venues that cater to their crowds with plenty of music, space for dancing, and free flowing spirits. Places like Mehanata on Canal Street and even the famed Knitting Factory pack their venues for Gypsy/Balkan shows. I was fortunate to catch just such a show with one of the best of these young bands at the Knit a few months ago. Romashka didn’t disappoint that night, and neither does the group’s debut CD.
“Mariana” kicks things off with a nod to the brass band of the great Serbian trumpeter, Boban Markovic. The pumping tuba of Ron Caswell, quick Jeff Perlman sax runs, the frenetic fiddling of Jake Shulman-Ment, and the oh so powerfully sweet horn of one of NYC’s best young trumpeters, Ben Holmes, make for a danceable delight. Vocalist Inna Barmash showcases her strongly sensual lyrical skills on the wonderfully catchy “Loli Phabay (The Red Apple),” which has a castanet backbeat and a lovely string-based feel courtesy of guitarist Joey Weisenberg and Shulman-Ment. The brass is back with the carnival atmosphere of Perlman’s own fun loving “Shimdiggy,” which has the composer and Holmes trading solos over an infectious rhythm. Caswell’s tuba is present throughout, and in conjunction with Timothy Quigley’s percussion, he sets up the infectiously danceable backbeat to all these tunes.
With no apologies to Hernando’s Hideaway, Stevhen Iancu’s accordion makes “Tayna (A Secret)” a flowing forum for Barmash to vocally layer a Russian feel on top of this tango with beautiful results. It all comes together in the cooker “La Circuma De La Drum (The Tavern on the Road),” allowing Weisenberg, Shulman-Ment and Iancu to change direction with the intense “Rustemul.” “Zaznobila & Baro Foro (She Messed With My Head in the Great City)” again finds Barmash in powerful voice as Perlman’s clarinet and Shulman-Ment’s violin energize this tune to its conclusion. Closing with the traditional instrumental “Moldovan Batuta,” a surprise tango reprise awaits the patient listener. This is hot music for cold nights; Romashka rocks.
In a little over a year, Romashka have built a reputation as one of the most exciting and energetic bands in New York City’s world music scene. Before converging on Brooklyn, the band’s eight members cut their musical teeth in different locations, including a number of Ivy League institutions.
Lithuanian-born singer Inna Barmash co-founded the Princeton-based outfit the Klez Dispensers, wind player Jeff Perlman spent four years with the Yale Klezmer Band, and guitarist Joey Weisenberg served as musical director of the Columbia Klezmer Band. Tuba player Ron Caswell, trumpeter Ben Holmes, accordionist Steven Iancu, percussionist Timothy Quigley, and fiddler Jake Shulman-Ment have likewise built up impressive musical resums with backgrounds in Gypsy, klezmer and Balkan musical traditions, with hints of jazz and rock thrown in as well.
The diversity of ethnic backgrounds and emotions that comprise Romashka’s music are reflected in the band’s name; “Roma” is the Gypsy word for the Gypsy people, “Mashke” is Yiddish for “liquor,” and “Romashka” is the Russian word for “daisy.”
Romashka formed in late 2003 with the primary purpose of celebrating the musical traditions of the Gypsy people. In their live performances, and now with their self-titled debut album, they explore the depths of these traditions by combining superior musicianship with relentless energy and a Brooklyn attitude. Produced by Perlman, the new CD adds some subtlety and depth to Romashka’s live sound, although at the expense of a little of the band’s on-stage energy. Given that, Romashka ably represents a fresh young band at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long and productive career.
The disc consists of four songs and four instrumentals, and opens with the peppy minor-key dance instrumental “Mariana,” a Romanian Gypsy standard. Romashka performs this piece primarily in a Balkan brass band style, but Perlman and Holmes also trade some jazzy improvisations, and Shulman-Ment adds a fiddle flourish near the end. Barmash then leads the band through the soulful Russian Gypsy tango, “Loli Phabay (The Red Apple),” with a very distinctive “hop, hop, hop” in the chorus. Quigley’s castanets add a touch of subtlety to this recording that would escape notice in Romashka’s live performances. “Shimdiggy,” composed by Perlman, differs a bit from the traditional pieces on the disc in that the tonic chord is major instead of minor, but maintains the same high energy level as the other tunes. Like the previous song, the recording of “Shimdiggy” includes a few background effects that require the listener to pay attention. Barmash then sings in Russian on “Tayna (A Secret),” another sad tango. The instrumental accompaniment is dominated here by Iancu’s chords on the accordion and some fine picking on the guitar by Weisenberg.
“La Crcuma De La Drum (The Tavern On The Road),” a Romanian Gypsy song, is the most energetic of the four songs on this disc. Barmash’s vocals are overshadowed somewhat here by the frenzied bass line played by Caswell on the tuba. The band mixes genres and influences on the short instrumental “Rustemul,” with Weisenberg playing a bluesy riff on guitar while the horns and fiddle play the melody for a traditional Romanian folk dance. The band next performs a medley of “Zaznobila & Baro Faro (She Messed With My Head In The Great City),” a pair of Russian oompah Gypsy songs. As is common for Gypsy songs, this piece starts out slowly but then steadily gets much faster. The bouncy instrumental “Moldovan Batuta,” a traditional Moldovan tune frequently performed by klezmer bands, completes the disc officially. However, Romashka includes as a bonus track a scaled-down remix of “Tayna,” minus the drums and altered to sound like a grainy old vinyl recording.
Having seen Romashka perform on several occasions, I could discern a slight difference in the approach the band took to making this disc relative to their concert performances. The album focuses more on the musical details, and less on the feverish intensity that characterizes a Romashka concert. For the most part, Romashka reveals the strong collective musicianship of the band, particularly the rhythm section, to a degree that the more frenetic live shows cannot match. I would make an exception, though, for Jake Shulman-Ment, whose fiddling compares well to that of the Hungarian fiddlers of Muzsiks; the disc would have benefited from more of his solo playing. Inna Barmash holds her end of the bargain as well, effortlessly singing in several languages with a maturity that belies her age. Excepting a few high notes on “Zaznobila & Baro Faro” that sound a bit beyond her comfortable range, Barmash’s vocals magnify Romashka’s emotional power and remain solid throughout the disc. One could debate whether Romashka’s performance in the recording studio matches what they regularly do on stage, but the band has much to recommend them either live or on disc. Romashka will command the attention of any listener interested in Gypsy, Balkan, and klezmer music, along with anybody simply looking for something high-octane to help them party the night away.
The New Super Jews – The Village Klezmer Quintet
December 4-11, 2003
…All that’s changing. Young Jewish pride (for lack of a less cringeworthy term) is exerting itself throughout the culture.
In 1995 John Zorn started exploring Jewish motifs in his own work and launched the Radical Jewish Culture series to promote innovative new Jewish music. Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf started a similarly themed record lable, Jewish Alternative Music, along with Jewsapalooza, a two-day music and comedy festival designed to give Jews something to do on Christmas (other than eat Chinese Food). Klezmer moved out of the wedding-band ghetto and into Tonic, where there’s a popular Sunday Klezmer Brunch. The Klezmatics, who launched the whole klezmer revival nearly 20 years ago, now have a following far beyond the yeshiva set, and are widely considered on of the city’s best bands – of any sort – of the last decade. And the city’s young neoklezmer groups, such as the Village Klezmer Quintet, which plays on Tuesdays at Cafe Moto in Williamsburg – incorporates contemporary themes into classic songs and attract a largely mainstream audience…
The New York Times
The Rise of Gypsy Punkers – a Home-Grown Eastern European Hybrid Catches On
July 2, 2005
…. In the last several years a high-kicking, accordian wailing, drum-pounding scene has developed in New York, wish groups like Slavic Soul Party!, Romashka, the Hungry Marching Band and Guignol playing in small clubs and restaurants and, more and more, alongside one another on big multiple bills at places like the Knitting Factory. The band members spoke to Nina Roberts, a New York-based photographer, about playing punk rock, Gypsy style. Or is that Gypsy music, punk style?…
Joey Weisenberg and his nigunim – Community
June 10, 2012
“We find ourselves in a time when many Jews, mainly young, want to express their Jewishness in a way that voice not with the adopted ways of the major branches of Judaism. Somewhat lack them, when they come to pray in school – to dry, without soul, without heart…”
The Washington Post
Jewish musician rocks during Hanukkah
December 19, 2011
“…Joey Weisenberg, considered a leading innovator in Jewish music, trains congregations during key times of the year such as Hanukkah — when congregants are paying attention — to literally stand closer together, instead of spreading out in half-empty pews….”
The New York Times
Cries of Anti-Semitism, but Not at Zuccotti Park
October 21, 2011
“Among the hodgepodge of signs that have sprouted in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, one man in jeans and a baseball cap has been carrying placards that shout their suggestions: ‘Google: Jewish Billionaires” and “Google: Zionists control Wall St.'”
Ansambl Mastika’s Second Album is Raw Adrenaline
February 11, 2011
“Combining the raw power of gypsy punk with the precision of jazz, Ansambl Mastika’s new album Songs and Dances for Life NONSTOP is literally the best of both worlds…”