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A long, strange trip through Jewish music

Scene from The Macaroons'
Scene from The Macaroons' "Apples & honey" video YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT

Every month, I look forward to receiving a new package from PJ Library, the visionary project that delivers Jewish-themed books to kids across North America and beyond, free of charge.

Since there are nearly 150,000 subscribers to PJ Library, clearly I’m not alone. Over the last few years, our family has enjoyed titles like Todah, Mitzi’s Mitzvah, 3 Falafels in my Pita, Sammy Spider’s First Book of Jewish Holidays and my personal favourite, Shai’s Shabbat Walk.

Last month’s PJ Library dispatch, though, was something different – a CD called Shabbat Love Music. The album’s 14 tunes are simple and upbeat, but there are enough clever tidbits to keep music snobs like me listening, too. Sam Glaser’s Shabbas mixes in classic doo-wop with the blessing over the Shabbat candles; the twangy guitar backing Ellen Allard’s We Sing Shabbat, We Sing Shalom reminds me that I should plug my Telecaster into that vintage Fender amp every now and again (even if the neighbours complain); Elana Jagoda’s rendition of Zum Gali Gali recalls the opening of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows; and The Macaroons’ two contributions, Shabbat Lullaby and Shabbos Morning, are both eminently listenable. (And my kids like them, too.)

Shabbat Music Love is now permanently on rotation in our car’s CD player, and on more than a few occasions recently, I’ve found myself listening to it on the way to and from work, humming the tunes to myself in the office, or trying to master the D-major riff that anchors Shabbat Lullaby late at night (hint: it is not dissimilar to Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell).

More than anything, though, Shabbat Music Love takes me back to the Jewish music I listened to as a child – the classics of the genre, like Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men and The Marvelous Middos Machine (featuring the interstellar exploits of Shnooki, Dr. Middos, Dizzy and the dastardly Dr. Doomstein). It reminds me of The Miami Boys Choir cassettes that were on heavy rotation in my father’s car (along with Creedence Clearwater Revival), and the time my sister and I attended the local debut of teen sensation Yehuda!, who wowed the crowd with his virtuoso keytar playing.

Later, my Jewish music tastes gravitated toward jam-inclined groups like Reva L’Sheva and The Moshav Band. While studying at seminary in Israel in my late teens, I’d take every opportunity I could to see both bands perform live – whether at a Jewish music festival on Mevo Modi’im, the moshav founded by Shlomo Carlebach himself, or in Jerusalem clubs like The Yellow Submarine (where Reva and Moshav were just as likely to noodle through Grateful Dead deep cuts as they were classic niggunim).

Eventually, inspired by the work of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, I got into the action myself, as part of the hard-rock outfit Shirayim. Playing Jewish music at ear-splitting levels on the stage of Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, as Jewish kids and drunk bikers danced together below, remains one of my proudest life achievements.

You might say my journey through Jewish music has been a long, strange trip. And as I listen to Shabbat Love Music, I wonder where it will lead to next. 

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