On Dec. 6, 1992, a crowd of over 3,500 packed Carnegie Hall in New York City to witness the reunion of the greatest Jewish rock band of all time, the Diaspora Yeshiva Band. The group’s original lineup – Avraham Rosenblum, Ben Zion Solomon, Simcha Abramson, Ruby Harris, Adam Wexler and Gedalia Goldstein – hadn’t performed together on stage for nearly a decade. Now they were opening a month-long tour of the United States, playing on the same stage where Arlo Guthrie had just recently wrapped up a two-night stand.
As the house lights came down, Solomon launched into a furious A-minor riff on his banjo. Soon, the rest of the band joined him in the opening notes of one of their most popular songs, Pischu Li (Open up the gates of heaven), with lyrics taken from Psalm 118. In the official recording of the concert, you can hear the crowd clapping along as the MC for the evening – echoing the Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler, who opened the Stones’ 1970 live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! with the immortal words, “Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest rock and roll band in the world,… the Rolling Stones!” – announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the long-awaited reunion of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band!”
Diaspora had been founded by Rosenblum, its lead singer and guitarist, at the Diaspora Yeshiva (hence the group’s name) in Jerusalem. The yeshiva, which opened in 1967 on Mount Zion, was the first house of learning in Israel to focus on outreach to ba’alei tshuvah, secular Jews discovering religious Judaism. Unique among Israeli yeshivot of the time, the Diaspora Yeshiva offered a welcoming space where Jewish North American kids who had come to Israel in the aftermath of the Six Day War to search for their roots were never asked to cut their hair or discard their instruments at the beit midrash door.
The Diaspora Yeshiva Band played their inaugural concert in Jerusalem during Chanukah 1975. Twelve years later, while filming an episode of MTV’s rockumentary series Musical Passport, featuring the late Tom Petty performing in Israel, Rosenblum – who also acted as Petty’s tour guide during his visit to Jerusalem – would describe the band as “a musical cholent that works.” It’s an apt metaphor for a bunch of hippies who found a way to blend their newfound love of Torah and Jewish learning with the music of Dylan and the Doobies. And the glue that held it all together was the Diaspora Yeshiva.
The first time I heard the Diaspora Yeshiva Band’s reunion concert was – where else? – at Jewish summer camp, when a cool counsellor took to playing the album as wake-up music. (His other go-tos for prying us out of bed in time for morning prayers were Anna Is A Speed Freak, by Vancouver grunge band Pure, and Led Zeppelin’s D’yer Maker.) One of the first things I did when I got home that summer was go to the nearest Judaica store to buy my own copy. And every year since, around Chanukah time, I push play and tune in to the miracle of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band.