Music is magic.
It’s not the only art form that transports us. Visual art can go through our eyes to our hearts, and written or spoken or chanted words can alter us profoundly as our bloodstream pumps them from our heads to our hearts.
But music sometimes seems to bypass our ears — a biological impossibility, of course, but that’s how it feels — and goes straight to our hearts, and stays there.
And can some of that music be specifically Jewish? Is there something about some sounds, some rhythms, some wordless melodies, that are particularly emotional to Jews? Does it reach out in some way to all Jews? And can it reach even beyond Jews, and on very good days give life and sweetness to anyone who hears it?
Yes, Zusha would say.
Zusha is a group of three musicians — maybe call them neo-chasidic, maybe shy away from labels altogether — two of them from Teaneck, all of them in their mid-twenties — who make hard-to-classify Jewish music that flows out of their understanding of community, and helps create it.
The three — percussionist Elisha Mlotek and guitarist Zachariah Goldschmiedt, both from Teaneck, and lead singer Shlomo Gaisin, originally from Silver Spring, Maryland — met in the Chabad House in the Bowery, in lower Manhattan, three years ago. All had gone for a Shabbes minyan; they started talking, and haven’t stopped — except, of course, to make music (and perhaps to eat or sleep).
To talk to the three of them is to see how entirely comfortable they are with each other; how they tease and interrupt and change direction and refuse to take anything seriously until they take everything very seriously, for a short time, and then veer back.
They make a visually striking group. Shlomo, who is tall, has long dark peyes, long dark wispy hair, and a long dark beard; Zachariah has long reddish peyes, long reddish wispy hair, and a longish wispy red beard. Their affect is chasidic. Elisha, on the other hand, has a closely trimmed beard and short hair; his look is preppy modern Orthodox.
Soon after the three met, they became inseparable, they say, and they started singing together. “We were all doing different things,” Elisha said. “Zach was producing and playing electronic music and funk and Shlomo was singing with a group called Judah Blue. I was mostly singing in the shower. I wasn’t really doing anything musical.”
Then Elisha, whose father is Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene, and whose grandparents, Chana and Joseph Mlotek, were luminaries in the world of Yiddish music and culture, caught himself. “I am always doing something musical,” he said. “I am always involved in the Yiddish music scene in one way or another.”
Elisha, Zachariah, and Shlomo, who were NYU students when they met, were part of the “very vibrant, growing Jewish community downtown,” Shlomo said. “We started to jam together, and to create music together,” Zachariah added. “There are a lot of people putting on events. The first one was in an apartment art gallery. We did a lot of these apartment shows. These gatherings are very meaningful. Our growth came from playing these small shows.”
Zusha’s music, its world view, and just about everything else about it is influenced strongly by its three members being millennial Jews.
Despite the Pew Report — the grim study from a few years ago that said that conventional American Jewish life as we know it is sputtering out, and that if we don’t create new ways of living Jewishly soon there will be no more Jewish life — or perhaps bearing it out — there is a lot of intensely lived, part-new part-old very young Jewish life downtown. “We call it the East Village Shtetl,” Zachariah said. “It’s unlike Teaneck, where you live in a bubble. Here, you really are exposed to all sorts of elements. I don’t know if everybody likes that part of it — I don’t know if they like it as much as Teaneck — but that is the challenge.
“It is reality. And reality makes you a much stronger person.”
“If basketball players were playing only against their own team, it wouldn’t matter very much, and they wouldn’t try as hard,” Shlomo added. “When you mamush are playing against another team, it makes you stronger. When the ball goes into the basket then, you are that much stronger.”
“It’s very interesting growing up in Teaneck,” Elisha said. “It is a very Jewish town, and everything is given to you. We are very spoiled, with so many options — kosher restaurants and stores and shuls. I think that our generation of kids who grew up in Teaneck are starting to find a Judaism where you have to want it. It’s not given to you. That’s why downtown is exploding. You can’t go to your father’s shul. You have to find your own. You have to become your own gabbai, the head of your own board.
“I think that we are seeing a whole generation of young Jews who want a meaningful Jewish life,” he continued. “That is a challenge, but it enriches the practice and it enriches the whole Jewish people.”
“This new younger generation of Jews is not looking just to survive,” Zachariah said. “It is looking to thrive. You find a lot of people who are creating music, making art, writing, giving tzedakah… We find ourselves riding on the wave of this movement. People are really looking to have color in their lives.
“It is using Torah and Torah values,” Shlomo said.
The three do not agree on everything, although they certainly do on the primacy of Torah, as variously defined. “Part of what we are doing, and the generation that we are describing, is renewal. We are offering something new and something old, and part of the new paradigm is being together despite our differences.
“We don’t focus on differences.”
The three men call Zusha not a group or a band but a project: a Torah-based project. “Our inspiration is Torah,” Zachariah said. “A lot of melodies come down when we are talking Toyrah to each other,” Shlomo, the most Yiddishly inflected of the three, said.
They have many reasons for the group’s name. They’ve said that it is an acronym of their initials; they’ve also talked about Zusha, the talmudic sage whose dying hope was that he lived his life as the very best Zusha he could have been. Zusha also is “related to the Yiddish word for sweet,” Shlomo said. “Every melody is trying to express the sweetness that is our relationship with HaShem” — with God — “with ourselves, with our friends, with life, with Toyra.”
“Zusha is a project,” Zachariah added. “It is music. It is Torah. It is the way that we look at the world. It encompasses all aspects of life. Its main message is that each person has something unique to offer the world. As Oscar Wilde said” — actually he didn’t, but that’s okay, he could have — “‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’
“We encourage people — we encourage the world — to be themselves.”
As to Zusha’s music, “the idea is improvising that which is always structured, but to hold onto the structure,” Elisha said. The music is a model for life, he added. “We are trying religiously to hold onto something that is old and true, and also to let it apply today.
“Musically, the way that manifests itself is that we play niggunim — wordless melodies — that have structures, but they are fluid and improvised and in the moment. When we play the same niggumim with different musicians, every time it becomes something different.”
“We hold onto the structure, and we know it very well, and then at certain moments there is a chance to let go and let HaShem do it,” Shlomo said.
“We learn from the story of having two pockets, one with a note that says ‘I am nothing but dirt and ashes,’ and the other saying ‘For my sake the world was created.’ We learn from tradition, and we are meant to bring new life to these ideas. We have something of value, and that is ourselves.”
“We have learned so much from other generations,” Elisha said. “Torah, mitzvos, and halacha. We have learned the sweetness of it all. We are digging very deeply into the wellspring of Yiddish to find fresh water for our generation, and to bring the water to irrigate the dry land, to make sure that everyone is nourished, and that we can find ourselves once again in Gan Eden.” In Adam and Eve’s Paradise. “We are helping everyone grow from seeds into the trees they are meant to be,” he said, quoting one of Zusha’s songs.
Zusha is leading a Purim service in Brooklyn this year, for the second time. (See box for details.) “Last year it was a sold-out crowd,” Zachariah said. “It was amazing. People from all streams came and celebrated Purim together. It’s so amazing to see that Jews today are celebrating something that happened when the Persian Empire was still standing. And it’s in a secular venue.”
“Last year, the joy there was palpable, and it was incredible,” Shlomo added.
“We are celebrating something so ancient and so modern,” Elisha said.
Zusha is doing well. “We came out with an album last month that reached number 2 on Billboard’s world music charts,” Zachariah said. “When the album was released, we toured England, Israel, and all across the United States.
“We hope that our music will be about thriving, not surviving.”
“It’s an incredibly soulful sound that the three of them came up with,” Zalmen Mlotek, Elisha’s father, said. “They weren’t looking to form a band; the music came from a very natural spiritual place, and that’s what comes through on their recordings. It crosses over boundaries in terms of language, and even of religion on a certain level.
“The music is so soulful that it’s accessible to pretty much everybody,” he continued. “In the concerts I’ve been to, the audience is very very mixed, Jewish and non-Jewish.
“For me, having seen Elisha grow up, having the musicality he had from a very early age, it’s wonderful seeing it manifest in this way. It just naturally comes out of him. It’s very beautiful to watch.”
How would he describe Zusha’s music? “It’s melodies,” Zalmen said. “They have that soulful bent, but they’re also rhythmically hypnotic. There’s something about repetition. When you repeat a melody over and over again, if as a performer you are invested in the performance, you find new things every time you repeat it, and that gets conveyed.
“It’s one thing to sing a chorus 17 times, but if you can stay connected with it, then it is not rote. Then it is infectious and attractive.
“That’s one of the gifts they have. They also are humble, and the humility comes through all the time in their performance, whether it is for a big crowd in the High Line Ballroom or for a kumsitz in someone’s home. There is a sweetness in it, and that is very comforting.
“The music certainly comes out of the tradition of singing nigguns, but these are 20-something-year-old American kids, who have heard everything. Because their ears have been open all their lives, they have taken in everything, from jazz to scat to reggae to folk music, and it all permeates their sound.”
Last year, Zalmen said, he produced the SummerStage Yiddish Soul concert in Central Park that featured Zusha. “There were over 3,000 people in the audience, and kids just stormed the stage when they came on,” he said. “We will be doing it again this year on June 15 in Central Park. It’s very exciting to watch how excited young kids get responding to this music.”
He is very proud of his son and his son’s friends, Zalmen said, although it was entirely unnecessary for him to put such an obvious sentiment into words. “They are really committed to making this sound together, and making it the best that they can be together.
“It’s inspiring,” he said.
“We are trying to raise the standard with every niggun,” Shlomo concluded. “We are trying to go higher and higher. We are trying to raise the bar.”
What: Play at the Purim Festival, which includes a full megillah reading
Where: At the Brooklyn Bowl, 61 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn
When: Wednesday, March 23, at 8 p.m.
For information and tickets: Go to www.zusha.com/tour