Music is breath, song is life
Joey Weisenberg talks before his visit to Teaneck
It’s hard to use words on paper to write about the magic that happens when human voices come together to make music.
Words on paper absolutely can make art and magic — but it’s a different art and magic.
Given the task of using words on paper to try to describe the art and magic of Joey Weisenberg — he’d probably say it’s not just his art and magic, it’s the art and magic that any group of people in general, and any group of Jews in particular, could make — here goes.
But first, a disclaimer. It’s not usually appropriate for a story about a musician to say that the music is glorious — this is, after all, not a review — but it’s a truth that might get lost in all the words. So here those words are, but please read them with that understanding in mind.
Joey Weisenberg is the founder of the Rising Song Institute at the Hadar Institute; Hadar, as its website, hadar.org tells us, “empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah, Avodah, and Hesed” — on the study and the embodiment of Torah, and service to God and the community, and on acts of lovingkindness. It’s a group devoted to rigorous egalitarian Jewish learning and community; Kehillat Hadar, which no longer is connected to Hadar officially but shares DNA and worldview, provides traditional, intense egalitarian davening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and now in other places across the country using that same model.
Mr. Weisenberg is a singer; he’s a performer, but he’s also a creator of group song. “I really love singing with people, and nothing makes me happier than going into a roomful of people, striking a chord, starting a song, and having everybody join in,” he said.
Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble are going to be at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck on June 4; he’s already been at many other local shuls, in both Northern New Jersey and MetroWest. His visit to Beth Sholom will not be his first there.
Mr. Weisenberg explained why song is so potent. “Music is one of those unseen forces in the world,” he said. “It reminds us of our creative spirit, which inspires us to go on living, to connect with our fellow human beings, to cry and to rejoice.
“The ancient Jewish sages thought that music was both a physical sound that we make — a sound that’s made by professionals and amateurs and artists alike — and also that music is the metaphoric story of life itself. The song that we sing, the song that any one of us sings, is our life.
“When we live, we are singing our song.”
Mr. Weisenberg’s visits include both performance and group singing. It’s different every time, he said; that’s because the people, the place, the time all vary. “As we go through life, we experience what we experience, and we give back to the world the song that we leave behind.
“That’s a nice thing about song. About singing. Almost everybody can open their mouths and tell a story or sing a song. We all have different tonalities, but it comes out beautiful nevertheless.”
Does that mean that even those of us who cannot sing somehow can sing? “It means that some people are super-trained in Western tuning, and other people are not, but when they open their mouths, their unique voices come out,” Mr. Weisenberg said.
What about the presence or absence of words? What’s the difference between singing a song and a niggun, a wordless melody? “Typically Jews start with words, and eventually we leave them behind,” he said. “We start with the poetic and philosophical traditions of our ancestors, and eventually we know that the words cannot convey the full depth and beauty and urgency and terror of life. So the niggun is the prayer that bubbles up from inside our guts, from beyond our intellect.”
Does that mean that song has to be prayer? What about people for whom praying does not come easily, or even necessarily at all? “The conventional prayer might be a bunch of words that we all utter in unison, but the real prayer is the feelings and the questions and the terrors and the beauty and the wonder that bubble up from within us,” Mr. Weisenberg answered.
So does that kind of prayer require faith? “Prayer comes from all people,” he said. “It is the essence of living. It is not about what you believe so much as it is about the essence of being.”
Well then, what is time spent with Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble like? “Hopefully, what we will do is get into a room together, sing songs together,” Mr. Weisenberg said. “There are four wonderful musicians in the Hadar Ensemble. And two things have to happen. The band has to play, and the people have to join the song.
“That’s where things get really special.
“I like to call what I do a concert gathering. There are elements of a typical concert; we will be playing something for people in a typical proscenium-style performance. The gathering aspect is that everybody brings their voices to the song, and we end up with something unexpected and spontaneous.”
If you don’t want to sing, though, don’t worry. This isn’t only for choristers manqué. You’re still welcome. “There will be plenty to listen to. Nobody should be intimated. It’s the opportunity to sit in the song space and be surrounded by song.
“Some people sing actively, others sit quietly and soak it all in, and everybody is bringing their presence to the event.”
It’s always different, and it’s always unpredictable, Mr. Weisenberg continued. “I’ve been all over the world singing with people, and there have been times when the sound of singing becomes angelic.
“It’s also true that if you recorded it and listened to it, it might not be so great, but in the moment you have the feeling of the angels rising up and coming down, rising up and coming down the ladder between here and the heavens.”
Song also can lead to an awed hush. “When things get really really great in the singing session, we sometimes also find the opposite. We can get completely silent together, and that silence forms a magnificent counterpoint to the song.”
The physical surroundings for a session can matter too, but that’s less important than the people who fill it and the music they make, Mr. Weisenberg said. “It’s always special to sing in a synagogue that is designed for sacred expression, but the beauty of the space is not the main determining factor in how special the event is. I’ve been in some unattractive places where the singing has been absolutely beautiful, and in some very attractive places where the singing isn’t working as well because people are so busy being astounded by their surroundings.
“I love singing in basements and stairwells and atriums and vestibules; places that weren’t designed for singing, but you’re walking through it with a few friends, and suddenly you start singing and you realize that the resonance of the place is overwhelming.”
Music has been a constant in Jewish life, going all the way back to the very beginning, Mr. Weisenberg said. It goes back to Genesis 4:20-21; as the Jewish Publication Society puts it, “Now Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle. And his brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who grasp a lyre and a flute.”
“The first musician was the brother of the first shepherd, so music began as soon as domestication started to occur,” Mr. Weisenberg said. “Music has always been with us, throughout Jewish history. One of its grandest moments was in the Temple in Jerusalem; there were orchestras, and musicians and singers would play together all the time. After the Temple fell, there were some restrictions on music, but we have been working for the 2,000 years since then to recover the lost harps and find the old songs that were left behind.”
But we don’t stop creating new music, he added.
“The old songs are continuous with the new ones. We don’t replace. We add. That is the Jewish tradition. There is a concept that a niggun has techias,” as in techiat hametim. Resurrection. “That means that niggunim come and they go. They fade. They are reincarnated. There are circles and cycles of song; the old ones fade away, but somehow they are reconstituted and come back to life. We sing the same notes, but they flutter around in new ways.”
Those ways are not entirely unlike the way in which old names fade away and then are renewed — there are baby Sadies and elementary-school Faygies and middle-school Evelyns who are named after their great-grandparents. It took quite a few generations for those names to come back to life, but eventually they did.
Songs are like that too, Mr. Weisenberg agreed.
His own story — and his song — began in Milwaukee, where Mr. Weisenberg was born 41 years ago. “My grandfather, Milt Ettenheim, belonged to all nine of the shuls in the city, so we had a bit of classical Reform and Conservative heritage, but he also was a chasid of Michel Twerski,” the Milwaukee-based rabbi and composer. He also was the brother of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, the psychiatrist who specialized in treating patients suffering from substance abuse and who lived in Teaneck for years until he made aliyah. (Abraham Twerski died in Israel in 2021; he was 90.)
“My grandfather taught me that there is a lot to learn from all sides,” he added.
“I came to New York to go to Columbia; I lived in Brooklyn for a decade plus, working as a musician and session musician, and I arranged a lot of music.
“I did a lot of musical tourism in those days,” he continued. “That’s going around and playing music with all sorts of people, and there is so much music in New York. And over the years I started feeling that my home was in Jewish music. My home was in my ancestral music, in Jewish song. And I was able to synthesize and translate much of the modern American soundscape into Jewish song, and I also was able to synthesize and translate much of Jewish song into the modern American soundscape.”
His physical home now is in Philadelphia.
Mr. Weisenberg “was a student at the Hadar yeshiva in its first summer of existence,” in 2006. “I have always been a fan and student of Hadar’s Torah,” Hadar’s teaching, its basic truth. “My goal has been to augment that Torah with music. The Torah and the music form two sides of an arch. They are mutually supportive.”
The Philadelphia-based Rising Song Institute, which buttresses that arch, offers master classes, videos, recordings, and many ways to connect with the community, the Jewish world, and your own soul; it’s online at risingsong.org; Hadar is at hadar.org.
Mr. Weisenberg has recorded eight albums of his own music, he said. In Teaneck, “I will be drawing songs from those albums and also singing some that are in the process of being composed, so that we can advance them together.
“My music typically includes a heavy dose of old-style niggunim, mixed with the American roots musical soundscape I have grown up with, and also with a touch of Bach.
“Jewish life in general requires music to animate it,” he said. “The music is the breath of life that is blown into it. When we take a tradition and we sing it, it comes to life.
“When we sing our traditions, they have the breath of life breathed into them.”
Who: Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble, also featuring Rabbi Deborah Sacks Mintz
What: Will be at a concert gathering
Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck
When: On Sunday, June 4; the concert is at 6 p.m., and a reception will follow at 8.
How much: Tickets are $36 in advance; $40 at the door; the reception is $125.
For tickets: Go to Beth Sholom’s website, cbsteaneck.org, and click on the box for the concert gathering.