Safam turns 40

Safam turns 40

'Jewish supergroup' to play concert in Fair Lawn

From left, Dan Funk, Joel Sussman, Robbie Solomon, and Alan Melson are Safam.

So they’re not as old as, say, the Rolling Stones – they’ve been together a mere 40 years, compared to the Stones’ 52 – and they are famous in a much smaller world. Still, in that world, Safam is a very big name.

So the fact that it is choosing to celebrate its 40th anniversary in Fair Lawn is big news.

Safam’s four founding members – who, impressively, still are Safam today – met at the Zamir Chorale. Most of them were graduate students, and all of them lived in Boston. Each was pursuing a career, but they all loved to sing. Soon they realized that as much as they loved singing choral music, it was not enough for them.

“Choir music is wonderful, but you have to be in a choir to do it,” Daniel Funk said. Mr. Funk, one of Safam’s lead singers, also is the group’s business manager and its spokesman. “In a smaller group, you have to do something different.” Today, college and graduate students’ urge to experiment with different kinds of choral music could be met by the many a cappella groups that now dot the Jewish landscape, but that’s now. Then, it was not so easy.

So the four men founded Safam. (They perform with a drummer and a bass player, but those performers are not members of Safam, and many have cycled through it.)

When they began, “we had no illusions about doing anything other than performing some Israeli music, some chasidic music – bringing some lively Jewish music out there,” Mr. Funk said. “We really enjoyed it, so we would get together and start singing, and then we started booking concerts, and little by little things took off.

“We had no illusions about being a Jewish supergroup – but without sounding immodest, that’s what we became in the 70s, 80s, and 90s,” he said. “We put out an album every few years, and they seem to have had an impact.”

Eventually, they realized that two of the group’s members, Robbie Solomon and Joel Sussman, “are fantastic songwriters, so we shifted gradually until now we do about 90 percent original songs.”

Many of Safam’s songs are lighthearted and bouncy; others focus on social issues. When the group was formed, the most pressing issue roiling the Jewish world was the grim situation faced by Soviet Jews, and the need to get them out of there. The group’s signature song, Mr. Funk said, is “Leaving Mother Russia.”

“The first time we performed it, none of us had heard it,” he said. “Robbie surprised us with it at an early concert at Rutgers Hillel in 1977. He had written it the week before, but he didn’t tell us about it. We were on stage, and he took over the mike, sat down, and sang it.

“He blew everyone away. We were on stage, and we were in awe just as much as everyone in the audience. That was one of the most amazing moments I’ve had as a performer.”

And then, a few years ago, that moment was topped.

“We were playing at a synagogue in Boston, at a conference where Natan Sharansky” – the famous refusenik, now a prominent Israeli statesman; in the 1970s, a Soviet prisoner named Anatoly Shcharansky, for whom the song was written – “was the keynote speaker. We sang a few other songs, and then ‘Leaving Mother Russia,’ and as the last verse was being sung, and everyone was standing up and clapping, he came walking up the bimah and stood with us.

“Talk about getting chills. Amazing. It was amazing.”

Mr. Funk is the son of Rabbi Julius Funk, who was Rutgers’ Hillel director for 40 years; he grew up in Highland Park. Like most of the other members of Safam, Mr. Funk had another career. Although he now is retired, he is a lawyer. “For 32 years, I was the city solicitor for Newton, Mass.,” he said. He also is a High Holy Day cantor, as are Mr. Sussman and Alan Nelson; Robbie Solomon is a fulltime cantor and composer.

He stresses the accessibility and sheer fun of Safam’s music. “Our sound is a synthesis of our Jewish and American roots,” he said. “People walk out feeling good about their Jewishness.”

Among those people is Alan Eliscu of Fair Lawn, a longtime member of Temple Beth Sholom there and an even longer-time Safam superfan.

“Safam first came to Beth Sholom 18 years ago, and my wife, Renee, and I bought tickets,” he said. “We had never heard of them – but we became instant groupies.

“And that is not an unusual thing for this group,” he said. Its followers are loyal – perhaps less Rolling Stones than the Grateful Dead?

“We have followed them to the Berkshires, to Albany, to synagogues on Long Island, in New Jersey, in Florida. We saw them in Florida on Christmas day – which is what Jews do on Christmas.”

Safam has been slowing down recently, he said, and that saddened him. “I had a selfish motive in bringing them to our synagogue again,” he said. “So I presented it to our board, and they said that if I’m willing to be the guy who carries the reins, then they will be more than glad to let me do it. If you want to do it, they said, go right ahead.

“So from then, nine months ago, I had a project.”

He enlisted the help of Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan and Adina Avery-Grossman from one of the other Beth Sholoms, Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck. The children’s choir there, Tzipporei Shalom, which performs only one concert outside its own shul each year, will sing a song with Safam, after performing alone for about 10 minutes.

Has time’s passage affected Safam? “We are still performing, and people say that like fine wine, we are improving with age,” Mr. Funk said. He is excited about returning to Beth Sholom. “For people who know us, there will be a fine sense of recognition and nostalgia. For those who don’t know us – they will become new fans!”

Who: Safam

What: Will be in concert

Where: At Temple Beth Sholom, 40-25 Fair Lawn Ave., Fair Lawn

When: Sunday, April 6, at 1:30 p.m.

Where to buy tickets: At Beth Sholom, the Glen Rock Jewish Center, and the JCC of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah

How much: General seating, $36; preferred seating, $54; patron seating (with CD, one per family, and dessert buffet), $72; children 14 and under, $18

For information: (201) 797-9321

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