Singing from his heart

Singing from his heart

Yoni Stokar of Fair Lawn releases his first album

Yoni Stokar
Yoni Stokar

We’ve noticed a small explosion in the Jewish world as young cantors, rabbis, and lay leaders have been creating music that draws on their deep connections to Jewish life and learning — and also from the music that surrounds them in the outside world.

In doing so, they’re carrying on the ancient Jewish tradition of melding the inner and outer worlds to make distinctive new things that carry the DNA of their ancestors.

Yoni Stokar is a cantor in Fair Lawn and an occupational therapist whose practice centers in Monsey. Depending on definition, he’s not quite a Jersey boy — he was born in New Orleans, although he moved to Teaneck when he was a small child, grew up there, and moved back to Bergen County, where he plans to stay, during the pandemic — but he’s deeply rooted here.

He just released his first album, Atzeres; it is, among other things, a map of the path he’s traveled, but in song instead of graphics.

Yoni — let’s call him that, because Cantor or Chazzan Stokar sounds a bit too constricting to describe him fully — calls his album Atzeres because “one of the definitions of that word is assembly.” Shemini Atzeret, literally the eighth day of assembly — the last day of Sukkot, before the wild revelry of Simchat Torah — is the extra day, folklore tells us, that God took to keep the people gathered with each other, and with God. It is also about coming together.

Yoni Stokar plays at the Grow Torah Harvest Festival in September 2022. (Danny Landesman)

Yoni wrote the title song, Atzeres, on the 10-track album “over a two-year cycle of the shalom regalim,” the three pilgrimage festivals, he said; he composed the last song on a recent Shavuot, which ends the annual cycle that Rosh Hashanah begins. “Atzeret also means culmination,” Yoni said.

The songs “are a mix,” he continued. “Some are set to liturgical lines from tefillot,” prayers, and “a few are niggunim, wordless melodies. It’s a compilation of melodies that are set to prayers and are intended to act as prayers.”

The melodies are “a blend of genres. Some are ballads, in songwriter/singer style. Some are light melodies. Some are more rock. And there’s a New Orleans-style traditional second-line exuberant, drum-heavy L’cha Dodi.

“It’s an ode to all the places, all the communities, all the musical styles that have been part of my journey to where I am now,” he said.

Yoni Stokar’s journey started in New Orleans in 1988; on his mother’s side, he’s seventh-generation there. “My ancestors came to New Orleans from Europe in the mid 1800s; my grandparents were born and raised in New Orleans and my mom was born and raised in New Orleans. My parents ended up back down there shortly before I was born. Although we spent only a little bit of time there before we left, I have always felt very connected to it.

“It has such a unique vibe, both generally and musically.”

After they left Louisiana, the Stokar family — Yoni’s parents are Avi and Suzanne; Yoni is the middle of five children and the only girl in the family is the oldest sibling — moved first to Monsey and then to Teaneck. He went to high school at the Mesivta of North Jersey, an all-boys Orthodox high school housed “in the IDT building in Newark,” he said. “It was a unique way to go to school. We were in an office building that had a kosher cafeteria, a gym, a pool, and a workout gym, and we could use all of them.”

He always was musical; a talent he inherited from his family. “We are a big singing household,” he said. “My dad sings. We were the kind of house that was big on Shabbes zmiros”; in other words, they’d sit around the table on Shabbat, belting out songs. “I was in a youth choir, Kol Noar. My father isn’t a trained musician, but starting before I was born, sometimes he would lead High Holidays services.

“My brothers and I would stand next to him and prepare with him. I picked up on that from a young age.

“When I started leading High Holidays services in college, it came very naturally to me, because of that. I already was very familiar with the nusach.

Around the time he started high school, “I started playing drums — drums are my primary instrument. I took lessons every week, and very early on I started a band with three of my best friends from Teaneck. We played wherever we could, in basement fundraisers and battle-of-the-bands. Things like that. My band was called the Stoke Brigade. It was a lot of fun.”

After he graduated from high school, Yoni went to Israel, and stayed for two years, studying in a yeshiva in Beit Shemesh and “spending a lot of time in Mevo Modi’im, the Carlebach moshav,” he said. “My musical consciousness was going through an expansion. Until then, it was mainly Israeli pop, Miami Boys Choir, things like that. I was expanding to Carlebach, chasidisch niggunim, and more.” He also was able to meet many of the musicians who made their way to the Carlebach moshav.

In Israel, Yoni said, “I described myself as more of a davener than a learner. I leaned in a lot to the davening.” Although he occasionally would find himself in mild trouble because he’d end up late to class because the davening had so entranced him, he combined his passion for prayer with scholarship “to grab any siddur I could find to see the different liturgies.” He’d compare the minor differences he found and gain insight from them.

He also came to realize something that probably he’d already known deep down. “There are very few places where even liturgical scholars — and I am not a liturgical scholar — would say that there is only one tune. There probably is no prayer for which there is only one tune.

“That is one of the most beautiful and unique things about our prayer system. We don’t have just one tune. A person can find their own tune and really make it their own.”

After Israel, Yoni went to Queens College, as he searched for a yeshiva where he could continue his Jewish learning in a way that resonated with him. “I studied in a variety of yeshivas, trying to find my place,” he said. “I really bounced around for a bit. And then I was really lucky to find a yeshiva in the last months before I got married.” That was in 2010. His wife, Chavie Lieber, is a Wall Street Journal writer whose work appears in the paper’s Style section.

Yoni began his secular studies at Queens hoping to become a music therapist. “I was also doing some work at a group home in Borough Park called Miskhan,” he said. “I was part of a team of people who would come for Shabbat and chaggim to make their Shabbes leibedik,” he said. To make it warm. To fill it with heart. To make it feel like a real Shabbat, not an institutional simulacrum. “I also worked at Camp HASC,” for children with special needs. “My supervisor at Mishkan, and some of the supervisors around me at HASC, suggested that maybe I should do occupational therapy. So I pivoted my studies in Queens so I could apply to graduate school in occupational therapy.”

During his time in Queens College, “one year, during winter vacation, when my friends were off from YU, we did a weeklong kollel,” intense all-day studying, “in my parents’ basement,” he said. “That was something unheard of in the modern Orthodox community. It was a neo-chasidic kollel.

“There were about 20 of us, in my parents’ basement. We had different rabbis come in to teach us, and a lot of people coming in and out all day, every day, and we had a seder niggun every night.

“It was called Kollel Tamid, but its nickname was the Stollel,” because it was the Stokar kollel.

It went on for years. “My neighbor from across the street came, and was so taken with it that he said, ‘I have a bigger basement than your parents do,’ so for a few years we had it in my neighbor’s basement.

Yoni Stokar and his band play at a wedding in Paterson.

“It was a grassroots movement,” Yoni continued. “We were a bunch of college kids. It was a minyan for a group of people who are tapped into chassidut, and into the possibility of having a real chevrah,” of a real bond of friendship and deep connection between study partners, because the act of studying together is soul-deep and therefore inherently intimate. “It’s about expanding the closeness with people who are not your family but become your family.

“Then we started getting together for the first motzei Shabbes of Slichot, and then it expanded out of the basement into the social hall at Keter Torah.” That’s Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck.

“And then Rabbi Weinberg” — that’s Moshe Tzvi Weinberg — “who at the time was at TABC” — Torah Academy of Bergen County, an Orthodox, Teaneck-based high school for boys; it might be worth noting here that the Stollel was only for men — “was a pillar of the Stollel.”

Rabbi Weinberg is now the mashpia — the spiritual mentor — at Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, and the Stollel, in its new, expanded, and changed form, but a form that still has its DNA in Yoni’s parents’ basement — “my parent are wonderful,” he said — continues. “It is still carrying the torch, and it is has become an identity for the community,” he said.

“It was formative for me, and it grew into something that was bigger than me.”

While he was in college, “I started playing with a band that I joined, called the Ta Shma Orchestra. Now I co-own the band, and I’m its musical director. We do weddings, all kinds of affairs and events, most Jewish.”

How does he do all that? “I have an amazing partner in Chavie,” he said.

He earned a master’s degree in occupational therapy in York College, part of the CUNY system. “I have a private practice,” he said. “I don’t specialize in neurological diagnoses, but I work primarily with people who have had strokes, ALS, or similar conditions.

“Most of my work is in the Jewish community in Monsey. It is amazing to work there. Our primary focus is on independence in day-to-day activities. For religious Jews, religious practices make up a lot of those day-to-day activities. When I meet with clients to evaluate them, I ask them about things like putting on their tallis and tefillin.”

About a year and a half after they got married, Yoni and Chavie moved to the Upper West Side, and Yoni’s musical horizons expanded again.

He and Chavie discovered Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the unaffiliated-but-Conservative community that’s known for the wide range and beauty of its music; its cantor and rabbis lead the congregation in ways that are less performative than they are devotional, and they have great emotional depth.

Yoni Stokar and Chavie Lieber hold their sons, Joseph and Perry.

Because it has so many melodies at its command and has taught its members to be comfortable switching between them, and learning new ones, Yoni felt comfortable at BJ. “There are very few shuls that are as diverse. Most of them get caught up in regularly established tunes.” BJ does not. “That’s what made it so easy to me to attach to BJ.”

His love for that practice “comes from my jam band influence,” Yoni continued. “Phish is one of my favorite bands. They don’t play the same songs two nights in a row. That is my vibe. I don’t feel the need to redo a song we did the last time, even if it was awesome.

“I sing what my heart is singing.”

Chavie and Yoni had a child then — now they have two sons — and they took him to kids’ services at BJ. Yoni found them extraordinary. BJ has Torah services as part of kids’ services, even for the very little ones. “I’ve never seen chinuch like that before,” Yoni said.

It also was his introduction to egalitarian services; until then, his experience had been entirely in the Orthodox world.

He traveled and amassed new experiences.

“In 2019, I led High Holidays services in New Orleans, in my great-grandparents’ synagogue, Anshe Sfard,” he said. “The building is old — I think from the late 1800s — and it’s really cool. It’s a fascinating piece of history.

“I came back from my trips there just completely recharged, with my love for the music of New Orleans. Shortly after that I wrote a L’cha Dodi melody as a second line song.”

And then the pandemic struck.

“It was a tumultuous, scary time for everyone,” Yoni said. “We bounced around a little bit; we spent a month in Westchester with one of my wife’s sisters, and a couple of months in Monsey — that’s where my wife is from. In the summer of 2020, we wanted to go back to Manhattan, but we were uncertain about what the school year would be like. We weren’t getting any information from the preschool.

“My brother and sister-in-law and their four boys were living in Fair Lawn, I have family in Teaneck, my wife is from Monsey, so we started looking around at places near them. We decided we want to be near family.”

So Yoni, Chavie, and their young sons, Joseph and Perry,  moved to Fair Lawn in 2020. “And that’s when I heard about a position at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.” It’s a Conservative shul; Yoni’s background is very much in the Orthodox world — but he feels beyond labels now.

“Liturgically, I was familiar with the siddur, and familiar with egalitarian spaces,” he said. He and the shul have become comfortable with each other in the last three years. “We have figured out how to balance it,” he said. “I have learned how to introduce new songs to them without overwhelming them, and that allows them to tap into some of these songs.”

He was surprised to find that the shul already used music by the chasidic composer Rabbi Michel Twerski of Milwaukee. “Some of his melodies were already floating through the shul,” he said.

He’s quick to give credit to the shul’s leader, Rabbi Rachel Salston. “She is tremendous and wonderful, and we are a great team,” he said. “I don’t do this on my own! We have a wonderful team at the shul. We are still in the post-covid regrowth period; we are trying to bring more people back in person.

“We’ve had events so far, and gatherings, and it feels so much stronger already, so much more of a chevra and kehillah. It’s just getting stronger and stronger. On Rosh Hashanah, I felt so comforted by feeling that the kehillah was behind me, in a way that feels really special.”

In other words, every Shabbat and chag is increasingly an atzeres — or to be Sephardi about the pronunciation, as most of us are, it’s an atzeret.

Which brings us back to the album.

Each of the songs is part of Yoni’s life. Yes, there’s the second-line L’cha Dodi. There’s another song that features the nearly mythic Jewish klezmer clarinetist, bluegrass mandolin player, and all-around living miracle Andy Statman.

There’s a story to that song.

Yoni originally called it the Cancellation Niggun. It came from his work as an occupational therapist. He paid a home visit to a potential client — or at least he tried to.

“He didn’t open the door when I knocked,” Yoni said. “He didn’t want to do the session. I begged him. He finally opened the door, and then he got upset and slammed the door in my face.

“In that moment, I turned around and started humming the hook to this song.”

He wrote it, called it the Cancellation Niggun because it came to him after he was canceled, and recorded it. And then his wife told him that she loved the song but the name was wrong. She’s started davening to that music, and wanted a name that was more accessible. It’s called Hachasidim now. At the end, his two sons hum it. That could be cutesy, but it’s not. Instead, it’s deeply joyful.

And so is the entire album. It’s streaming on all platforms, Yoni said; those include Apple Music, Spotify, and on a Jewish version of Spotify called 24/6.

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