Singing the songs of Shabbat

Singing the songs of Shabbat

Yair Rosenberg, writer for the Atlantic, releases ‘Az Yashir’ album

Yair Rosenberg
Yair Rosenberg

If you see the name Yair Rosenberg online or in hard copy, the odds are that it’s as a byline.

Mr. Rosenberg is a prodigiously talented journalist; after starting to interview big-name subjects when he was frighteningly young, still a student at Harvard, he moved first to Tablet, where he reported, blogged, and tweeted, and then to the Atlantic. He’s at that storied magazine now, as one of its newsletter writers; that group’s work is used as a lure to get readers to pay to breach the firewall, and then as a reward once they do.

But now, Mr. Rosenberg is in the news because he’s released his first album, a collection of Shabbat songs he composed and sings on “Az Yashir.” It’s almost a left brain-right brain split; the songs are accessible, designed to be easy for listeners to grasp, and for those listeners to become singers themselves. They’ve been written to be shared.

One of the things that runs through Mr. Rosenberg’s world, which is open, expansive, and never pretends that everyone and everything is Jewish, or that pop culture and high culture and middlebrow culture don’t exist, is, perhaps paradoxically, its deep Jewishness.

He comes by that naturally, as he does his musicality.

His father’s father, Rabbi Israel David Rosenberg, “was a chasidic composer of some note,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “People still sing his songs.”

Yair Rosenberg

Rabbi Rosenberg, who was born in Poland and studied in a yeshiva in Lithuania, escaped from Europe to Shanghai during World War II with his fellow students and teachers. They got visas from the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who risked his life and sacrificed his career to get as many Jews as possible the credentials that allowed them to flee the Holocaust. (Rabbi Rosenberg’s parents and siblings, who did not have access to Mr. Sugihara’s visas, were murdered in the Shoah.) After the war ended, Rabbi Rosenberg left Shanghai, eventually made his way to America, and became the shamash at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, the Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that has been the spiritual home of many socially prominent Jews over the last century and a quarter or so. “He trained all the young men to read Torah, he taught them to lead, and he set the musical style there,” his grandson said.

“Not only was he the shamash, he also had smicha, rabbinic ordination, and he was a very musical person. He was said to be able to remember any melody after hearing it once.”

Rabbi Rosenberg composed his most famous song, “Shira HaGeulah,” the Song of Redemption, in Shanghai, Mr. Rosenberg said; it’s still sung today, as a quick look at Google and YouTube makes clear. The lyrics are a poem that the Lubavitcher rebbe wrote to the students sheltering in Asia, giving them hope; Mr. Rosenberg set it to music as a mnemonic, because he felt strongly that it should be remembered.

When he got to the United States, Rabbi Rosenberg married Yair’s grandmother, Goldie. The Lubavitcher rebbe performed the ceremony. The Rosenbergs weren’t quite Lubavitch, their grandson said, but weren’t really not Lubavitch either. “They were both of Chabad and outside it,” he said; he seems to have inherited that inside-outside vision.

Mr. Rosenberg’s mother’s parents also came from Europe; they left Germany before the war.

Both of his parents, Rabbi Moshe and Dina Rosenberg, are educators; both teach at SAR in Riverdale. Ms. Rosenberg teaches special education there, as she has for 30-some-odd years. “She has taught generations of students there,” her son said. Rabbi Rosenberg teaches Gemara; he also leads afterschool clubs that look at less conventional material. Rabbi Rosenberg perhaps is best known as the author of “The (Unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah.” It’s a passion project that became a bestseller; it’s an example of the kind of interests that enflame the Rosenberg family. “My parents both read extremely widely,” Yair said. “That’s why we all are big readers. And he can write prose and poetry, and fiction; there’s not a genre that he can’t do.’


Yair Rosenberg’s “Az Yashir” sits on a bookshelf in his home.

Yair, who grew up in Queens, went to SAR through eighth grade, and then he went to high school at MTA, in upper Manhattan. After that, he went to Harvard, where he concentrated in Jewish studies and history, and “I was the movie editor at the Crimson,” the university’s newspaper, he said. “It was the best job at the paper, because I could write about things just because they were interesting and fun.”

Because his background was not only so deeply Jewish, but also so eclectic, he felt comfortable at Harvard, although it was the first school he’d gone to outside the Jewish world. “My parents are wonderful teachers,” he said. “We learned a lot from them directly, and also from watching them. When you have a parent who is a rabbi, you learn a lot about the human experience, over time, just by watching.

“The greatest compliment I can pay them is that they never placed expectations on us. It’s the preacher’s kid phenomenon. A lot of kids of authority figures feel they are expected to have more answers, more knowledge, more authority, than their peers do. That makes no sense. My parents — and my community — were very good at insulating us and letting us be who each of us is.”

He tells a story about how his background made him both fit in and stand out. “People from backgrounds like mine bring certain things that the average kid is not used to having,” he said. He told the story of sitting in a circle in a freshman intro course, in the kind of ice-breaking session where students are meant to get to know each other. They had to go around the circle and explain why they were there. The other students talked about the exceptional professor and the fascination of the subject, but he brought up the obligation he felt to take this foundational class. The other students thought in terms of their own development, and he was moved by communal moral responsibility. The other students were interested in what he thought of as an entirely uninteresting response. This isn’t good or bad, he stressed; it’s just a different way of thinking. “I didn’t realize how different it was,” he said.

After he graduated from college in 2012, without being entirely sure about what he wanted to do, Mr. Rosenberg found himself writing; moreover, he found that he was getting them published. “I was not intending to be a journalist,” he said. “I intended to maybe write things on the side.” But he wasn’t entirely sure on the side what. What would his main job be? In the meantime, “I found myself pitching pieces to outlets about subjects that I felt were underserved and undercovered, if they were covered at all. Usually they were about religion, or Jews, or antisemitism.

“I discovered that if you can explain things thoughtfully that other people haven’t explained at all, people will publish you. So I did it once, and then I did it again, and then people started asking me for more and more of them, and that snowballed into jobs. But I never expected to be doing it.”

Pages from Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg’s “The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah.”

He also worked for Walter Russell Mead, the academic — formerly at Yale, now the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College in the Hudson River Valley — who just wrote a well-received book about Israel. “The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People” is a well-argued book by a non-Jew that examines how Israel has been seen and treated across the American political spectrum. “It’s a fantastic book,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “When I worked for him, I learned about how to write, and how to think about issues, and how to get people to think about things. It influenced my trajectory — it was during the time that I worked for him that I started pitching pieces to Tablet.”

Last November, after 10 years at Tablet, Mr. Rosenberg moved over to the Atlantic, where he writes a newsletter, Deep Shtetl; according to the venerable magazine’s website, the newsletter is “A curious person’s guide to the stories behind the stories, demystifying the potent but often misunderstood forces that shape our world, from religious faith to social-media technology to popular culture.” (It’s one of the Atlantic’s suite of newsletters, written by a range of experienced, smart journalists and thinkers, that are mostly behind a paywall as the publication experiments with how to make good journalism pay for itself.)

In Deep Shtetl, Mr. Rosenberg explores issues that surface in the culture through an inevitably Jewish lens; most recently he’s written about Kanye West, whose mental illness, while both obvious and acknowledged, neither explains nor excuses his antisemitism, he writes. But he goes far beyond the obvious, ignoring the facile, to explore the history of antisemitism. That of course is a huge topic, and his is not an endless newsletter, but he does a very good job in a fairly small space. And that’s just one of many thoughtful examinations of important but off-putting issues he explores.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that has made Mr. Rosenberg the target of antisemitic trolling; in 2016 the Anti-Defamation League named him as the recipient of the next-to-worst number of antisemitic garbage messages and threats. Mr. Rosenberg responded with an op-ed in the New York Times. “My parents didn’t raise me to be number 2,” he wrote there. “Fortunately, there’s always 2020.”

He has not toned down his writing — which, it must be stressed, is thoughtful, not incendiary — but he has adjusted to the reality of the threats.

In 2015, Mr. Rosenberg spent a year in Israel as a Dorot fellow. He wrote while he was there, but also had the chance to think about music. “I had money from Dorot for creative work,” he said. “They encourage you to do something that you otherwise would not have done.” Since he was a child, he’d always composed music in his head, he said. “But I didn’t do anything with them, because I don’t play any instruments, and I don’t read music.” But still he heard those songs, and he wanted to work with them.

“I figured out how much it would take to produce some of my compositions — to rent a studio, book musicians,” and do all the other things he first had to discover, and then price. “I had to find somebody who could arrange the melodies. Who could take a recording of what I sang a capella and turn it into lines for the instruments. I learned that I had enough money to record three songs.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, Yair’s father, combines his love for Jewish texts with other passions, as he did here.

“Out of those three, one and a half came out semi-listenable.”

He learned a great deal about how to work with other musicians, how to translate what he heard in his head into sounds audible to other people, how to listen to producers and when to say no to them.

“The music I composed sometimes was just a melody, and sometimes it was words first. This album are all words first.” They’re all beloved Shabbat songs, set to his own music.

When he got back to the United States, Mr. Rosenberg kept working on his music. “I worked with various people in the Jewish music industry, and they got better, but they still were not there yet.”

In 2018, Mr. Rosenberg was at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. He was there as a writer and thinker, speaking at a panel about Muslims and Jews, but because South by Southwest started as a music festival, and because once you’re there as a speaker, you’re free to explore the whole thing, “I get a message from a music person, saying ‘I want to talk to you about your journalism.’ And I say yeah, sure, because he will ask me questions about Jewish stuff, and journalism stuff, and I will ask about music stuff.” That’s what happened, and through that conversation Mr. Rosenberg met Charles Newman.

Mr. Newman’s a music producer; he’s Jewish but not part of the Jewish. music world. Someone else who’s part inside, part outside. He and Mr. Rosenberg started working together, one song at a time, and “by 2020, I feel that I am ready to do the album,” he said. “So we started a crowdfunder, which we did at the very worst time to launch any project. It was March 2020. The goal was that we would be done by September 2020 — but then covid.” Like almost every other project that couldn’t be done by one person entirely alone in a room, it was put on hold.

But then, after vaccination allowed the rules to relax, Mr. Rosenberg was able to continue to work on “Az Yashir.” He worked with two friends, the singers Abbaleh Savitt and Arun Viswanath; Mr. Viswanath grew up in Teaneck, where his parents still live.

Abbaleh Savitt, left, and Arun Viswanath worked with Mr. Rosenberg on his new album.

It’s being released the way music is now, particularly post-pandemic. It came out online at the end of August; a physical CD will come next, and then there will be sheet music, so people can perform and sing it. Eventually he also will release videos with the lyrics. Even though many people already will know the words, “there are so many verses that this can help. An animated video makes the music easier to share.

“I didn’t realize when I started, but the motivations are similar for the music and my work as a journalist,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “What I am trying to do is explain very different types of people to each other. I want to introduce people who might not have encountered each other to each other. I want to find ways for people to see and understand each other.

“This is very hard, especially in today’s world, which is often polarized. It’s hard to do it in an intellectually and morally honest way. But one of the great things about music is that it’s universal. It can reach large numbers of people who an article or an argument might not reach. Jews of different denominations might not do anything else together, but they know many of the same tunes, and they sing the same songs, even if they don’t know it.”

Like many other things he does, Mr. Rosenberg’s music is influenced by non-Jewish sources as well as Jewish ones, by “the Jewish music I grew up with, and also Irish folk music, electronic dance music, and one track is adapted with permission from a Mormon a capella group,” he said. ‘You wouldn’t think those things could go together, but they do.”

He kept the music simple and the words familiar on purpose, he continued. “They are composed and arranged to be easy to sing, particularly in group settings. They will get stuck in your head, and that’s by design. It’s not to show off the singer’s voice. I deliberately chose to make the album the sort that listeners can hear themselves singing, that they can slot themselves into.

“That’s on purpose. That’s what Shabbat singing is all about.”

You can learn more about Yair Rosenberg’s new album, “Az Yashir,” here.

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