Thursday, February 02, 2006

kabbalah rocks

((i originally wrote this for my school newspaper, which accounts for its clipped form and startling capitalization.))

So it’s a frozen morning in Milwaukee, and with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, cookie dough waiting for me in the kitchen, I’m browsing through my dad’s cd rack. The house is abandoned: the kids are at school, my parents are at work. A morning of cookie-eating and laughing at sad ‘80s albums, I think—there are worse ways to spend the winter break, right?

After thumbing aside the expected medley of Duran Duran and Led Zeppelin, however, I make an intriguing discovery: a clearly hand-labelled CD titled “Kabbalah.” A glance at the back of the Jewel case confirms my suspicions. This is a relic of my father’s YU band-that-was, Kabbalah. My father’s played in a lot of bands; Shlock Rock when I was little, his own blues-and-rock act more recently. But I don’t remember hearing this album. Curious, I collect my cookie dough from the kitchen and pop the cd into the stereo.

Before I tell you what I found so fascinating about Kabbalah, though, there’s something I must explain. For a long time I’ve felt strange talking about my father’s YU band. It’s so easy for anyone to dismiss my enthusiasm with, ‘He’s her father—of course she likes it!’ Oh, if you only knew. I can’t help but laugh when I hear that because if you knew our history you’d realize that, however oddly, the inverse is closer to the truth.

My dad’s been recording and performing all my life. When my brothers and I were preschoolers, we used to dance around in the living room to Shlock Rock records. (Literally records—turntables and all.) But the songs were as familiar to me growing up as the wallpaper in the kitchen: something you know so well, you don’t even see it anymore. I guess it’s the same as religious children who are taught to daven from an early age. You know the words so well, you’ve no reason to stop and think about their meaning. My father’s music was a fact of life; to me, there was a stark difference between that and the kind of thing you laid in bed all night listening to over and over.

As a teenager, also, I dismissed my father out of hand. In the first place, he writes Jewish music, and I was bitterly disappointed in Jewish music by the time I was fourteen. In my day school all the kids listened to was Journeys, the Chevra, Lev Tahor, the Miami Boys Choir (possibly a different boys’ choir?). To me they all sounded the same: overdone, heartless and boring. I wanted music to say things I hadn’t thought of before, to be emotive, to understand me, to represent me, to capture moods and stories and ideas. Above all, I just wanted to hear something interesting. This was a need that Jewish music, or my concept of it at the time—with its cut-and-paste lyrics and computer-generated harmonies—could not fill for me. My father? Less than that. Throughout high school, the albums I sprawled across the nightstand under my stereo came from increasingly obscure artists. I think ‘eclectic’ is the nice term for it. My father, however, just thought I was nuts. Nothing I listened to was good enough for him. Either the chord progression was recycled, or it was too simple, or too strange. Anything I liked about a song was dismissed—he knew another band that did it first, and not only first, but better. Oh, how I fumed. I was just learning to play guitar then, and it frustrated me beyond words, that claim of ‘better.’ Why did more complicated mean better? Why did older mean better? I related to my new, simple songs; they meant something to me. Why couldn’t he hear what I heard? No, my father didn’t even understand what I wanted from music. There was no way his music could stand for me.

And, with that special hypocrisy unique to the self-proclaimed open-minded, I wrote my dad off.

Alright, fast forward back to winter break. I’m a little bit older and perhaps a touch less eclectic, but knowing my background, you understand that my dad would have to work pretty hard to score any points with me. Right?

Ok. Now that we have dealt with the dad issue, let’s proceed.

The album I played in my kitchen was really a random mix of two releases—“Kabbalah Classic” and “Kabbalah.” The distinction between albums is immaterial, though, because—hold on to your hat, Virginia—each song has a completely different style and structure than the next.

“Adon Olam,” for example, opens with a quiet, delayed arpeggio on the electric guitar. The bass line kicks in with the drums, and it has its own clear, simple melody. Not just the four notes necessary to anchor the other instruments in the song, but not either an overblown exercise in technical musicianship, it gives “Adon Olam” a distinct mood: the song has a slightly dark, introspective feel. Think of some of the more melodic 80s rockers: U2, the Police.

Then there’s “Va’ani,” with a layered intro of synth and a few ringing notes on the electric guitar that would make the Moody Blues proud. It eventually breaks down into a power-pop dream of harmonies, dangling guitar lines, and a bassline that bounces over the spectrum. The song fades out over another layering of synth and a saxophone solo that makes you feel the instrument’s sad and cheesy employment in the Chevra albums is undeserved.

And if you think you’ve got Kabbalah pegged now as a moody synth band, you’d be wrong again. Witness “Ashrei”, a two-minute fifteen-second clocker (most Jewish songs aren’t even started by then!) that simply rocks out Ramones-style. You’ve got your garage-rock guitars, a piano that tap-dances over the song, and a brief but wild solo that inspires air guitar. Not that you heard it from me.

The interesting thing about Kabbalah is their ability to carefully construct a song with its own atmosphere, its own idea—and not bloat it with meaningless solos. In stark contrast to the gaudy and garish albums with the biggest sales, they keep their songs simple, focused and intriguing. Each instrument has its own hooky line to play, and when they do solo, rather than hitting every note in the scale, they hit the ones you don’t expect them to play. And most of the time, you are pleasantly surprised.

Sitting in my kitchen over winter break, I know that I was. All the things I’d been looking for in Jewish music, on an old cd in the kitchen. Who would have thought.

Maybe I ought to score my dad a few points.

If you’d like to take a listen to the songs I referenced here, or other Kabbalah songs, or to read the band’s official and amusing bio, go to


Blogger Safranit said...


Short on $$? This will definitely increase your points ;)


4:46 AM  
Blogger tuesdaywishes said...

I'm not musically sophisticated enough to understand most of this column. However, I was there then and I can tell you that Kaballah was good, probably too good for their audience. Also, they were about 10-15 years ahead of their time, so their stuff did not sell real well. Maybe your column could spark a reunion/revival.

Matisyahu fan please note that Kabbalah did a reggae song called "Baruch Hashem" in the early 1980's, possibly the first Jewish reggae song. I think it got onto one of the Shlock Rock albums.

7:49 PM  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...

With regards to your taste in music, I actually think it's not bad, especially compared to some of your peers. Although some of the bands you listen to are boring. Coldplay-boring. Sorry.

OTOH the stuff on the Garden State CD was pretty good. But of course, and maybe you didn't quite get this at the time, the stuff that you like, that I ALSO like, sounds a lot like what I listened to at your age. So I guess I'm happy that we share similar tastes. It's not necessarily that the music is derivative. It's more likely that those artists liked the same music as me.

As far as Kabbalah went, the really unique thing about the band, at the time, was that we made music primarily to please ourselves. We honestly thought that nobody would be listening, and so we wrote for ourselves. Obviously, we were mostly right about the nobody listening part, which is why it was not a great financial success (and also it was apparently banned and therefore not displayed in most Jewish book stores).

But over the years I've played in so many Jewish bands where the musicians would talk backstage and say, "well, we have to play this stuff because this is what sells, or this is what the rabbis will let us play, but maybe after the show, we can hang around and play some GOOD music."

Kabbalah never had that issue. We thought we were playing good music all the time.

12:21 AM  
Blogger tuesdaywishes said...

Once upon a time, I had ambitions to do family counseling. I wonder (from that perspective) if the above dialogue could ever have taken place in person.

8:50 AM  
Blogger drumbumJ said...

wow, another great post.

i identified with so much of what you wrote about the sorry state of jewish music. it pains me that it's so vacuous when IT, more than anything else, should be meaningful. i gotta add, that for me personally, i find all jewish music vocalists to be unsatisfying (yes, pretty much all of them. i hope your dad doesn't take it personally!) b/c they seem to lack a soulfulness that the secular/goyishe/whatever-you-wanna-call-it stuff has. compare otis redding, amos lee, jeff buckley to anything jewish... oy. (you can say the diff. is lust versus soul, but i disagree.)

the first jewish band that MOVED me (vocals n' all) was blue fringe. i don't know if you wanna debate the jewishness of their music, but that there was the first time i felt SOUL coming out of a jew's vocal chords. (reb shlomo carlebach doesn't count. that's neshama - not his daughter - coming out, not soul. there IS a diff., imo. other jewish music i find SOULful: moshav band and aaron razel. that's it. maybe you could recommend something?)

anyway, b/c of your post, i checked out kabbalah and totally see what you were saying but i didn't love it. i tried though... i will say, that bearing in mind the musical climate then, they deserve a hearty shkoyach and some mad props for writing that music then - that was some revolutionary stuff right there!

(btw, i'm a long time reader/lurker of your blog. i love it!) i don't understand the gadlus of coldplay either. other than "in my place" i too find them blah...

intersting thought...

9:00 AM  
Blogger PsychoToddler said...


It's not for everyone.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Fudge, thanks to the kindness of my husband, who rigged up an ancient cassette recorder by my computer speakers while I was en route from the office, I did manage to catch most of your show. Your interview of your abba is now immortalized on tape. :) Both the interview and the show as a whole were pretty neat. Nice music (his and otherwise)!

6:55 PM  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Here's a question that I wish I'd been home in time to IM: If Kabbalah and the Diaspora Yeshiva Band were both just about the only bands playing Jewish rock music at that time, why was Kabbalah banned by the rabbanim while Diaspora was not (to the best of my knowledge)?

7:02 PM  
Blogger Doctor Bean said...

Great writing. Bad HTML. Throw the poor readers a bone; give them a link. I taught your dad how to make links almost a year ago (can you believe it?) in this thread. You gotta scroll down about a third of the way through the comments until you dad asks how to put links in.

Until then, here you go:

11:16 PM  

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