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A Musical Journey with Joey Weisenberg

The following is a transcript of Episode 94 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on March 29th, 2022. 

Our show this week is a story as always about North American Judaism, but unlike most of our shows, it’s not about some precipitating crisis that demands a response, or maybe the crisis we’re going to talk about is a little less obvious. You know, a lot of American Jewish conversation, it seems to me, it’s about fear. I think I contribute to this sometimes. Our conversations about antisemitism, about what we wish Israel was or could be, about the enemies inside our tents or at the gates, about the future of Judaism for our children or grandchildren, or about what we feel we’ve lost as Jews over time.

This is why, by the way, the very language of identity is actually a weak term. Identity is like a floor. It’s like the vessel. And we talk about it when we’re concerned that the whole thing is about to be lost when we’re not sure what’s supposed to fill it. But in the meanwhile, one of the first episodes that really put Identity Crisis on the map wasn’t about any of those things. I think it was episode 50. It was our lively and hilarious conversation about American Jewish music from the sublime to the absurd. This is American Jewish identity too, the stuff of culture, which sometimes thrills us and sometimes embarrasses us. 

And, you know, maybe we forget sometimes that to engage seriously in a Jewish conversation, maybe even the most urgent kind of Jewish conversation is not about the crises that emerge from our fears about others or from our political surroundings. But it’s about the human stuff in a Jewish idiom, about seeking and longing, the stuff of spirituality, prayer, the fragile human heart, maybe a little less about Jews and a little bit about what Judaism, that weird composite, what it was supposed to be about for us as human beings.

And you know what, maybe prose words don’t quite capture it. Maybe, rather, that Jewish conversation sounds a little bit like this. 

Song of Songs 214. My dove is in the clefts of the rock and the hiding places of the mountainside. Show me your face. Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet. Your face is lovely. Or if you prefer, Psalm 23 rendered as follows. 

You know, these are words, of course, also. They are a way of Jewish speaking. They also speak, I think, to the urgencies and questions of our time, but they sound awfully different and they imply different answers. In certain Jewish communities, especially that micro denomination of American Judaism that tends to refer to itself as Egal, we can parse that a little bit later. 

Our guest today is like Shakira or Beyonce, just know him by his first name, Joey. For the rest of you, uh, Joey Weisenberger is a multi-instrumental musician, singer, and composer is obviously the composer of the two songs that we’ve played so far. He’s taught and led prayer at Hadar for more than a decade. He’s the founder of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, which aims to cultivate the grassroots, musical, spiritual creativity of the Jewish people. 

And he’s a kind of new minstrel of American Jewish spirituality and longing sometimes producing bangers on electric guitar meant to be danced at at Jewish weddings or in synagogue. And sometimes these quiet and profound meditations that I think are meant to be prayed or sung or just listened to. And he has this amazing quote, which is, “My dream and professional mission in life is to help create a more musically joyous and spiritually compelling world for American Jews.”

So Joey, thanks so much for coming on Identity Crisis today.

Joey: Oh, thank you so much. It’s really a pleasure to get to be here with you. Thanks. And all of you. 

Yehuda: So let me, let me start with an easy one. Um, why do we sing? 

Joey: Oh, that’s not easy at all. Um, I mean, you know, it’s, we sing because it’s the outpouring of our souls. You know, we fill up our cup. And then when the cup overflows, it overflows in song, and we sing to give thanks back to the world, which created us, back to God, which created us. Right. And, uh, how do we give, thanks? It even says in the song “ashiru la’adoni ki gamal alai,” right, the sense of when, when the goodness of being alive actually hits us, sometimes the only thing we have to offer back as a payment is our song. 

Yehuda: You know, I wanted to ask you, but I think I know what your answer is based on what you just said, which is, uh, where does song end and prayer begin? Or maybe it’s the other way around. How do you understand the relationship between these two things? Because prayer has this prayer sounds big and, and song sounds like, uh, a mode or a method, but I’m curious where those two live for you.

And I, I guess I’m both curious for you as a, as a Jew, but also as a person who is producing and singing so much Jewish music. 

Joey: Prayer and song are synonymous. Uh, even, they’ve been thought that way for, for very long, within the first six pages of the Gemara, it says “bimkom rinah sham tehei tefillah,” in a place where there’s there’s joyous song or where there’s song, there is tefillah, there is prayer. 

And, uh, in my estimation, they’re both two sides of the same coin or two sides of the same arch. They hold each other up. And the song is nothing but the expression of the deepest prayers that come out of our guts, that bubble up out of our beings, they come up out of us. They want to be expressed in the world and they come out in song.

And by the way, a song typically in the Jewish imagination is not only something that sounds really nice that you sing, you know, it’s not only like, (sings a tune), or whatever sounds nice to you, right? Song is often a metaphor for life itself, for that very expression of being. A person’s song, a person’s prayer, is their very essence. It’s the angels that are climbing the ladder up from the earth up from each of us to try to reach into the heavens, to try to connect with a broader view that’s available from the heavens that we then reach in the heavens and bring back down to the earth and try to use.

Yehuda: You know, one of my favorite Talmudic stories, I think I’ve used it on this podcast before is, um, when Moses is sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash, it’s kind of a rabbinic form of time travel and he sees God stitching the crowns to the letters. And the question that he asks is something that I think about a lot, which is “mi me’akev al yadecha,” what’s forcing your hand?

You, God, could do all sorts of things, but you seem to want to do something that is driving you to do something that seems totally irrational. So I want to ask you Joey, like what’s in your head, what are the set of questions that, um, that you’re answering with your music?

Because even as you’ve answered these questions so far, you don’t sound like an ordinary musician. You’re a spiritual leader and the interlacing of song and prayer, they’re so intimately connected in how you talk, in how you produce music in how you sing. 

What’s forcing your hands? What is it about the world that demands of you that you give your life to this work, that you make music and help other people to sing in prayer, uh, whether it’s out of gratitude or mournfully? 

Joey: Wow, what a beautiful question. You know, in Psalm 49 it says if “eftach b’chinur chidati,” I opened up my, my riddles, my quandaries with the harp, with music, right? So it’s not so much that music is, is an answer to anything. It’s more that, that through music, we actually become attuned to our questions, to what we wonder about, to what is unknown.

Right. And the search for answers can only commence once we admit that we don’t know, and uh, the answers themselves, are never an answer. They’re only just a, a direction. The music is in a sense, it’s an attempt to remove the compression that surrounds our lives, remove the, um, the pareveness.

You know, in Yiddish they say “nisht ahin, nisht aher,” the state of being neither here nor there. Which many of us experienced that kind of malaise, that alienation, that, that feeling of what is anything.

The music comes in to expose the chaosthat underlies everything. Right. That’s the tohu vavohu, the original state of craziness, that underpins the entire world. And that underpins each of us, if we actually admit that. And it puts us into an unowned territory from which it’s said that Torah emerges, that you have to go into the midbar hefker, the completely unowned wilderness in order to receive Torah. And so by the same token, if we want to create anything, we want to create any answers, any forms we have to first be willing to break into the unowned chaos from which the first words of the Torah, even begin. God was the one who created at the beginning from chaos.

Yehuda: This kind of shift into, uh, the physicality of singing, the physicality of music, the unknown, what’s going to come out of your mouth when you open it. Um, I’m curious whether in your songwriting, in your singing, in your concerts, in your performance, in your tefillah, you’ve had moments when the very act of singing answered a question for you.

Certainly I know the experience of being in a room thundering with singing, the powerful emotion of that. I understand what it feels like. I understand why it’s a lift. I’m curious whether it has been a means of answering questions for you.

Joey: It is, it’s when you’re in that powerful situation that you’re talking about, where the room is singing together, it’s a sort of a hint, it’s a remez towards the integration and the interdependence of the world, the oneness of the world overall. Right? So that’s why singing is always such a powerful, spiritual experience, right?

Because singing, singing reminds us of how we, when we sing together, we’re reminded about how we can connect with each other. And if we can connect with each other with our fellow, say tribal friends or family, or, or Jews or human family, we are then invited to also imagine ourselves connecting in a similar song with all the other elements of the world, like the oceans and the rocks and the trees and the plants and the animals and the earth itself that is, in turn, singing its song.

Right? And in turn, we are invited to imagine that all of these elements are singing a gigantic symphony in which we are but one part in.

Yehuda: I’ve heard at times when I’ve, I’ve been in concerts of yours or times when you’re leading prayer. One of the things that you’re famous for is forcing everybody towards the middle of the room, getting uncomfortably close with one another. You know, one of the, in some ways, revolutions, not invented by independent minyanim, but popularized, was locating where the cantor stands into the center of the congregation.

You know, changing the dynamics of, of what song leadership looks like in synagogue life. And this is, you know, this is one of the pieces of music that is most familiar to prayer leading, that at least I know. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what the experience of aggregating people together is about, for the purpose of creating communities in prayer. 

Joey: Oh, wow. Amazing. Well, thanks for playing Shochen Ad, and for, I I love getting to hear Yosef Goldman sing that, he has such a special voice and neshama. 

When we imagine two axes of connection, one is the one that’s talked about in Shochen Ad, which is, at the very top of our imagination, we imagine God is sitting shochen ad marom, sitting very up, up high, um, and amidst all the holiness and then it trickles down the ladder. Um, there’s these holy beings, these chasidim, these tzadikim, that are all singing their songs. Um their songs, like it says in the prayer and in the song from the Shacharit that they’re all singing their songs.

And then it finally comes down to our level, “Uvmaachalot revavot amcha beit yisrael,” all of the choirs and the communities that are assembled together to sing. Right. And so that’s the vertical axis, but the horizontal axis is hinted at in that last verse, “uvmaachalot revavot,” these choirs of multitudes that are together singing.

That is us. Right. And our job is, um, is to become, uh, a choir or a group of singers. It’s not really a choir. It’s all of us are in that choir, whether we sing beautifully or not, and beautifully is always highly subjective. Um, That we all gathered together and, and, um, we’re actually drawn in to try to be on the same harp together.

It’s uh, it said by, um, Meir Ibn Gabbai and, uh, about half a millennia go that, um, the secret is that when we gather together, we actually become the the strings on David’s harp. We each vibrate separately, but we resonate together. He says that’s the secret of a gathering of Jews in song.

Right? And so, uh, in my estimation where we are trying to get onto that same harp, where we feel the power of that joint resonance, it doesn’t mean we all agree with each other in one way or another, but that there is some joint resonance of effort. 

Yehuda: And sometimes, some people are off-key. 

Joey: Oh yeah.

Yehuda: Is that hard for you? 

Joey: It’s uh, it’s one of the exciting things about music in community. Uh, you know, when you enter the community to sing, you have to have a totally different paradigm of what is interesting or beautiful musically. It goes, uh, away from a certain tuning model that was established in bach’s era, which is well-tempered and sort of, in tune, so to speak, although even the well-tempered system is a whole system that’s built on being out of tune, subtly in order to accommodate all the different keys. The thing with community is you have to, or I know that I have to really relish all of the moments of out of tuners, quote unquote.

Um, and you know, one of my favorite things is always the uh, the duchening when the kohen goes “yivarechecha,” uh, and in 12 different keys comes back “yivarechecha.” Ah, uh, and everybody, all the that’s, you know, the kohanim could never sing it in tune. Uh that’s maybe that’s why the Leviim were the singers.

But at first, when I first heard the Kohanim, I was, I I thought, “How could they possibly be that out of tune?” And it would give my mother who had perfect pitch the shudders. But now every year when I say “yivarechecha,” on the uh, the high holidays and I can’t wait to hear what they’re going to do this year, how, you know. 

So if you learn to relish it and the 20th century of music, even classical music, started to relish sounds that were not in tune. Relishing the reality of the world is, is, uh, is a nice step towards acceptance.

Yehuda: I think it’s easier said than done. I mean, I. I love your idea of this kind of vertical and horizontal axis. And another way to say it is there’s almost a theological axis and a peoplehood axis. Uh, and we do meet in the context of community. Um, I will say personally, confessionally even as a ba’al tefillah, a person who leads services. I lead it on a high holidays. I’m not a great singer, but I can lead a community. Um, I’ve lost a little bit of my ability to connect with the vertical axis. I’m not persuaded that I have any sense of what I’m accomplishing theologically. I’m not sure what I believe in, but I do see what’s powerful when you can get a room full of people singing.

And there like, we oftentimes talk about Hartman around learning, the activity is the outcome. And now a whole group of people who are singing together and hoping together, literally praying together. And who knows, what’s going to be answered, whose prayers going to be answered, but we’ve constituted a collective. The problem is, if I have that theological belief of the outcomes I’m trying to create, it’s easier to tolerate the people who are off-key or the people who are on the margins.

When the experience is about the collective experience, you kind of, you kind of want it to sound harmoneous. Right. Literally, and figuratively. And I guess I’m taken by your idea that like real harmonious community includes those who are not literally harmonious. Right. Um, their voices are part of this in some way, but it’s, it’s hard. Right? 

Joey: You know, this, um, when King David finished writing his 150th Psalm, it says in the Midrash. Um, he got a little cocky and he was a great singer. He’s even called the Neim Zemirot Yisrael, the sweet singer of Israel, but he got a little cocky and said, Hey, look at me, I wrote 150 Psalms, who’s ever done that before. And it says in the Midrash, that immediately a frog got up on his lap and started croaking at him and said, well, with all due respect king, every day I write more psalms than you’ve written in your whole life. Each of them has 3000 meanings.

Right. And, uh, they select the frog for that story, I believe because the frog is considered usually to be a sound that is not like harmonious by, you know, it’s a croak. Um, but yet it has more to offer than whatever we have assembled as our human system. 

Another way I like to think of that is that there’s two paradigmatic instruments in the Jewish tradition. Uh, there’s a lot of instruments, but the paradigm one is the harp and its opposite as the shofar. Okay. So the harp is the instrument that gets tuned up over time. And it has a few strings and it has a few more strings and it gets 80 strings and it gets tuned up and it gets well-tempered and gets turned on its side and it becomes a piano. It’s like the ultimate in tune, technologically developing instrument. Right? And the more we tune up our harps, the better it sounds, et cetera. 

But in stark contrast, there’s the shofar and the shofar is the instrument that’s never allowed to be tuned. If it breaks, you can only fix it with its own mashed up ingredients. You can’t put a tip on it. You can’t put holes in it to make, to get it in tune. It’s always supposed to sound like a sort of primeval voice that comes out of the craziness of being. You know, and it’s, when you sound several shofars at the same time, they’re never in tune and it’s very powerful.

And so the shofar is supposed to cut through the nonsense, and say to us, okay, you might think you’re all technologically great here, civilization, but look, there’s a craziness that’s under all of that. And you better acknowledge it, right? So those two things, the harp and the shofar, those two attitudes, of both trying to develop our civilization, trying to develop our cooperation, our harmoniousness versus trying to just understand the unowned chaos that underlies everything.

And that chaos that’s inside of us. Right? So whenever we find ourselves saying, get more in tune, we might also consider saying, where’s the chaos, because the Jewish tradition gives us both of those options as being important and even mandatory. 

Yehuda: Yeah. I mean, uh, I like that idea because I also have had so many experiences over the years where you don’t know what the shofar is going to sound like until it starts, you can’t really replicate it in your head.

Different shofar blowers and different shofars are going to sound differently. I’ve been in shuls where the shofar failed. The guy just couldn’t get it right. And the anxiety that’s around that is so different than the controlled experience that happens the rest of the time, where you have a pretty good sense of what’s going to happen throughout the rest of the service.

Now, one of the things that I’m sure you have to think about as a musician that may be different than musicians who simply expect that people are going to listen to their music. I mean, part of what we’ve been talking about is the difference between producing music in a studio versus producing music in a synagogue, right. You can control the variables of the first. You can’t really of the second. You can rerecord, but you’re not going to like start davening again, if the music doesn’t sound great. Um, but one of the things that it seems to me that you have to account for is, uh, singability. Not just writing songs that you’re going to sound great singing, but that other people will be able to sing.

I want to play a song that, this is my example. I’m not, I think it’s one of your best things you’ve ever written. 

We tried doing it in shul and it didn’t work because none of us sounded like this. 

I love this song. I just, uh, first of all, it’s one of my favorite moments in all of davening over the course of the year. 

I believe it’s after the Amida in the evening of Yom Kippur. You don’t have a repetition of the amida, but there is this kind of buildup of momentum.

Everybody by now has kind of breathed their way into shul, preparing for a fast, you’ve like rushed in, and then you have this piyut, this liturgical poem.

It is about the evening, morning, and evening. It’s kind of a predictor about what’s supposed to come over the next 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

It’s such a powerful heavy moment. I had a hard time singing it. And, like I’m sure many of us who sing, um, wished I kind of sounded like Deborah Sacks Mintz. But I would love for you to talk a little bit about this piyut in general, but also like this question of what is it like to write music that is supposed to sound great studio, but also is supposed to be singable by even your pedestrian ba’al tefillah. 

Joey: Right. It’s a big question for me and which has been even made more dramatic by the recent years of COVID. Um, in which, um, say that for me, most of my music producing, um, let’s see, I started writing music right after my now 13-year-old son was born and he would never go to sleep and I started writing music while holding him.

Um, it’s almost like the process of holding each other in some ways gives birth to song. And then the song gives birth to our holding of each other. It’s a, it’s a pattern that is cyclical, and self-supportive. Um, it goes for our family and for our communities and many of the best things that I’ve ever written have happened spontaneously with people around, and the reason is that if I just close my eyes and listen to the river of song that’s going through my head, I can hear that river of song very clearly when there’s other people around who are ready to sing. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Like their energy allows me to connect with my own song.

And many people also report that when they go away from a group of singing, that they are better able to hear their own songs. A lot of my music has come from actually being in a room with people singing, often making up the melodies as I’m going and just all of us collectively remember them.

And then oftentimes I forget about that melody. And then years later, somebody has been singing it for years that their shabbos table comes and says, this is my favorite one. And I have no, I don’t even remember it. Uh, I never recorded it. I just forgot about it. And uh, so, so there is this place where music is the Genesis, the generator point of community, of being together.

But there’s also a music that comes out of aloneness, of solitude, of connecting with oneself. And that has been for me, something that I’ve learned a lot about in the last few years, during COVID, um, literally haven’t gotten together with anybody for several years. 

So I’ve been cut off from that motivational, um, way of writing music of just having people around and needing something to sing and, it’s been an opportunity for me to consider, um, some of the Psalms, for example, that are written in the first person that are quite, uh, they’re, uh, um, they’re terrifying.

They reflect the aloneness and the danger that we’re all in our sort of terror and loneliness of being alone. And, uh, I I could play you one, a little snippet of one if you’d like, 

Yehuda: Yeah. Please do.

Joey: So this is from Psalm 116, which is often, this is the first half of it, which is often truncated during the, the hallel, but it’s, it’s sometimes in there and it’s called ahavti. 

So the song goes on for a while, but,just to say that this is a song that’s very personal, you know, it’s not really meant for a collective singing. Although it could be, it could be that we all sing it together. It’s more of a personal, it’s it’s written from the perspective for whom, um, sorrows are, painful sorrows are all around. And so it’s not like the kind of song that we sing as a community. 

Yehuda: Right. 

Joey: Right. And, um, I I think that that’s been a place that I’ve grown a lot in the last few years, is letting out things that are of a more personal character, a little bit more of a yechidus. 

Um, and, in terms of your actual question about studio versus like live communal music, right. For me, I always choose to record things live. Um, sometimes it’s in the studio and sometimes it’s in a shul being recorded live, but it’s always live, almost always life. In other words, we don’t go back and overdub everything and, um, start with bass and drums and do it the sort of typical Nashville, um, Los Angeles style, where you just build up a track and then you sing over it and then you sing it till it’s perfect.

We tend to play it live, and we assume that there’s going to be all kinds of mistakes. And yet there’s also because we’re doing that, going to be a lot of moments of unscripted beauty, just things that come out that we didn’t expect. So we take the uncompressed version of existence.

Yehuda: I mean, I would recommend for folks to watch the video of Ya’aleh because you get like, you get the unscripted stuff. There’s like coffee cups in the corner and there’s, you know, hand motions, there’s all that stuff. And, uh, and so it comes as close as you’re going to get to the studio version of, of real experience of talented people singing.

I’m so taken wth some of your language, Joey, and I appreciate you bringing up the pandemic because I think what you describe about music, the way that it emerges in relationship and in conversation with others, I think it’s true for others of us who do different types of work. I know that’s the case for me around, um, teaching.

Like I’m in my head for 48 hours before I need to go speak. And I got all these ideas and moves and whatever, and I, I actually have stopped doing elaborate notes for myself, because when I’ve written it out, then it sounds clunky. Cause I’m like reading out what I’m supposed to say. But once I have like a sense of, I think this maybe I think this is like the, this is the chorus or this is the main theme.

And then, you know, the people in the room are going to totally shape what we’re going to talk about, they’re, when they get excited. That’s when you want to swim into that and, and you change your mind and you come up with new discoveries. So I think to name that, to own that as part of the creative process is really powerful.

And I can’t imagine what it’s like for a person in your position to not be with people singing for 24 months. It’s hard to imagine. 

Joey: Yeah, well, it’s had its advantages. Like I’ve said, you know, I’m also a sort of a classic introvert and it’s some, for some reason I do this work in the world that involves being around a lot of people. But having time to myself has been a real gift, a real, um, a matana from himmel, I really, like a gift from heaven and in certain ways, just for me, not for the world, 

Yehuda: Not for the world. Right. 

Joey: but for me, there’s been some things that I’ve learned from it that are giving me new energy, I think, for the next decades of this work. So. 

Yehuda: I want to ask you about a different type of song. There’s a certain type of song that exists in Jewish music. I suppose it exists elsewhere in the world, but it’s a song called a niggun. A song that is unnamed. You’ve solved for this, in some ways, you put out a whole album of niggunim that have names, and I’m saying it’s solved for it because like the long-term historical problem that Jews have had, is, how does that one go? But if I don’t have a name for it, maybe I can reference the Hasidic sect in which it comes. 

Um, we’re going to play one of your niggunim and I I’d love to hear you talk afterwards a little bit about um, what a niggun is in your mind? Cause it’s not a song with words then I’m just kind of putting music around words that I already have interpretation attached to, but it tells a different story.

Yehuda: So I guess I picked an example of a niggun that has words attached to it when you actually recorded it, we have a bunch of them, but by the way, for what it’s worth, out of the completely unscientific poll of Hartman staff, in the Hartman staff WhatsApp group, for what songs should I talk about with Joey on the podcast, this one ranked number one. 

Um, so I would love to hear you talk a little bit about first of all, why it’s called Lincoln’s Niggun. And second of all, is that about the tunnel, the president, the logs, um, but maybe a little bit about what is it to write a song that maybe people will attach words to in the context of prayer, but is really just supposed to be something wordless.

Joey: Right, yeah, a niggun is, it’s an ancient term. And it was said that King David was yodea niggun, was somebody who understood niggun, and in the Midrash, the first person who was actually, said that about, is Serach bat Asher, Serach the daughter of Asher, the granddaughter of Jacob, was called yodaat niggun.

It’s, some say that her harp was even, preserved through the ages and given to King David much later. And it’s the sense that they played the harp and they sing. But the niggun is essentially about a spiritual stance towards music in which you just let out your being through song, through the notes, through the feeling of the notes. The Hasidic world sort of went crazy with this notion, writing hundreds, thousands of niggunim, niggunim, and, uh, you know, it ends up being like, (hums a niggun)

All right so I’m just improvising a niggun here, but the idea is that, um, you know, it’s hard for people like us, we’ve been trained by the academy, trained by the intellectual forces in the world, which are so beautiful and so amazing. Yet, generally the idea of the academy is to get better at words.

Right? And so the better you are words, the more we can refine, we can label, we can make specific, we can identify, we can categorize, we can put things into their places. That is the whole point of getting better at words, in some ways, is to be more and more specific and to, in some ways, to fracture one thing off from another so that you can see what it is.

Right. But the, the point of music, of pure music in a sense is to heal the wounds that are caused by words, and to reunify what was originally whole, which we through our academic process have turned into parts. And that is the business of Shema Yisrael as well. We listen carefully to the oneness that’s under everything.

So when we sing a niggun we are kind of going back to the language that it’s said was spoken by all of our neshamas, all of our souls, that, uh, before we got words like English in English or in Aramaic or in Hebrew or in French or Yiddish or whatever we might be speaking. Before that our souls spoke only in the, the language of, of pure song, of pure niggun.

And so, uh, even if the prophets were hearing the words of God, they were, they were hearing it in music, but they were translating it into kadosh kadosh kadosh or something into, into languages that we could understand intellectually. But when you just hear it, (sings a niggun) you just hear somebody sing, it’s like all the questions kind of, you don’t need to be, you don’t need to pursue what words are trying to pursue, that, that bifurcation.

So Lincoln’s Niggun was um, it sounds like a civil war type of anthem and it’s cause I was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. And I, like I read something about Lincoln every summer, if I can.

And there it talks about how Lincoln used to go out into the field to inspect the troops and the troops would divide off one for the other to let him through so they could touch his horse, um, and shake his hand. And so I composed this niggun in his honor, but the moment that I composed it, Kabalat Shabbat came up and it says “yamin u’smol tifrotzi,” they divided one to the right, and, you know, welcoming the shabbos queen. And just like that kind of image for me. Um, Lincoln going through the troops, we welcome the shabbos queen, the lover, the divine into our midst. 

Yehuda: You know, um, I loved what you said about, um, the primordial, maybe the primeval utterance. I was recently learning with my 13 year old, he’s doing the chidon hatanach, I think I mentioned that it on Identity Crisis before, it’s like a, an international Bible study competition, but it’s, it’s really like a gift to those of us parents who are learning with the kids.

It’s a little bit annoying, but then you get to like read these unbelievable books together with your children. And so we’re reading the book of Kings and just when it started, chapter 19, I was like, Jesse. It’s coming. This is probably the greatest hit in all of Judaism. It’s coming. And then we read Elijah’s experience of revelation, where God says to Elijah, go out and stand on the mountain before God and God passed by and a great and strong wind towards the mountains broke the rocks in pieces before God. But God was not in the wind. And then there was a mighty earthquake, but God is not in the earthquakes and then a fire and God’s not in the fire. And after the fire, kol dmama daka. 

It doesn’t mean a sound of silence, even though some musicians want us to think that that’s what it means. It actually is a small some voice, right, that is describable through adjectives of stillness or thiness, meekness and God is in that voice. And it’s hard not to hear that as the voice of song, right. Of some, that, whatever song it is that none of us are ever going to be able to replicate. But maybe some of us, people like you are trying in some way to approximate.

Joey: Ah, such a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it with me. Uh, you know, it’s the biblical parallel of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. And in the midrashim around the giving of the Torah, also there’s all of these gigantic sounds. And then suddenly the world goes completely silent.

Even the cows stop mooing and the birds stop flapping, and everybody listens to this sort of quiet murmuring voice, it’s anywhere, like you’re saying, from like a thinness to a quietness. We echo that in u’netana tokef. 

(Sings u’netana tokef)

Say, first we hear the, the big sounds, the sound of the shofar, these gigantic sounds that pierce through the kind of static noise of the world. And once that bigness kind of pierces through, then we’re able to hear the quiet whispers.

Right. We wanna sing in order to cut away the husks that are surrounding ourselves. That’s why they say pseukei dezimrah is this sense of cutting away, a mizamer, like ozi v’zimrat yah, um, my strength and my song, it comes and it cuts through all of the nonsense and then we’re able to listen more carefully. Right. So that’s why we have pseukei dezimrah before we have Shma. Right. First, we sing, it cuts away all of the nonsense that surrounding our ears, that surrounding our hearts, as the ohr hameir taught.

And then we’re ready to hear the unification of all of the elements that you have to listen carefully for. You have to even cover your eyes so that you can listen more carefully because it’s very subtle. Um, that’s, that’s what we’re trying to do with music generally, is to, uh, awaken our ears. 

Yehuda: Well, listen, you do two things, which are just unbelievable and invaluable gifts. You, you make possible, um, through your music for people to seek through prayer, to long, to offer gratitude. These are such profound needs that we have as human beings. And we can’t do them, uh, through simply talking and through prose, uh, as hard as I’m trying to put a lot of words into the world. 

We just can’t. We’re never going to be able to. And, um, and in general, Stephanie and I talk about this all the time. I’m overwhelmed by the fact that there’s still music to write. It’s like one of the things that gets me most in awe of human creativity is like, haven’t all the songs been written?

Right. And, and it just feels, when you use the language of like a river of music is flowing through you, it gives me this kind of profound inspiration about human creativity, about, about limitlessness, about the voices that we haven’t heard yet. I was wondering maybe, maybe instead of the last words of the show being words, maybe you’ll play us something, sing us something. 

Joey: I’d love to. Yeah.

So I’ll just take out my, my black Colling’s guitar here. When I was 17, I went down from Milwaukee down to Austin, Texas, and worked in this guitar factory called Colling’s and, um, built guitars, like the one I now have. And I’m just delighted to finally have one.

So, um, I’ll end with the words of the kaddish, um, which are the words that are probably most said by Jews throughout the last several millennia and it says in there, in there, it says, “yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam, v’yitnasei,” these are the kinds of songs that we sing down here, da-amiran b’alma, that we sing down in this part of the world, um, you know, that, uh, we, we try to give our brachas, our blessings and our shvachim and our songs that make beautiful and that lift up, v’yitromam, v’yitnasei,v’yithadar, that make beautiful and splendid, v’yit’aleh, that rise even further, v’yit’halal that give a great praise to the sh’mei d’kudsha, to the holy name. Right. But then above and beyond anything that any of us offers or all of us offered together, there is something l’eilah, there’s something beyond all of these brachas, all of these songs, all of these nechamata, these songs of comfort.

(Plays song)

So I’m just really hoping, for all of you who are listening out there and, and with you Yehuda, someday you have a chance to get together and sing this together. Right. And cause you actually need a minyan for this. 

Yehuda: Well, thank you so much for listening to our show this week, or maybe I should say our Tiny Desk Concert and special thanks to my guests Joey Weisenburger.

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M. Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and our theme music provided by Socalled.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes, too, if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, if you have comments about this episode, please write to us that [email protected].

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