Long before Matityahu and way before the Maccabeats, when Jewish music that wasn’t cantorial, Yiddish or Borsht Belt was in its infancy, Lenny Solomon gave birth to Shlock Rock Although shlock is a Yiddish word meaning second hand, cheap or inferior, there is nothing shoddy about the music that Lenny Solomon has been writing for three decades – it’s the music that leads Jews home.
I catch Lenny in his Beit Shemesh home where he lives with his wife and four daughters. He is between tours, returning from the Pacific and Eastern United States and getting ready for another one in the American Midwest (Lenny is on tour 3-4 months a year in 2-3 week stints).
This January marks 28 years (which is the gematria of koach – strength) since the first cassette of Shlock Rock came out and the 53 year-old Solomon is still going strong.
Shlock Rock has a simple message – Judaism is fun – and a simple goal: to inspire people to feel good about Judaism. Solomon has produced 35 albums: 15 Shlock Rock parodies, 14 original music albums and 6 albums for preschoolers. He’s sold about 200,000 albums all together, which may not sound like a lot to someone like Billy Joel, but per capita, Solomon is doing pretty well.
“There isn’t a concert I play where someone doesn’t come up to me and tell me I’ve changed their lives. After the release of my first album back in 1986, a woman in Florida wrote to tell me that her brother, who doesn’t even like Judaism, hasn’t stopped listening to my album. That was a sign for me to keep going.” That’s the kind of success that can’t be measured in gold albums.
Most musicians, including Solomon, have suffered from having their songs uploaded on YouTube and downloaded on MP3 players, which have led to sales going down by 80-90%. That may mean that Solomon might not be making any more Shlock Rock albums. On the other hand, since he lives to educate and inspire people about Judaism, getting his message across couldn’t be easier and, since many of Solomon’s songs are on YouTube, there are a lot of people hearing the message who might otherwise not have.
But creative artists always find new vehicles for expression and Solomon is no different. His new project is a biblical rock opera he wrote called Daniel in Babylon, à la “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and is set to premiere off-Broadway this summer with an 18-20 member cast. It is the story of Daniel’s life and his relationship with three kings – Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius the Mede – the story of the prototypical Jew in galut. The musical will hopefully have kfitzat derech to Broadway.
Who says you can’t go home again? Originally from Queens, Solomon and his British-born wife have made Israel their home for the last 18 years. Trained as an accountant, Solomon made his first album and hasn’t looked back.
Unlike many musicians who pursue fame unrelentingly, Solomon has had fame pursue him. One project has led to another and he has seen his share of hashgacha pratit.
In 2009, he had been waiting five years to release an album called A Shabbat in Liverpool featuring 27 Beatles songs set to 21 prayers and zmirot. He was in Minneapolis and met with Rabbi Chaim Goldberger who asked what was doing with the album. Solomon’s inability to get licensing was holding up the release.
“Hashem doesn’t want it to come out,” Solomon said.
Rabbi Goldberger told him he was wrong and proceeded to teach him about the six steps of bitachon by which Hashem would lift the technical barriers that Solomon had inadvertently put up to releasing the album. Within 30 days he got permission, when ACUM, the Israeli Composer and Musician’s licensing organization, re-defined taking an English song and putting Hebrew words to it as a new composition, thereby allowing him to apply for licensing to the songs. A month later the law was repealed but it was enough time for Solomon to get the rights and release the album.
One of Solomon’s best-selling songs is Ani Yehudi, co-written with Kobi Oz and performed with the crème de la crème of Jewish entertainers in We are the World style, celebrating and uniting Jews of every stripe. “I am a Jew and that is unique,” goes the lyric.
Another hit is We’ve Got a Strong Desire which is a sweep of Jewish history in 42 lines set to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.
He didn’t start the fire either, but Solomon’s parodies and adaptations have been igniting the Jewish spark in hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide.
“Shlock Rock was not a plan, it just happened. It was supposed to be a one-cassette fad. But it goes on and on and on.
“The goal of Shlock Rock is to spread Jewish pride and Jewish awareness. 10% of Jews are observant and 90% are not.” Lenny Solomon is hoping to turn the numbers around. “There’s a strong connection between music and numbers,” the ex-accountant quips. Solomon writes from an Orthodox perspective but his music speaks to Jews everywhere.
“We’ve got a strong desire, we are always yearning for the Torah’s learning.”
“The most important thing is simcha. Without happiness Judaism is not fun! I’m giving people simcha!”
We all know that simcha is a mitzvah, a big one! And, of course, one mitzvah leads to another. Lenny Solomon is happily changing the Jewish world, one song at a time.
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