“Achas Shoalti – One Thing I Ask”
The Seth Nadel Band
Distributed by Sameach Music, 2004
Seth Nadel is active – so much so that his guitar playing can be called “kinetic music,” to borrow Agam’s term. Though his side curls and beard certainly suggest a Hassidic persona, his music resounds of rock, pop, folk and blues.
Much of the “Jewish” music that sells today showcases velvet kippas and very Jewish looking musicians who capitalize on their appearance and insert a few passages of Hebrew texts into their music to make it Jewish.
Seth Nadel, in contrast, genuinely maintains his identity as a Jewish musician, though claiming that to him the roles of musician and educator are intertwined. As a second year Semicha student at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University (YU) who transferred to YU undergraduate from the film program at Hunter College, Nadel laments YU’s lack of an education major, even though many of the Semicha guys end up teaching.
Education, however, is not only an amateur interest of Nadel’s, but lies within his arena of expertise; he has run a Sunday program for students at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies (New Jersey) for six years, and he runs activities and Shabbatonim on occasion for them. He has taught a wide variety of elective courses at BCHSJS from surveys of Jewish music, Mesilat Yesharim and the Hassidic Revolution, to “Strumming Jewishly” and “MTV Challenge (Media Vs. Torah Values Challenge).”
This semester, he is teaching “G-d, Judaism and Rock ‘N Roll.” Nadel teaches his students through music generally, and this carries through to his public performances as well. “Ultimately, Jewish music has always been used to inspire,” he says. “It should move a Jew.”
“Music in Judaism was always part and parcel with the service of G-d,” Nadel feels, and one begins to grasp his meaning when one considers the central role the Levite song enjoyed in the Temple service. “There is a tachlis – a greater purpose,” he says, citing his tendency to tell personal tales, or words of Torah during his performances. He also cites much of the Hassidic literature that discusses the “holiness of song” and the necessity of a holy source for that song, like the Baal Shem Tov’s interpretation of the passage “Vehaya k’nagen hamenagen” (II Kings, 3:18), which maintains that when the musician is like the instrument, then the hand of G-d rests upon him. Nadel takes this mapping of the musician across the instrument as a statement about the removal of the components of ego, fame and fortune from the musician’s vocabulary.
Nadel released his debut CD “Achas Shoalti – One Thing I Ask” in May 2004. The backup for Nadel’s performance (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, keys, banjo, percussion) is by David Keesey (electric guitar), Hillel Coren (bass), Elly Geldwerth (drums), Dan Cousin (piano, organ, harmonica), Bin Goldman (backing vocals) and a slew of guests for 14 original songs on “Achas,” the product of almost two years of effort. “Achas” draws inspiration from the tradition of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, though you would not necessarily recognize Carlebach – whom Nadel calls “one of my Rebbes” in an interview with Mordechai Shinefield on the Mima’amakim magazine’s website (www.mimaamakim.org) – in the distinctly American flavor that permeates Nadel’s music.
Whereas Carlebach occasionally suspended his own primarily Hassidic tunes to sing gospel songs like “On My Way To Canaan Land,” Nadel’s entire album overflows with rock-n-roll influence of the Bob Dylan variety. Nadel builds his music on the same premise that Dylan and the Band espoused when they insisted that the raucousness and joy of rock contained the spookiness of country and the soulfulness of the blues: the sound of what former “Rolling Stone” music critic Greil Marcus called “the old weird America.” Yet, instead of connecting these elements to hallucinatory poetry as Dylan did, “Achas” looks to Tehillim for most of its lyrics.
While this combination may seem more contemporary than your average niggun by rock standards, the “Achas” sound is more revivalist than revolutionary; rock like this hasn’t been popular in the mainstream for nearly 30 years. For Jewish music with a more contemporary pop attitude, you’ll have better luck with Blue Fringe or Moshav Band, but the upside is that the banjo picking, rhythm and blues horn parts and boogie-woogie piano which fill the album manage to capture the flavor of the words Nadel sings.
The soulfulness which captured the imagination of a generation of musicians from the Sixties who were searching for their own piece of the American experience complements the verses from Tehillim and the Siddur, which Nadel has chosen to adopt. The album’s back cover has a picture of Nadel approaching the train tracks, guitar in hand, like a blues-singing, train-jumping, hobo of the Jack Kerouac variety.
Ultimately, though, the nomad, wandering amongst the train tracks, wears his side curls long and his kippa large. He talks about Dylan in the same breath that he calls his purposeful union of pesukim with melody “a shidduch.” He argues that Jewish music has always been a product of contemporary society, from the Arabic influences in Mizrachi music to African rhythms in Jewish African music to heavy Ukrainian and Gypsy influences in Klezmer music.
“It’s the story of the Jew in the Diaspora being influenced by the surrounding, larger culture,” he says. And yet Nadel brings another piece to the puzzle. To him, Jewish music means teaching, and his music carries that message. He blends together a wide panoply of sounds. Like a grand tableau, he mixes in a lot of personal narrative and Hassidic tales. What emerges is a very personal, religious sound that is both experiential and instructive.
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I gratefully acknowledge the insightful comments of my good friend Aaron Roller throughout this article.
Seth Nadel will be playing at Young Israel of East Northport on October 3rd; Tifereth Israel (Passaic) on October 4th; and at Rock B’Davar (Teaneck) on October 30th. For more information on these performances, and future ones, visit www.sethnadel.com.
“Achas Shoalti – One Thing I Ask”