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Sing Unto Him A Song: Blue Fringe And Soulfarm

There is Hassidic story about a young boy who attended Yom Kippur services at his local synagogue, and yet could not participate in the High Holiday service because he was illiterate. As the congregation donned prayer shawls and read from prayer books, the young boy sat puzzled at the letters he simply could not interpret. Finally, he stood up on his chair and began to whistle on his reed whistle as loudly as he could. Shocked, those sitting near him hastened to silence him angrily, but the Baal Shem Tov intervened and admonished his congregants. He
explained that the boy had uncovered a universal, purely auditory language and had felt his prayers so deeply that the Gates of Heaven swung wide open immediately, a feat that a day of communal prayers had been unable to produce.

Hand this boy a guitar and send him packing across the world for concerts stuffed with Orthodox teenage groupies, and you have the phenomenon of Orthodox boy bands. In an article on Jewsweek.com entitled “The New Face of Jewish Rock: Meet Blue Fringe, The Best Jewish Boy Band You’ve Never Heard Of,” Chanie Cohen calls the band “the best thing to happen to Jewish teenagers and young adults since Oreos became kosher.”

As one scans the scene of young girls with full sleeves, long hair held with pastel headbands and skirts so long that they reach three inch platform sandals, dancing spiritedly along to the music, one wonders just what the religious bands cause to happen to Jewish teenagers and young adults.

Many of the great minds of Chassidus have written widely on the importance of song as a source of connection with G-d. The Levites sang in the Temple, and Kind David, G-d’s sweet singer, used to arise every midnight to play his harp and compose poetry. Clearly Judaism ? which perhaps crowds out the painter with the Second Commandment and admonitions against excessive reliance on the visual faculties – has much use for the auditory, and grants the musician center stage. One wonders if Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Schneerson would apply their thoughts on music to Jewish rock bands.

Take Blue Fringe’s Flippin’ Out, from their CD: “My Awakening.” The song – which explores the typical cultural shock experienced by a product of American Day School education encountering a year in yeshiva in Israel - says, “I start to think that girls are “gashmius”/I tell myself that I’m above that shtus/ So I break up with her, my lifelong friend/Cause kavod ha-briyot is just pretend.” With this type of lyrical accompaniment, Blue Fringe will never enjoy a haredi audience, which has no use for sarcastic lines like, “I just heard a half hour Halacha shiur/ And decide to change the way I’ve lived for 18 years.”

Soulfarm plays Jewish songs as well, primarily from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Examples include renditions of “I Am Your Servant” [Ki Ani Avdecha] and Uvnay by Rabbi Carlebach, and Oz VeHadar by Reb Blecher.

Blue Fringe proves more diverse than you would expect from a band of four Yeshiva University students. The Blue Fringe band is comprised of Dov Rosenblatt (lead singer, guitarist), Avi Hoffman (lead guitarist), Danny Zwillenberg (drums) and Hayyim Danzig (bass). When one gets past the shock of seeing a rock band with kippas, one notices differences in the band members.

Some wear button down shirts with tzitzis hanging out, while others dress less formally. Some wear knitted yarmulkas and others black skullcaps. Swaying in a manner that recalls a yeshiva student shuckling in time to his Gemara, Dov sings beautifully and masterfully works his guitar into a frenzy. Avi backs him up with an occasional solo and Danny covers the rear, while Hayyim strums his bass unassumingly.

Soulfarm is comprised of Noah Chase, C. Lanzbom and Mark Ambrosino. Where Blue Fringe draws its inspiration from a wide range of influences, Soulfarm embraces The Grateful Dead, and this shows through in their lyrics: “So I scream for no reason/ Just to know I’m still alive,”… “It’s not about me; it’s not about you/ Only things that matter are the crazy things we do/ Kill the silence with our screams/ Take what’s real, make it a dream.”

When I heard the two bands perform a few weeks ago on a boat, I had the distinct feeling that it was really stupid to be on a boat on a rainy day bumping about the waves watching the two bands trying to play and remain standing at the same time, but after overcoming that realization, I was distinctly aware of an emerging link. The two bands manage to attract religious audiences in part because they are Jewish and they employ Biblical texts and Jewish issues in their music, but there seems to be a Jewishness to them that lies not in the verses, but in the auditory scream that opens Heaven’s gates in a way that texts cannot.

Of course, I do not suggest that those who would object to the literal lyrics should compromise their religious standards and encourage their kids to navigate a space that they perceive as religiously dangerous. Nonetheless, it seems quite clear that Jewish music is headed in a direction that draws inspiration not from literal texts, but from an atmospheric sense of identification with Judaism in more of an aesthetic sense. Judging from the audiences, CD sales and world tours, Blue Fringe and Soulfarm fill a certain need and affect their audiences in a way that textual language cannot, and it will be really interesting to see where the bands go from here as they further explore that space.

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: wecker@yu.edu.

For more information on Blue Fringe, visit http://www.bluefringe.com/ or contact Jon Perl at jpprods@bigfoot.com or at 212.494-9085. For more information on Soulfarm, visit http://www.soulfarm.net/.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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