If Shlomo Carlebach is the rabbi/troubadour of Jewish music, Abie Rotenberg is its poet laureate – an Orthodox Paul Simon – as capable at penning seriously contemplative, insightful or even whimsical lyrics as he is at composing the kind of tunes that we identify with as a people regardless of our level of observance. His is the type of music that connects on that visceral yet insightful level we often forget we have. Small wonder Rotenberg’s rare live appearances have sold out venues like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Radio City.
The longevity of both the artist and material backs this up. The first album in his groundbreaking “D’veykus” series was first released in the early 70’s. Thanks to classics like “HaMalach,” “Lecha Dodi,” “Lev Tahor” and others you’re just as likely to hear selections from this six-album series at an Egalitarian Kabbalat Shabbat service in Malibu as you are at a charedi one in Hancock Park, or for that matter in Boro Park.
As Jewish music is very territorial, with very little crossover between the artists representing Judaism’s various branches, one would imagine this kind of across-the-board acceptance would provide most creative types with all the creative fulfillment and validation they need. And with the exception of Rotenberg, they’d be right.
The result? “Journeys.” First released in 1985, this four-album series showcases Rotenberg’s talents as a composer/lyricist as well as his ability to see a song in everything from major lifecycle events to small personal moments and even more personal ideals.
His “D’Veykus,” “Journeys” and other musical releases have resulted in anthem-level global hits. Recently, when three Israeli teenagers had gone missing, Rotenberg’s “Acheinu” spontaneously became the voice of a people hoping and praying for good news that, alas, did not materialize. “What Will Become of all the Memories” resounds annually when the March of the Living makes its stopover at Auschwitz. For more than 30 years now, “It’s Time to Say Good Shabbos” signals the conclusion of Friday programming on Jewish music radio stations across the country. His songs have made it into the repertoires of stars like Rick Recht and the late Debbie Friedman and are even part of the syllabus at Hebrew Union College (American Jewish Language & Identity in Historical Context). One thing is clear, Rotenberg knows how to take what inspires him and craft it into something that can inspire us all.
While themes for Rotenberg’s “Journeys” material run the gamut from two unborn children having a conversation about the meaning of life in utero to our responsibilities to the ever-diminishing number of Holocaust survivors, one theme that’s made multiple appearances is, baseball.
From the whimsical yet pointed “9th Man” (and its sequel) to the poignant yet still pointed “Joe Dimaggio’s Card,” it is clear that American’s favorite pastime resonates with Rotenberg in a special way.
For those who know the former Queens native (Rotenbeg has been making his home in Canada since the mid 80’s), it should come as no surprise. His European born father would watch games on their little black & white console TV, and, naturally, his young son was drawn in as well. Rotenbeg remains a seriously dedicated baseball fan to the point where he ensures his seasonal subscription to MLB.com allows him to watch games in real time vs. the delayed feed or highlights-only-recap most of his fellow expats have to be content with.
Despite growing up in the shadow of Shea/Citi, his team of choice is the Yankees, though his level of understanding of the game’s inner workings is way more granular that most Yankee fans.
His is the kind of understanding that usually comes from a lifelong obsession with the game. The kind of obsession that virtually guarantees events like Sandy Koufax’s decision to not play on Yom Kippur when his team, the LA Dodgers, were playing the Twins in the World Series, would still resonate with Rotenberg half a century later, and manifest themselves via his recently released The Season of Pepsi Meyers, a novel geared toward teens, young adults, and baseball fans of all ages.
The book, which makes reference to Koufax’s historic “sit out the 1965 World Series/Yom Kippur game,” takes place in the near future. Don’t expect any “Back to the Future”-like hover boards, though. To Rotenberg, the near future is the backdrop for a key plot line (not to mention a prognostication unerringly similar to what many present-day team owners feel is the inevitable future of baseball). Pepsi Meyers (spoiler alert: who is named after the contents of the truck that pulled over to help his mother who was in labor and on her way to the hospital), is a teen baseball phenomenon from upstate New York. Because of his skills, he gets scouted and signed to a lucrative contract with the Yankees literally right out of high school.
Despite his youth, his career takes off with a serious northward trajectory reminiscent of Mantle, Gooden, and, more recently, Mike Trout. In short, he’s a serious, perhaps unprecedented, major league talent, both literally and metaphorically. While his parents are decidedly secular, they’re still Jewish, so they do what any Jewish parent would do when their only child is faced with a life-changing career opportunity that will force him to move away from home: they move with him to Riverdale, an upscale neighborhood that’s both minutes away from Yankee Stadium and light years away from Binghamton.
Aside from its proximity to the Yankee Stadium, Riverdale is also known (both in real life and in terms of the novel) for having one of the more welcoming and eclectic Jewish communities in the tri-state area, a factor that creates some conflicts for Pepsi whose life has seen enough change for one year
This creates a Koufax-esque scenario that Rotenberg resolves with the same casual yet insightful aplomb found in many of his song lyrics. Like his songs, the book is never heavy-handed or preachy. Instead, he approaches the dynamics of belief from a perspective that’s simultaneously emotional and intelligent. The basic principles of Judaism are interwoven into a riveting baseball story. It is an approach that can engage and educate an otherwise-disinterested reader to learn about our Jewish heritage.
Another element that will undoubtedly get noticed is Rotenberg’s understanding of the game, both in terms of actual rules as well as the behind-the-scenes machinations that bloggers, columnists and die-hard fans like Rotenberg live for. Parts of the book show a command of the game, and the corporate entity called Major League Baseball, that’s more reminiscent of films like “Money Ball.” What makes this both surprising and impressive is the fact it doesn’t at all hinder the read; if anything, the added layer of intrigue makes it more interesting.
If that’s not enough, serious fans of the game (and the malaprop), will be happy to discover that every chapter opens with a surprisingly relevant quotation from the inimitable Yogi Berra. It’s small yet significant touches like these that communicate to the reader just how deeply Rotenberg thought through the entire reading experience and the depth of his commitment. It seems, to quote the great Yogi himself, he “has deep depth.”
What possesses someone with the creative credentials and body of work that Rotenberg has amassed to venture into uncharted waters and attempt to prove himself in yet another medium? The soft spoken father of six and grandfather of many more says that while The Season of Pepsi Meyers is his most recent creative endeavor, it’s also the one “longest in the works.”
As Rotenberg put it to me recently:
“It is true that in many of our communities, sports, or anything that seemingly would not make you a better or more devout person, was considered a narishkeit, a waste of time. My upbringing was different. My family, as well as the spiritual role models in my life, both in and out of school, recognized the value of sports. They saw it not only as a healthy physical activity for growing adolescents, but as a welcome and innocent diversion from the intense regimen of study, we yeshiva kids underwent.
“But no one throughout the Jewish world remained indifferent when word got out that Sandy Koufax had announced that he would not pitch – in a World Series game –because it conflicted with Yom Kippur. And this 12-year-old, baseball-card-collecting, rabid sports fan wasn’t just proud; he was ecstatic. Here was one of baseball’s best players, willing to alienate his own teammates and fans by putting the faith we shared, ahead of what made him the idol of millions.
“More importantly, for many of the survivors in our community this was the first real proof that America was in fact different. Here a Jew could be a Jew and could not be coerced to violate his beliefs and principles. It was a far cry from the hell they were subjected to simply because they were Jews. The concept of a Jew telling those in power “no” was alien to them. Then Sandy Koufax came along, and as a result, you could almost feel them begin to relax a bit and proceed with their plans for the future a bit less gingerly.
“I would venture to say that the feelings, emotions and most important pride that Koufax’s decision elicited back in 1965 even eclipsed the community’s reaction to Joseph Lieberman being chosen as Gore’s running mate over three decades later. By that time the pride and amazement caused by Koufax’s decision had evolved into a feeling of comfort and entitlement. So rather than kvell over the fact an observant Jew was considered vice presidential material, many kvetched that it was only the vice presidency.
“When one is 12 years old, emotions like pride and validation don’t just impact your psyche, they stay with you. Especially when they’re shared by the authority figures you look up to at home and school.
“When creating a work of music, I’ve experienced epiphanies – where a song in its entirety took literally minutes to write – as well as drawn out, lengthy endeavors that took years to complete. Writing The Season of Pepsi Meyers contained both elements. While walking to shul one Shabbos morning, the entire outline of the story came to me in a flash. But the actual writing and the fleshing out of Pepsi and the other characters in the book, as well as which particular aspects of Judaism to focus upon, took several years. Can I say for sure that Koufax was on my mind when the idea germinated? No. But I have no doubt that subconsciously Sandy’s choice laid the groundwork for baseball as my choice of metaphor for the struggle between fame, fortune and faith.
“At its core it’s a story about values; principles and taking pride in who we are – three things that usually transcend one’s level of observance. There’s a distinct difference between not being embarrassed of who you are and actually being proud of it to the point where it guides your values and principles. The Season of Pepsi Meyers is about that pride, that’s why I wrote it for young adults, who are at the point in their lives where they’re coming to terms with their Jewish identity. Deciding to be proud of their Jewishness rather than hide it can impact generations. So if the book inspires even one kid to identify with our 3500 year history and discover the fundamental precepts of the Torah that unifies us, I’ll be thrilled. Plus, if that kid’s also impressed by how much an “FFB” Zaydeh from Toronto knows about baseball, I’ll be ecstatic.”
While the last book with his name on it did exceptionally well and is now in its tenth printing Rotenberg says he has no plans to use that as a barometer. Why? “It was the Journeys song book,” he replied with a smile.