Martin Elliot Jaffe discusses Jewish Bluegrass Mountain Music.
Join my wife and me on a pre-pandemic evening, Saturday night at Temple Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, Ohio as an enthusiastic crowd participates in a unique new American Jewish tradition: a night of bourbon tasting, soul-stirring, foot-stomping music by the wildly popular Jewish bluegrass group NEFESH Mountain, described by Temple arts program Rob Ross as, ‘ a fantastic mix of Judaism, spirituality, and bluegrass music where you can’t help but stamp your feet.’
While Nefesh Mountain rule in Beachwood, Ohio tonight and sit at the top of the Jewish bluegrass mountain currently, there is a long and vigorous tradition of Jewish engagement in this vital and uniquely American musical vision.
Writing in the Smithsonian in 2009, Jen Miller described this music as, ‘ Jewgrass’ and noted, ‘ these lovers of banjo, fiddle, and mandolin have found a uniquely American way to express their Jewish cultural identity and religious faith.’
For some mystical reason that defies explanation, there is a deep connection between prominent Jewish bluegrass instruments and the mandolin. Orthodox Jew Andy Statman from Brooklyn, now 71, has been an influential figure in both klezmer and bluegrass for multiple decades and was a 2007 grammy award nominee for best country instrumental performance for his version of bluegrass elder statesman Bill Monroe’s version of ‘Rawhide’.
American country music superstar Ricky Scaggs describes Statman as,’ Bill Monroe and John Coltrane poured into one person. I don’t know anyone who approaches mandolin the way he does.’
Until the pandemic, Statman and his trio played Tuesday and Thursday evening concerts at the Charles Street synagogue in New York.
David Grisman, now 76, was perhaps the leading mandolinist of the psychedelic era ( perhaps the only one) Grisman played with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead in a bluegrass band. He was a featured player on the Dead classic AMERICAN BEAUTY in 1970.
The banjo called other Jewish musicians to bluegrass. Henry Sapoznik, Director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison came to bluegrass after a long career playing klezmer as well and recently released his first old-time banjo recording in over 30 years, titled, BANJEW.
As he stated to an interviewer from Hadassah magazine, ‘ it’s exciting to return to my banjo roots.’
A younger generation of Jewish banjo players has been immersed in bluegrass as well. Growing up in Skokie, Illinois Noam Pikelny, 39, began playing the banjo at age 8. He was the first recipient of the Steve Martin prize for excellence in and banjo and bluegrass in 2010. He won an award in 2014 and 2017 as the bluegrass player of the year from the International Blue Grass Music Association.
Led by the married couple Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, Nefesh Mountain has a 10-year history as a collection of accomplished all-star players. Violin/fiddle player Alan Grubner graduated from Dartmouth College and graduate studies at Berklee College of Music; Mandolinist David Goldenberg is also a stellar player and graduate of Berklee; bass player Max Johnson has nine albums under his own name as well as film scores of major Hollywood productions.
The latest Nefesh Mountain CD, BENEATH THE OPEN SKY (2018) has been glowingly reviewed and pre-pandemic Nefesh Mountain played over 150 venues on a tour of the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. They now book concerts and programs conducted over zoom and share update with their 15,000 Facebook followers.
Why the name Nefesh Mountain? As co-founder Eric Lindberg noted, ‘mountains are so symbolic in both Jewish history and the bluegrass world—from Mount Sinai and Masada to Blue Ridge and Rockies—humbly searching for spiritual connection.’
Brooklyn raised, Lindberg’s father was a convert to Judaism with roots in rural Georgia. On family visits to Georgia Lindberg described how, ‘ Bluegrass feels American to me—it connects me to our country—the way the melody lilts connects me to my soul as a human being.’
Lindberg also cited the specific Jewish meaning of their music. ‘ When we sing in Hebrew we celebrate our culture and heritage—so cool to listen to music in different languages, universal themes—so lucky to play our original music and bring our Jewish nature to this really American music.’
Doni Zasloff, Eric’s music and life partner had a vibrant music career before meeting Eric and starting Nefesh Mountain. In 2008 her band Doni Mama won an award at the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam. She also has a promotional deal with Streit’s matzo and over the last four years, her face has been seen on over a million boxes of Streit’s matzo.
To Zasloff, the music of Nefesh Mountain is taking, ‘old-time bluegrass and Appalachian American music and blending it with Jewish spirit—we sing upbeat songs with Ruach ( soul) that make you want to get up and dance and slower songs that are pure and honest—our music expresses all sides of spirituality—the joyous and the more prayerful.’
Zasloff and Lindberg noted the calming and hopeful influence they hope their music can bring to these turbulent and anxious times. Citing a song from their current CD titled NARROW BRIDGE, they sing the saying from the 1800s, ‘ the whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not be afraid.’