My older son, who just turned 9, has… shall we say… interesting taste in music.
To some extent, this is by design. Since he was an infant, my wife and I have sought out children’s music that would also be palatable to the adults in the room (shoutouts to Lisa Loeb, Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants) and avoided more grating juvenile fare. Combined with our own preferred music — an eclectic mix that includes plenty of classic rock and R&B along with Broadway showtunes — I’ve always taken pride in the sonic environment we’ve created in our home.
As he’s grown up, though, my son has taken a liking to songs he’s encountered in a number of different venues, and it seems like we never quite know where his next favorite song is going to come from. Perusing his Spotify playlist, I find myself looking back fondly on the first time we listened to songs like Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” (a car trip accompanied by our local classic rock station), Betty Who’s “Blow Out My Candle” (the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (that time my brother-in-law called looking for song titles that could also refer to diarrhea).
Over the past few months, however, there’s one request that’s become more and more frequent.
“Dad, can you play ‘Lanetzach?’”
As a writer, I often find familiar songs distracting as I try to work, with my brain focusing on the words of the song instead of the words I’m trying to put on the page. While I often turn to instrumental music as an alternative, I’ve found that it can be just as helpful — if not more so — to listen to songs sung in languages I don’t speak… or at least, languages that I don’t speak fluently. With these songs, I can draw on the energy of the vocals without my brain getting caught up in the lyrics.
On any given day, I can be found listening to music in Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese, Creole, Zulu and Urdu. On Fridays, though, I favor a playlist comprised almost entirely of songs in Hebrew; having straddled the border between Reform and Conservative all my life, I certainly recognize and understand a fair number of Hebrew words, but wouldn’t consider myself a Hebrew speaker.
When assembling this playlist, I started with artists whom I’d heard collaborating with the Jewish a cappella group Six13, for whom I’ve written lyrics since 2016. That got me started with Gad Elbaz, Mordechai Shapiro, Shmueli Ungar and Pumpadisa, among others, and then I let Spotify help me with the rest. That’s how Yoni Z — a 31-year-old Brooklyn native of mixed Ashkenazi and Mizrahi heritage, and a member of the Chabad community — found his way into my rotation. On one Friday afternoon, I happened to be streaming Yoni Z’s “Lanetzach” when my son entered the room, and when the song ended, he asked me to play it again… and then again, and then again. Before long, whenever he and I got into the car together, it would only be a matter of time before he asked to hear “Lanetzach.”
Of course, while I certainly find ”Lanetzach” vastly preferable to, say, “Baby Shark,” virtually any song can begin to wear on you when played ad infinitum. On one trip, I decided to expand our horizons a bit and set my phone to shuffle all his songs, starting with “Crown,” one of his songs in English.
I certainly took to it immediately — more on that in a moment — but it wasn’t a unanimous hit. After confirming that we were still listening to Yoni Z, my son said, “I like it better when he sings in Hebrew.”
Of course, as parent-child disagreements go, this one was decidedly minor. More to the point, though, I found myself not just accommodating but relishing this disagreement — and the fact that we live in a time when it’s even possible.
As a suburban latchkey kid on Long Island in the mid-90s, I spent a great deal of time watching the “Saved by the Bell” reruns that aired daily on TBS, turning on the TV after (or even sometimes while) doing my homework. However, it wasn’t just the adventures of Zack Morris and co. that became a staple in my life, but the commercials as well — and one type of ad in particular.
It was pretty much a given that when I tuned in to TBS on a weekday afternoon, I would see at least one commercial for one of Time-Life’s compilation albums of contemporary Christian music. I’d watch artist names like MercyMe, Delirious? and Sonicflood scroll over the screen and take in the infectious hooks of songs like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.”
I’ll readily admit to having been intrigued at the time. Most of the lyrics I heard didn’t sound like a problem to me, and one of the featured songs even had a Hebrew title (“El Shaddai,” recorded by a young Amy Grant before she crossed over to mainstream pop). Still, I saw and heard enough references to Jesus and Christ in these ads that I knew that this music wasn’t for me, a Jewish kid, and as the commercial faded out, I would think, “I wish we had something like that.”
Now, some 25 years later, I’m listening to “something like that” with my kids.
Of course, contemporary Jewish pop music isn’t exactly a recent development. From the emergence of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band in the mid-70s to groups like Moshav and Soulfarm in the ‘90s — not to mention the folk- and pop-inspired liturgical music of Debbie Friedman and the admittedly problematic Shlomo Carlebach — there is a long history of Jewish pop artists who were creating their music even as I silently bemoaned its absence from my life. The difference now is that this music is much more accessible than it was during my teenage years, when Jewish pop didn’t really reach non-Orthodox diaspora communities (and wouldn’t until Matisyahu emerged as a sensation in the mid-2000s).
For whatever issues the shift toward digital distribution and streaming has created in the music industry — and the entertainment industry as a whole — it has also helped level the playing field, making it much easier and more convenient to access content whose appeal is best described as “niche” (or, to use a more technical term, “long-tail”) The success of groups like Six13, Y-Studs and the Maccabeats, fueled in large part by their holiday-themed parody videos on YouTube, has also helped drive greater interest in Jewish music.
That said, the answer to my hunger for modern Jewish music has come with a new set of questions. For example, I’m still trying to figure out how to get Alexa to recognize a request for “Lanetzach,” a tricky feat, given that she thinks Yoni Z’s song “Koach” is pronounced “Coach.” I also occasionally wonder what Yoni Z might think of his songs being streamed on a Saturday afternoon, when he certainly wouldn’t be using Spotify or any other technology.
Still, given Yoni Z’s membership in a Chabad, with its longstanding outreach to less observant Jews, maybe I shouldn’t sweat that last part too much. Yoni Z himself even sings on “We Belong:”
I don’t look like you
You don’t have my view
Both of us are on a journey
I am my own star
You are who you are
Yet we’re part of one great story…
Now, thanks to Yoni Z, that story has a richer, more vibrant soundtrack — for me and my kids.