Israeli troubadours bond with Americans via music

Reva L’sheva featuring Yehudah Katz (right): The emotional connection was so clear… it really moved people from all sides.It wasn’t a common scene: bearded, religious Jewish Israeli musicians playing traditional Hebrew music together with a black Baptist choir in a …

Reva L’sheva featuring Yehudah Katz (right): The emotional connection was so clear… it really moved people from all sides.It wasn’t a common scene: bearded, religious Jewish Israeli musicians playing traditional Hebrew music together with a black Baptist choir in a Detroit church.

But for one of the musicians – 54-year-old Yehudah Katz – it seemed perfectly natural, and was the ultimate proof that the “crazy” idea he had hatched the year before had been on the right track.

The idea was – Artists and Musicians for Israel (AMI) – a performing arts organization that Katz founded to, in his words, to create “a unique educational experience about Israel.”

For Katz, the leader of Reva L’sheva (Quarter to 7), a popular Israeli “spiritual rock” band inspired in equal parts by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and The Grateful Dead, AMI is the culmination of a dream which combines his background in education, his innate musical talent, and his love of Israel.

A native Californian, Katz has been living in Israel since 1993, and Reva L’sheva has been a fixture on the spiritual jam band circuit throughout the country and on regular tours to the US. But his journey to bring the soul music of Israel to the non-Jewish population of the soul capital of the United States is a relatively new undertaking.

“My main goal is to show Americans a side of Israel they can’t see on CNN,” the bearded, earthy-looking Katz told ISRAEL21c. He was sitting in his office adjacent to the rustic home he shares with his wife and six children on Moshav Beit Meir, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Photographs, posters, books, and CDs, and mementos from various periods of his action-filled career jammed the walls and shelves of the office.

According to Katz, the origins of AMI came from a performance Reva L’sheva gave a few years ago in Massachusetts that was organized by Katz’s brother-in-law.

“This man comes up after the show and said, ‘Thank you so much, this was unbelievable. I’ve got a 17-year-old son who plays guitar, and he was blown away by your guitar player. But that wasn’t what was most unbelievable. At intermission, he walked off the stage and started talking to my son. This Hassidic Jimi Hendrix goes right for my kid and started talking. Nobody’s ever done that before, and it was so inspiring to him, that I had to thank you,’” recounted Katz.

“My brother-in-law picked up on that and told me, ‘you’ve got to come back for a week, you have to be in residence somewhere, and you have to meet every 16-year-old Jewish kid in Boston.’”

From that seed, Katz began exploring the possibility of organizing a US tour whereby his band would not just go and play, then leave for the next town, but would stay in the community for multiple days and interact with students in the area on a musical and personal level.

“I didn’t want to just go in and do a show. That’s what I do when I’m on tour – this is different. I wanted people to ask us ‘what’s your perspective of Israel from a apolitical perspective?’ ” said Katz.

He received encouragement and financial support for his endeavor from the Jack and Helen Nash Foundation, as well as the Central Alliance for Jewish Education and Aish Hatorah. And late last year, the first AMI project was launched with a week’s visit to the Detroit area by the six-piece Reva L’sheva along with three additional artists/musicians.

“Our basic program consists of living in the Jewish community for a week. Every morning, we go to a different day school of a different denominations, and conduct concurrent workshops for the students – with a focus on seeing Israel through the eyes of the artist,” Katz said.

The workshops include participatory artistic endeavors like drum circles, a photography session on a laptop that enables the students to change the face of Israel on the computer, and group songwriting workshop with an Israel theme.

“The musical workshops show the kids a side of Israel they’re not ever exposed to. Our drummer conducts a session on ‘Sounds of the Jerusalem Forest’. He comes with bags of serious percussion toys, gives them to the class, and they create the sounds he hears when he goes to meditate in the Jerusalem Forest,” said Katz.

“Then we bring all the students back together in an assembly, and they perform with us onstage. We do a little show – 20 or 30 minutes, and that’s the end of the morning.”

The evenings are spent giving concerts at different locations in the community, topped by panel discussions in which the band talked about their lives in Israel.

“We did one night in a Conservative synagogue, one night in a Reform, then Orthodox… and then one night, we played in the New Life Baptist Church in downtown Detroit,” Katz said, shaking his head in bemused satisfaction.

The performance came about because of an intimate show Katz gave a group of American ministers who visited Israel three years ago.

“They really got into it – which is not surprising considering our music shares a spiritual quality found in gospel music. They said then that the next time we were in Detroit, we had to see them. So when we organized the AMI trip, we made sure to get them on the schedule,” Katz said.

To make the evening even more special, it was arranged for the church’s adult choir to sing with the band, an experience which brought both the performers and the audience to a heightened spiritual level.

“We showed up an hour before, and met with the choir. I told them the first song I want to do with them is called ‘Ki Va Moed’ (The Time Has Come). They repeated the words a couple time, and when I started singing it, they sang along once and just jumped in front of it. “In a second, it sounded like it could have been arranged for the Voices of East Harlem [a legendary gospel choir] – it was awesome,” Katz said.

He taught the choir two more songs, and they responded with equal enthusiasm.

“There was this whole ‘amen’ trip – a call and answer which they really got into. You could see that their attentiveness wasn’t just a cerebral thing. When we sang with them, they took ownership of the songs, and you could see it pouring out of their hearts,” he said.

“When the evening was over, almost every person in the audience waited in line to come up and hug us, and to cry. For me this wasn’t a show, it was a real experience, and these were real people. There was an inordinate high percentage of people crying – from an American cultural aspect, there was no reason to be crying. It was just a show. But the emotional connection was so clear, the love the honesty – no holds barred. It really moved people from all sides.”

“It was an up-beat presentation of the beauty of Israel through the arts. It is great music and including their gospel choir was the key. Musicians love making music,” said Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg, of Temple Shir Tikvah in Detroit, who helped organize the church show.

Sleutelberg said that the show was a successful prototype at bringing the Jewish and black communities of Detroit together.

Katz is now intent on building up on the success of the first AMI trip with the goal of visiting four or five American communities every year.

“Our goal is to educate hearts about Israel through music and art,” said Katz. And by the reception AMI received in Detroit, they are getting an A for effort.