The communal road to recovery may be paved in bluegrass. Nefesh Mountain, a New York band which incorporates American bluegrass and Old-time music with Jewish themes and lyrics, performed at Bellefield Hall Auditorium in the Oakland neighborhood on Saturday evening, Jan. 12. The free concert was presented by Congregation Dor Hadash, Pittsburgh’s Reconstructionist community.
Ellen Surloff, Dor Hadash’s president, conceived of the event after hearing the group two months ago at “Rooted and Relevant: Reconstructing Judaism in 2018,” the Reconstructionist movement’s biennial convention Surloff attended with fellow Dor Hadash member Rabbi Doris Dyen just weeks after the Oct. 27 Tree of Life murders. A Friday afternoon service during the convention allowed Surloff to thank members of the movement for their support.
The service, which also honored Blaze Bernstein, the 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who was murdered last year in what police have categorized as a hate crime, brought tears, as did hearing Nefesh Mountain, recalled Surloff.
There were a lot of emotions, explained Doni Zasloff, the band’s vocalist, in a phone interview prior to the Pittsburgh performance.
“We met Ellen in November right after the event and we just hugged each other and cried, and she said, ‘I wish that everyone could hear you,’ and we told her, ‘They can. We are going to come and bring you whatever you want,’” said Zasloff.
“Music can be a huge healer,” added Eric Lindberg, Zasloff’s husband and the band’s banjo and guitar player. “We knew that cognitively before the tragedy. We were shaken so much by this shooting.”
Nefesh Mountain performs about 150 concerts a year worldwide, but the Pittsburgh show had special significance, said Zasloff. “It’s a very meaningful and important moment for us as American Jews to stand up and say, ‘This is who we are.’ It’s about pride in who we are and not to be afraid, and trust and believe that it will be OK.”
Days after the Tree of Life shooting, the married duo struck that message in “The Tree of Life,” a song they wrote and recorded. Lyrics include, “O sweet friends / Come and dry your eyes / And hold each other / By this tree of life / I am angry and I am tired / Of this great divide / But I sing nonetheless / With love on our side.”
Video of Zasloff and Lindberg performing “The Tree of Life” has received more than 339,000 views on Facebook; Bluegrass Today called the number “a prayer for healing, a beautiful song composed in keeping with their habit of playing Jewish liturgical music with bluegrass instruments.”
“We are Americans and we are Jewish. We love bluegrass music and Old-time music,” said Zasloff. “Through falling in love we started this band that is authentic expressions of who we are. Somehow we have landed on a new genre we didn’t intend for that to happen.”
Audrey Glickman, a member of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, called the concert “magnificent” and described the group’s sound as “a seamless merging of bluegrass and Jewish music.”
Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom agreed. He was “very impressed with the band’s talent and musicianship.”
“Our music is for people of all backgrounds,” said Zasloff. “It’s for people who are Jewish, people who are any religion, any culture and of all backgrounds. The music is at its core about universal themes and about people. And as Jewish Americans we express it through our music, but it’s about people.” Whether pain or joy is ultimately expressed, it is a “natural fit with the style of bluegrass and Old-time music.”
All kinds of “indigenous American art forms are wrapped up in the music,” but the message is clear, said Lindberg. “We’re not preaching anything. We’re just trying to sing about love and joy.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.