By Kiki Arochas, Staff Writer
I still remember the middle school days, where my good friend and I constantly debated on a matter of utmost importance: which was better, “Jewish” music, or “non Jewish” music? ‘’Non Jewish music has no meaning!’’ he would cry. “Repeating the same five words over and over again isn’t meaningful!” I’d retort. To be sure, I was well aware that there were exceptions to this rule, but for me, it was a matter of principle. I could only hear five words of Tanach on loop sung with a “non jewish” tune so many times and still stand to be lectured about how meaningful Jewish music is (there is an exception: Bas Kol, which is to the tune of “Worth it”, is an absolute banger and I will die on that hill). We went at it like this for months until my friend finally convinced me to at least try some of his recommendations. There was one name he would always bring up, without fail. Abie Rotenberg. We were learning in the basement of a shul in Passaic, deep into a beautiful Thursday evening, when my friend played Abie’s music for the first time. I’ll never forget it.
See, if I haven’t made it clear already, I hated Jewish music. Not just because I was constantly being told the music I loved was assur (forbidden), but because of what I viewed as the insufferable ignorance of those who had never listened to “non jewish” music. Had they never tuned in to a guitar solo by Eric Clapton? Been mesmerized by the vocals of Stevie Wonder? Awestruck by the lyrical genius of Bob Dylan? How was it possible that they had heard none of these geniuses of the arts, and could still claim to be so satisfied? I was furious. Such was my rage I wouldn’t even entertain the possibility of good Jewish music being out there. But of course, I hadn’t heard the greatest. Abie Rotenberg’s Journeys One, Two, and Three, a journey of the sort I hadn’t experienced in Jewish music then or since.
Where does one begin when describing Abie’s music? Perhaps in the complex simplicity of his lyrics. Songs like “Joe Dimaggio’s Card” and “There is no Place like Home” tell beautiful stories of friendship and the journey to faith that touch the listener to their core. The hilarious if a tad unconventional “Atheist Convention in LA” demonstrates Abie’s range of different styles of lyrics and tunes. “Neshomele”, a true tear jerker, sees the process of an angel bringing a soul from Heaven to Earth in song form. But for me, the journey into Journeys took its purest form from where it started, that one Thursday evening in the basement of a shul: the song “Memories”, dedicated to those who perished in the Holocaust. Active tears formed at the corners of my eyes the second the song began. I had to run out of the room, claiming I had a phone call, as crying in front of your friends in eighth grade wasn’t cool yet. But once I got home, I played the rest of the song. I felt the emotion of the words pierce through my heart, felt the rage and helplessness of the millions of souls whose names have been lost in the dustbin of history, whose memories were vanquished by Hitler’s hordes. But, as Abie consoles and reminds us, there is One who will always remember: “I know that God in heaven won’t forget.”
There are plenty of other songs that I am failing to mention, and I trust that true Abie diehards will call me out for it. But these songs in particular touched me, changing my perspective on how good Jewish music could be in the process. From there I found Israeli music, like Ishay Ribo and Omer Adam; sephardic pizmonim from Itzhak Ishel and the Revivo Project; and other beautiful songs that fit into the general Jewish mold from Simcha Leiner and Yaakov Shwekey. I had found that, despite still loving all sorts of music, I could now enjoy the Jewish music I used to so despise.
So thank you, Abie. Thank you for inspiring me to live my life to the fullest with “Neshomele.” Thank you for reminding me where my home truly is with “There is no Place like Home.”Thank you for allowing me to feel the loss of my forgotten ancestors with “Memories.” Thank you, for letting me feel those things that can’t always be expressed in the monotony of everyday life. Thank you for your music.