Trying to find an outlet

It was two days before Sukkos. It was one of those mornings. I had been up late the night before (not blogging) and had not gotten too much sleep during the night at all. My morning cup of coffee wasn’t doing the trick. Then I had a thought…music. Not just any music, but two CDs by the most powerful energetic band I had loved during my formative teenage days…Husker Du.

Husker what? Please don’t bother doing a wiki search. Husker Du is Danish board game and means “Do you remember?”. It was a popular ‘memory’ game in the sixties, so I’ve been told.

Husker Du was also the name of one of the most influential Hardcore Punk bands from the early eighties, known for powerfully emotional lyrics filtered through their musical trademark, a ‘wall of sound’.

Now, over the years I have greatly cut down the amount secular music that I listen to. I have a strong taiyvah for music, specifically the genre I came of age with between 1985-1989, Punk/Alternative. I can proudly say that 99.5% of what I listen to in a given month is Jewish Music. On long car trips when the kids are asleep, we’ll listen to some classic rock tunes (along with some more current tunes), but that’s where I try to limit it.
That morning I felt that I needed an extra musical ‘kick start’ today. I stared at the two CDs most of the day. They sat on my desk between the Rabbis’ Sons, a C. Lanzbom, and several Piamenta CDs. I looked at them, heard the music in my head, visualized the lyrics in front of me, and struggled.

OK, what’s the problem? Just play the CD!. It bothered me that I felt a ‘need’ to listen to it. This has nothing to do with halacha /hashkafa / or frumkeit. I was debating if I needed to listen to it, or if I can find stimulation elsewhere. I was (am) troubled that I felt I needed to resort to non-Jewish music to get my day going. I can see a theme here concerning outside stimulation and our retreat into a Sukkah, where we control our own stimulation. I actually blogged about it when this struggle crept its’ way into my head. You can read, if you haven’t already, about that here.

When I became frum, I found it rather easy over time to change certain aspects of my lifestyle. To stop going out on Friday nights or eating treif was never really too difficult. These were never big issues for me. These, of course, are halachic issues. While certain aspects of character development were challenging (and still are), concepts like emunah, chessed, davening make sense. The urge to make a witty remark at some else’s expense is, at times, still a struggle.

What was, and still is, not so easy for me, was to get into Jewish music. (Please note, I didn’t write “stop listening to non-Jewish music”.) The first few power cords on an electric guitar, the overpowering base, the fasth drums…these elements were missing in Jewish music when I was becoming frum. For the most part they are still missing. I have a theory about that, but we’ll save it for the comments section, if there are comments.

This issue is a constant hashkafic struggle for me and I’ll explain why.

What we eat or the parameters of what we can do on Shabbos are clearly defined within Halacha. It’s the ‘grey areas’ like music that are at times an issue. I real issue for me had nothing to do with the style of music, or the lyrics (I was always careful about lyrics).

For me this issue is that once I get a taste for the music, it’s a challenge for me to stop listening. I simply want more. When I do stop, then I’m constantly left wondering why can’t I find a Jewish version of punk? Where’s the musical energy? Where was the intesity of a punk rock show? There are some options to listen to (see my blogger profile), but not too many.

At the end of day I made a choice. I chose to indulge in 2 minutes and 38 seconds of auditory memories. I picked a song that was about not wasting time and making the most out of life. A very positive message, I think. And I was impressed that I didn’t ‘cave in’ and actually play both disks. The idea crossed my mind all day.

I was (am) plagued by fact that I felt I needed to resort to non-Jewish music to get me going, as I entered Sukkos. The first night, while sitting in my sukkah I was truly happy. It was freezing, but also great singing and listening to other families sing in the neighborhood. The block behind us has 4 or 5 frum families and each family was singing. It was like an unplugged battle of the bands!!

During the week I went to two Simchas Beis HaSho’evos, “How could I go wrong, I thought?” Live music…a singer…a drummer…an electric guitar!! It was fun, loud, but it really didn’t give me the fix I needed. Something was missing.

Enter Simchas Torah. For me, this year was great. Mostly because I enjoy dancing with my kids and seeing my wife smile and enjoy the scene I make. Going to a few different shuls on Simchas Torah is kind of like a full day music festival with different stage locations. Each shul has their own flavor of hakafos. Every one sings slightly different songs, different niggunim, and the intensity of dancing varies from place to place. Back in high school. we use to dance, ok slam dance, in a circle…just the guys. It was a feather in one’s cap if you knocked over someone. Now, when I dance with guys (like on Simchas Torah) and I bump into someone I say, “I’m sorry. I hope you’re alright”.

Memories of concerts, cassettes, and CDs (most of them sold) are replaced with other memories: Singing V’li Yerushalyim (the D’veykus version) with friends in the Old City one Motzei Shabbos, hearing Hafachta by the Diaspera Yeshiva Band for the first time, the first time I saw Yosi Piamenta play at the Knitting Factory (before they moved Downtown), watching my kids sing and dance the last time we saw everyone’s favorite uncle…Uncle Moishy.
Gone are the combat boots (still in the closet until the first snow) and on is the black Shabbos hat. I choose to prove my independence and free-thinking though Torah, Avodah, and Gelimus Chasadim, rather than with safety pins, a can of Aqua-Net, and an in-your-face aversion to authority.

A good niggun, for me, does the trick 99.5% of the time. I often sing during day and always on my way home from shul. But, it’s that other tiny .5% of the time that gets me. For me, there’s still something that I have not found in Jewish Music. I’m just waiting for the amplifier to be plugged in. I’m trying to find an outlet.

This posting was partially inspired by fellow blogger A Simple Jew and, his now, classic posting, Trapped in the Lower Levels.

12 thoughts on “Trying to find an outlet

  1. Bari

    A great post, Neil.

    While I was never into punk rock, I can still sympathize.

    There was one guy in the Yeshiva who was a really top learner, very very good head, who was a Masmid and davened nicely too.

    This guy, if not every night, then very often, would go to his room for a few minutes, take a shot or two of Glenmorangie, take out the heavy metal, and just relax.

    (He also had the body fat ratio of Bo Jackson in his prime).

    Then he went back to the Beis Medrash.

  2. Rafi g

    A gray area is just that. If God wanted you to do something specific on the issue, ti would nto be a gray area. he would have delineated the rules just like He did in other things. he left these things gray because they are issues in which you need to move at your own pace. If you go too fast and try (using your example of the music) to drop all the music right away, you will likely fail and fall back to listening to mroe music and maybe take back other items you are already ok with.

    According to those who work in kiruv who I have heard from, one of the greatest pitfalls in the teshuva process is taking on too much too fast (when dealing with baalei teshuva it can even mean straight out halacha issues, but when dealing with people who have already returned or ffbs, it generally is referring to the gray areas).
    If the music does it for you, it is not so bad to listen every now and then. You can try to minimize it even more over time..


  3. Pragmatician

    Sometimes we wish somethign was definitely forbidden, so that it would be easier not to do at all.
    But as Rafi G said, gray areas mean that one should make out for themsleves where they draw the line.

  4. PsychoToddler

    Good luck with that. I like Jewish Music, and I try to play music that appeals to me personally. Still, I never get the kick from a Jewish Band that I get out of turning up some Rush or some Pretenders.

    If I said otherwise, I’d just be lying to myself.

  5. Neil Harris

    PT, at least you have an outlet. I played guitar from K-3rd grade, then stopped. Maybe someday I’ll take it up again.
    Thanks for commenting, now I know I’m in good company.

  6. FrumWithQuestions

    There is a good Jewish Australian Punk band that I saw in NY a few times. They sell the CD online and in some Judaica stores. There was oposition to it because people were offended that traditional Jewish music should not be played as punk music. The band name is YIDCORE. You should definatly check them out.

  7. Michoel

    I just got here from A Simple Jew. I had totally forgotten about Husker Du. I used to listen to them quite intensly when I was a DJ at a college radio station. I am sure you are familiar with Simply Tsfat. For the other .5% I recommend trying them at high volume.

  8. Neil Harris

    “Simply Tsfat” are great and the rumor is that they’ll be in Chicago sometime in November (Yippee!)
    I head Yidcore a number of years ago. I believe they are non-yet-frum, but very talented. The lack of true punk/thrash music produced by frum Yidden is sadly what bothers me the most.

  9. Anonymous

    Sometimes a spade is just a spade. If you feel that you have to fill that void with music, than just do it. You will be satisfied and it will make you appreciate just how far you have come. You don’t have to forget your past to enjoy your future!

  10. Neil Harris

    I agree about filling the void and just listening to what I NEED to listen to and not going overboard.
    I am troubled about how listening to certain music will make me appreciate how fare I’ve come.

    Listening to music is very different from, say, looking at old photo from years ago.

    Music is something that can touch ones’ neshama in a very direct way, unlike most other art forms.
    My high school choir (yeah, I was a BASS 1 in high), a former hippy, use to always say that “music is the most abstract art form”.
    This always stuck out in my head for some reason until I read some of Reb Nachman’s teachings. He taught that mmusic can touch ones’ neshama in a very direct way. That’s why he was so machmir on singing as many zimeros on Shabbos Kodesh.

  11. FrumWithQuestions

    The guys from YIDCore went to yeshiva in Australia. They were punks in their yeshiva looking at a way to express themselves. whether or not they are frum I do not know but anything is possible with them.


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