The sun had just set on the sixth night of Hanukkah, and the august rabbi sat solemnly, his hands folded on the head of his cane. With his long white beard and his gray hat, he was the picture of old-world formality. The social hall of the synagogue was nearly full but no one sat near him, although a few watched to see his reaction to Farbrengiton, the band about to rock the Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation.
The members of Farbrengiton describe themselves as “a garage band, a Chabad House, and a hippie commune rolled up in one.” Before the set the five young men, in various degrees of religious dress, tuned their instruments. Neer Spinner, the upright-bass player, wore a yarmulke and a tallith, a prayer shawl that hung down over his very stylish striped black pants. Lead guitarist Aryeh Goldsmith, who splits his musical energies between Farbrengiton and local heavy metal band Animus, wore a gray fedora.
Adam Davis, the show’s emcee, took a microphone to introduce the band.
“There’ll be latkes and refreshments at the intermission,” he told the 40-odd concertgoers, who ranged from young wives in modest wool caps to old men in yarmulkes. “And we’re also going to light a menorah. Is that right?”
Davis looked at the rabbi. The rabbi nodded slowly.
“Rumor has it a menorah will be lit!” Davis said brightly.
Then the music started. Singer Shneur Nathan immediately addressed an age-old rock ‘n’ roll question: who are your influences?
“This song, I believe, is by the Lubavitcher rebbe,” said Nathan, introducing “Johnny Tzama.” The song was a niggun–a piece of Jewish inspirational music–played at double speed and amped up with a guitar riff that sounded like a surf party and a Jewish wedding dance at the same time.
The whole band sounded like a Hebrew version of the Pogues or the Waterboys, two Irish bands that, like Farbrengiton, fused ethnic folk and rock. They introduced a new instrument on every song. For “Az Yeran’nu,” guitarist Zev Goldberg brought out a mandolin, then played a harmonica, kazoo, and whistle. On “Avinu Malkeinu,” Nathan’s father crouched in a seat next to the band and introduced the song by blowing a shofar, a ram’s-horn trumpet used during the high holidays.
The musical roots of Farbrengiton–the name melds the phrase “bring it on” with farbrengen, a Yiddish word for fellowship with friends–go back to 19th-century eastern Europe. But more immediately, they can be traced to an apartment house on Oakley in West Rogers Park. Nicknamed Electric Oakleyland, the building served as a dorm, crash pad, and rehearsal space for Jewish musicians. Zev Goldberg lived there two years ago, as did his mentor, Yaneev. Yaneev was a wedding singer who, like Zev, followed Even Sh’siyah, a popular local Jewish rock band.
“I was a big fan of theirs,” says Goldberg, who at the time played punk, jam-band music, and Creedence covers. “I didn’t like any Jewish music. These guys were Jewish music, but it sounded like music I was listening to, which was classic rock. Most of the Jewish music I’d heard before sounded like Barbra Streisand or the Backstreet Boys. It was just cheesy arrangements. They didn’t know how to use a horn section. The market for that music is people who don’t listen to a lot of secular music.”
Every Saturday, after waking up around noon, the household would gather in someone’s apartment for farbrengen: they’d cook a big stew and sit around the table singing old Jewish melodies a cappella, because playing instruments is forbidden on the Sabbath.
“The singing would go on for hours,” Goldberg says. “Every time someone sang a solo, he had to take a whiskey shot. We would get on a higher plane. It’s from that essence. This is where all this started.”
As it has ever been in rock ‘n’ roll, the authorities tried to shut the music down. After one particularly raucous farbrengen that lasted into the wee hours, Goldberg got a phone message from his landlord: “Ya had a chanting, uh some kind of Jewish chanting party over there last night . . . uh from past midnight. Um, I can guarantee you, do it again Zev, have your Jewish friends over, and do your . . . do your fucked-up chant and I’m going to have you arrested.”
Shneur Nathan, whose brother Yosef was a member of Farbrengiton’s first lineup, went to a Jewish boarding school in Milwaukee where “they would take away your radio if they caught you listening to non-Jewish music.” Nathan was more interested in Guns N’ Roses, so he adopted a clandestine system: “You had to pay a guy to rig your radio so it shut off when someone opened your door.”
Especially among the Orthodox, there is an attitude that rocking out is un-Jewish, says Goldberg.
“Playing music is not encouraged,” he says. “Playing basketball, anything not having to do with becoming a doctor or a lawyer is not encouraged. The arts are not encouraged.”
But some members of Farbrengiton have found that the band bridges their secular and religious lives. Goldsmith, the guitarist who also plays in Animus, says that growing up he demanded to be taken out of his strict Jewish day school and enrolled in Mather High. Only after he transferred, he says, did he develop an interest in religion.
“If you’d asked me a year ago, I never thought I’d be in a band like this,” he says. “In Animus I can express things that bother me about my ultrareligious upbringing, and this allows me to keep in touch with things I like, like menorahs and potato pancakes.”
When Goldberg founded Farbrengiton last year he found a kindred spirit in Adam Davis, the emcee at the Hanukkah concert. Since 2001, Davis has organized a number of Jewish-music bills through Kfar, an organization that aims to reach young Jews who aren’t religious but still identify with their heritage. Farbrengiton was also part of a larger movement to make Judaism hip to rock fans used to seeing stars like Bob Dylan, Gene Simmons, and Slash avoid Jewish topics and obscure their roots by changing their names.
Past Kfar shows at HotHouse and the Prodigal Son have included bands like California roots-fusion artist RebbeSoul, Australian punk band YIDcore, and the avant-garde Rabbinical School Dropouts. For Christmas Day, Davis has booked Farbrengiton on a five-band bill at HotHouse. He hopes to make the show–called Knishmas!–an alternative to the Jewish tradition of spending the holiday at a Chinese restaurant and a movie theater.
“It’s just another day off for us,” shrugs Neer Spinner, the bass player. “A lot of people, it’s a good time to do something with friends. It’s like Pulaski Day.”
During the intermission of the Farbrengiton Hanukkah show, young women sold latkes–three for two dollars–in the lobby. Drummer Mike Levin gave a few of the audience members a tour of Agudas Achim. The cathedral-style synagogue seats 2,000, but the building has been crumbling since Jews began to leave Uptown in the 60s for Rogers Park, Skokie, and points northwest.
Farbrengiton finally won over the rabbi near the end of their second set. When the band played “Mi Adir,” a wedding song, he began shaking his head back and forth on the beat. Farbrengiton ended with their sole original, “I Am a Jew,” which is based on a nursery rhyme Nathan’s father sang when he was growing up: “I am a Jew / The Torah is my tool / I do the mitzvahs / And daven in a shul.”
After the concert was over the rabbi, whose name is Philip Lefkowitz, pronounced Farbrengiton impeccably Jewish.
“Judaism has no musical genre,” he said. “We steal music from everybody. Klezmer music is eastern European. Any music is a legitimate expression of Judaism.”
Then, like the native New Yorker he is, the rabbi started tummling.
“Do I personally like the way it sounds?” he asked, shrugging. “What they’re doing is using the musical medium to express their Judaism. That’s how the music speaks to their time. I don’t know if I could spend a whole Yom Kippur like that. The loudness is OK. Our God is 2,000 years older than the Christian God. He’s hard of hearing. He needs a hearing aid but he won’t wear one. He’s a stubborn old Jewish man.”
Knishmas! With Blue Fringe, Even Sh’siyah, Yuri Lane, Tum Balalaika, and Farbrengiton
When: Sat 12/25, 7 PM
Where: HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo
Price: $18 in advance, $20 at the door
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.