By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
There’s no one label for the deep, spiritual, funky, fun, and eclectic tunes of one of the hottest new Hassidic funk bands, Zusha.
“What are we? What are you?” asks band member and guitarist Zachary Goldschmiedt, 24, over coffee in Jerusalem with this reporter. Sitting with percussionist Elisha Mlotek, 25, and vocalist Shlomo Gaisin, 24, the latter sipping a berry smoothie with a shot of hot pepper, the members of the New York-based band spoke about music, religion, and life.
“The only assumption we make about people is that they are all beautiful and they all have something to teach us. Who are we? We are listeners. We are Jewish,” Goldschmiedt tells JNS.org. “Labels make us uncomfortable.”
Yes, they’re Jewish and Orthodox, with long beards and soulful eyes, but that’s where the labels stop. Zusha’s music is tough to define. Some call it hipster, others dub it Hassidic soul. It’s probably a combination of both of those genres, with a little Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Yosef Karduner thrown in for good measure.
The band is in the midst of an international tour, celebrating its latest and second album, “Kavana,” which means intention in Hebrew. The album came out Jan. 6. On the cover is a tzadik (righteous person) eating.
“How do you take something as mundane as eating and turn it into a spiritual experience? You can,” says Goldschmiedt. “We find ourselves all over the place—the airport, the subway, taxi cabs—and part of our avodah (work) is to make those moments as meaningful as we can through song. We find ourselves singing a lot.”
Zusha, which is an acronym for the band members’ Hebrew names—zayin or Z for Zacharia, shin or S for Shlomo, and alef or A for Elisha, while the vav or U is a connector—put out its first album in October 2014. The members met in 2013 in New York City and started jamming around town, including gigs at and near New York University, where Goldschmiedt studied. After playing just for fun for a while, they decided to make it official. At that point, they had enough of a following that their first album, named for the band, was a success. It led to shows in the U.S. and Israel.
Their target audience: anyone with an open heart, says Gaisin.
“We’ve encountered some really special people at our shows that want to be part of this spiritual revolution,” says Mlotek. “People are running after meaning, Jews are running back to their roots, searching for a meaningful existence.…People are thirsty and hungry for nothing short of the real thing.”
Zusha is ready to give it to them. Mlotek says many people, even those who live religiously observant lives, live them almost robotically. “That becomes dangerous,” he says. The band, Mlotek continues, is trying to “wave a flag and bring spirituality and connection back to the forefront.”
Even the name Zusha is wrapped in a spiritual cloak. Mlotek explains how the Hassidic master Zusha spread a message of simplicity and joy, and that’s the band’s message, too.
Zusha’s shows can take on many forms. In the fall of 2015, Zusha played at the popular Yellow Submarine venue in Jerusalem to a crowd of hundreds of American yeshiva and seminary students. With lighters in the air and screams of delight, the young adults begged for more as they danced in any available open spaces, which were few and far between. At other times, Zusha puts on quieter, more intimate shows—mostly private appearances. Mlotek says he is not nervous when he performs since he doesn’t view it as a production, but rather as prayer.
The band members also enjoy recording their albums. They have a devout Christian producer who adds another layer of spirituality to the music.
“It adds another authentic perspective,” says Mlotek. “He bolsters the music with his rich soul.”
For Gaisin, recording is about an exercise in free choice. Every addition or subtraction changes the band’s sound, and the end results fascinate him.
“Every layer of sound can either block the real us or bring out more of the real us,” Gaisin says.
While on the surface, the band members look similar to each other, they don’t share many philosophical, religious, or political opinions. They say this contributes to their diversity of sound and the dynamism of their music.
“We don’t have to be the same, yet we are all together,” Gaisin says.
How long will it last? Like any young band members, they have high hopes. Yet Goldschmiedt says he is already struggling with his career choice. He says he recognizes the challenges of being a Jewish, let alone Hassidic, band member who wants to form a family.
“Unlike rock 'n' roll superstars, for us, number one is to have a nice place to call home and to raise a family with children. Then there’s this other goal to change the world through music. The hard thing is how do those things line up?” Goldschmiedt says. “Sometimes it is like wearing two different hats without a lot of role models.”
Goldschmiedt mentions that one of his role models is Rabbi Shlomo Katz, who was born into a family of musicians. Katz is best known for singing the songs and giving over the Torah messages of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Gaisin says he’s confident that the band can make the delicate career-life balance work.
“Each one of us contains a little bit of a tzadik,” says Gaisin. “So many people are just on Earth or just in heaven. That is not the Jewish way. You need to bridge the spiritual and physical plains. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what we’ll keep on doing.”
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