The Olam Qatan Interview
with Aryeh Naftaly
From “Songs of
Love and Faith”
to a bunch of “Things”
- Part 1 -
Going back about 15 years, Aryeh
describes how he was the main person responsible for
creating the fusion we might call “Shlomo
Carlebach / Rock ‘n Roll”—a
development he now looks back on with mixed feelings.
Then, for the last 10 years, since 1997 – which is when
we opened Olam
Aryeh has been an almost
unique phenomenon on the Israeli scene.
He’s a religious
singer-songwriter who sings his own songs, who doesn’t
sing “about” Judaism, or sing Jewish prayers, but sings
about his own personal and spiritual experience which
naturally includes Jewish elements and a sense of the
someone who grew up being nourished by America’s
singer-songwriters in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Aryeh’s music was a favorite ”discovery” of mine
here at Olam
Qatan. So when I opened the
School’ in the basement of the bookstore a few years
ago, and made coffee-house evenings at “Beit
Aryeh was the first act I booked.
He was the last
one as well, whom I asked to play at our closing
But although I’ve enjoyed his music all
these years, I never had a chance to sit down with Aryeh and get a clear
picture of exactly where he’s coming from. So he was a
natural choice for the first of our website interviews.
This interview was conducted at Caf? Hillel, next-door to the
bookstore, in July of 1997. –
Where do you want to start?
Let’s start with what I’ve just done, and we’ll work our
way backwards. My new album is called “Dvarim”
– which means, alternatively, “Things” or “Deuteronomy”
(the Book of the Bible), for a variety of reasons. For
all my albums I’ve always had a concept, and I’ve fit
the songs around the concept. I found some kind of
thread that runs through everything. And here the
concept was ‘no concept’ – Dvrarim,
all sorts of “things.” I’d written a lot of songs in
Hebrew since “Tohar,” which
came out in 2004. In the meantime I made “Waiting for
Elijah,” which is in English – a collection of the songs
I’d been writing in English for many years. “Dvarim”
is a summation. Like, “This is what I’ve been doing, up
It's also my fifth album since my band N
Safeq broke up, and "Dvarim"
is the fifth and final book of the Torah.
I don’t know what’s going to come
afterwards, but I know I wanted to stop…
…and sum it up.
Summing up. First there was “Songs of Love and Faith,”
and then “Miqlat”
(“Shelter”), which I made with N
Safeq, and then “Tohar”
(“Purity”) and “Waiting for Elijah.” That’s the last ten
years. I wanted to sum up this period and open the
channels for new energy to come in, stylistically.
On the cover what you
see is just a bunch of “things.” So I try to get some
humor into it – it’s just a bunch of things, and it’s
called “Dvarim”! And it comes from all kinds of directions –
we’ve got social commentary, a little comedy, we’re
dealing with relationship issues… and
I feel like I finally found my voice. "Waiting for
Elijah" took two years to do twelve songs. Now, I
knocked off 25 songs in five months, because I finally
felt confident as a singer and a player. Most of the
tracks are first-takes.
So let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get to
I came to Israel on
Year Course, in 1978. And the
music scene in Israel then was just great! I’ve realized
in retrospect that this was because Israel was a little
bit behind the times, and the music they were making
over here was parallel to what they were making in the
States a few years earlier, say ’74-‘75. And this was my
personal heyday – the music I fell in love with. All the
great singer-songwriters were at their peak back then:
James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bruce
Cockburn (although I didn’t know him at the time. I only
discovered him when I came back to the States,
afterwards.) So Israel has always been imitative. Of
course everybody’s imitative, and there’s a big world
out there. But Israel was much more provincial at the
time. Now everyone’s got internet,
up-to-date with the
latest technology, and sounds, and everything –
particularly music. But at the time Israel was a little
bit behind, so they were right on my wave-length. And I
just fell in love with the music!
Then, when I made
aliyah in ’81,
Israel had caught up. And what had happened in
the States at the end of the ‘70s was punk and disco.
Rock turned into punk, and soul turned into disco. In my
mind, they both became stupider forms of music. And
acoustic forms of music were just laughed at. The most
pass? thing you could was just play guitar. “Here’s this
guy playing a sensitive song on the guitar…” and
everyone’s laughing at him! Of course, the ‘last laugh’
is on them, because where is punk now? And there are
plenty of singer-songwriters still making music.
So you made aliyah in 1981?
I made aliyah
1981. I was single, 20
years old, and I felt that America was a dead-end. I
didn’t like what was going in American culture. I was
living in San Francisco. That was my home town. And
everything there was getting much more hostile. Remember
the “Me Generation”?
and cocaine – instead of
Stuff that made you feel like
you were on the top of the world. “You are the
greatest!” It was all “Me! Me! Me!” instead of some kind
...a searching which includes initiation, death
Right. It became like… you just want to live as much as
possible. You live for yourself – because people were
not having kids so much. Now I go back to San Francisco,
and they don’t have children. I think they’ve outlawed
children! I grew up playing on the streets of San
Francisco. I was there for a month, two years ago. And I
saw one little girl playing ball against the wall of her
garage, in the whole time I was there.
So I came to
Israel, and I was here for two years, searching
around and looking… and I did not find what I was
looking for. I didn’t know what it was. So I went back
to San Francisco. I had
band. I worked with
children in a nursery school. And I was checking out all
the different religions and spiritual paths: Yoga,
Christianity, EST… everybody’s got something to sell,
some kind of idea, some “spiritual path,” and I was
checking them out.
I first got to San Francisco in 1970. And by that time
the scene there had already gone from psychedelics and
“Flower Power” to harder drugs. People could see that
this was a dead end. And then, pulling back from that,
everybody who was “in” had a guru… everybody had a
So I was back in San Francisco, and one night I opened
up a Bible I had a bought in Israel. It was just a
Hebrew Bible: no translation, no
Rashi, no commentary. I was thinking, “I had
enough trouble with Shakespeare in High School. I
couldn’t read that, and it was 400 years old. And now
the Bible is 5000 years old. So what are the chances I’m
going to understand this – in a foreign language?!” But
I opened it up, and amazingly, it’s written very
clearly. Any Hebrew-speaker can understand it, with a
few little grammatical changes. Most of the vocabulary
is still correct. And it just grabbed my soul. It talked
to me – so directly!
You know, when you see
the real thing, you just know it’s the real thing. With
everything else, it’s a little bit like they’re trying
to convince you. But God just lays it down on the line.
“I created this. I did that. This is the story. Take it
or leave it, like it or not, believe it or not…”
My room-mate Rob had
also been to Israel, and we had a band
together. He also came back to San Francisco, and he
also had his Bible. And so, one night, we were sitting
around after a rehearsal, having a bowl of cereal –
which is what one does after a rehearsal…
What music were you playing?
We had a band called “Pacific Time.” What we were
playing was not so different from what I’m doing now,
but it was all in English. You know, it was Grateful
Dead-like rock ‘n roll. We were living in the past. This
was ‘83-‘84. Everybody else was wearing skinny ties and
using drum-machines and playing New
Wave or Punk. And we were sloppy hippies playing
music. We weren’t very
popular, but we had a great time doing it!
My friend Rob played
the piano. And one night we were sitting there reading
the Bible, and we just looked at each other and said,
“You know what?”
“Yes, I know. This is
the real thing.”
Then we proceeded to
‘invent’ Judaism – based on our feeble knowledge of what
you’re supposed to do, and what we’d read in the Bible…
and this has sort of stuck with me. Over the years I’ve
learned the rabbinic side,
the post-biblical Judaism, and I’m not very convinced.
You know, I wouldn’t say I’m a
Karaite, but… I don’t accept the divinity of the
rabbinic view. Especially since
allowed to disagree –
completely – but I’m not allowed to disagree with them.
It’s like, as long as I agree with somebody, I’m okay.
But if I disagree with Hillel
Shammai, then I’m wrong and
both of them are right… even though they disagree!
So I think this is a round about way of saying that I’ve
maintained my open-mindedness… within Torah structure.
We like structure. What I mean is that I have no problem
listening to women sing. You know? There are a lot of
things the Rabbis over-did. They had too much power
then, and they have no power now.
Now they have 49 days
when there’s supposed to be very little going on, during
the Counting of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot – when
you’re not allowed to get married, have parties… and
some people won’t listen to music, or shave, whatever.
But for the Holocaust, we have nothing at all! You know?
Because of some historical event that may or may not
have happened – that 15,000 or 20,000 disciples of Rabbi
so-and-so died, because they
didn’t show each other respect – we have this tremendous
thing. But when you have half the Jewish people
slaughtered, the Rabbis don’t have the power to come up
with one fast day?! You have a national Holocaust
Memorial Day, and lots of religious Jews ignore it
because it’s not “ours,” or “theirs”… whatever.
This also reflects in
my writing. I’m not closed – to anything. I’m open. I
like seeing what the world has to offer. And the Torah
world has a tendency to narrow things. Now that’s a
generalization. Obviously there are beautiful, open
things. There are great teachers, great thinkers…
So how did you wind up in the
community of Mevo
How did I wind up in Modi’in?
After rediscovering the Torah and reinventing Judaism, I
realized that there’s no place to be but in Israel. So I
got my things together, and I came back to Israel. I
lived on a religious kibbutz up north for a while, just
to experience Jewish life in nature – in a religious
community. And it was a great experience. I lived there
for a half-a-year of transition, learning the
minhagim (customs) – how Jews do it today, as opposed
to how we had made it up. It turns out we weren’t that
far off. You know, on Passover you don’t eat bread or
cereal, you eat matzas. I
knew that much.
So I had a nice time
at the kibbutz, and then I moved to
Jerusalem. I studied at the
Academy of Music, in
the jazz department. And I met my wife, Sara. She’s a
silversmith, and she was teaching
silversmithing at the
Bezalel Art School. Very quickly we fell in love,
and we decided to get married. Right after that she got
pregnant, and we decided that we wanted to move to the
Now I had been to the
Modi’in) once before. A
friend of mine took me to a Shlomo
wedding there. And I looked around and thought, “These
guys are nuts!” I went into the synagogue, and there
books of the
Zohar lying around open, and
everything’s a mess, with hippy tie-dyed cloths spread
everywhere… and we went out onto the porch, and
Shlomo is there, and there’s
a two or three hour ceremony with him just talking. I
thought, “Who is this guy? I mean, is this wedding about
him, or is it about this couple?” I didn’t listen to
what he was saying. And Shlomo
was encircled by these women holding candles, swaying
back-and-forth, and it looked either like summer camp,
or like a cult!
So when we got
married, we wanted to somewhere we could have some land.
We wanted to move out of
somewhere we could grow some fruit and vegetables, and
work the land a bit. We wanted to move not too far from
Jerusalem, because this is where my contacts were, my
In the music world?
The music world. I was playing in a very special little
wedding band with Yitzchaq
Attias and a violinist named
Kedmi, and we played
acoustic music. We’d be playing these massive weddings
in these big halls, and we’d just be a classical guitar,
violin and percussion. And sometimes the place was
rocking… and there’s Yitzchak playing the triangle! You
know? That’s the percussion! So that was very special,
and I wanted to keep doing that.
So Sara and I rented a
car. We went to Beit
Meir, we went to
Nataf, and then we thought,
“While we still have the car, why don’t we go check out
Modi’in?” Sara had exactly
the same experience at a different
Shlomo wedding, and she thought, “These guys are
a bunch of crazy cult nuts!”
When we got there, it
was just an ordinary early summer day. We saw little
one-year old kids running around. No cars.
Barely a street. Everything
was silent… quiet nature. And we thought, “This is just
great! What were we thinking? This is so much nicer…
more natural.” There was something very sweet about the
atmosphere. And as it turns out, it never developed.
It’s been 20 years since then, and it hasn’t changed. We
said, “This is the perfect place to raise children!”
Two weeks later
Shlomo came, and I met him
for the first time. He came up to me in the
the little market there, and he said, “You must be
world’s greatest bass
player!” (I was playing bass with a different band at
the time.) So this is how he talks – everyone is “the
greatest,” and “the most beautiful…”
But he got your attention.
Yes. And the first thing I thought was, “This must be
Shlomo, because he’s too old
to be anybody else.” So I said, “Yeah, I’m
I’m not sure I’m the world’s greatest bass player, but
that’s me. And he said,
“Listen, I have a gig
on the day-after-tomorrow. I’d like you to
come play with me.” I said,
“Well, you know, I’d
be happy to. But do you have rehearsals? I don’t know
your material. And he said,
“Don’t worry, it will
be fine.” And it turns out that he had written about
half the wedding repertoire that I had been performing!
You had no idea.
I had no idea! As far as I knew they were all just
Jewish folk-songs, in the public domain. And so we
performed together, and I started listening to him, and
he just blew me away. He was the “guide” that I knew I
didn’t want. Like, I was always looking for him, but the
last thing I wanted was to find a spiritual guide. I
didn’t want to be subservient to anyone. I wanted to be
a free-thinker… and here was the rabbi for
free-thinkers! Because he didn’t
have a “should.” “You should this, you should
that.” He just opened up possibilities. He was always
opening up possibilities.
Reb Shlomo would stay
on the Moshav in the summer
and teach Pirkei
Avot on Shabbat
afternoons. And he would come up with the most
incredible things – that were totally contradictory.
“Here’s a possibility. Now, here’s another possibility.
Open your minds… and your hearts.” That’s what he did.
And I played with him… until the day he died.
That was an
interesting transition. My band,
was pretty much his back-up band in Israel in the last
years, ’93, ’94. He died in ’94.
Shlomo had been relying on me to set up his gigs.
And in the years leading up to his passing away, there
had been this tremendous dip. This is something nobody
likes to talk about, but his popularity was waning at
And then, when
somebody passes away, they become a legend.
But only if they really are – a
legend. And he truly was. But during the late
‘80s and the early ‘90s it was hard to get people to
come to Shlomo’s concerts.
He appealed to an older audience.
It was the ‘60s crowd.
It was the ‘60s crowd, exactly. And the
(ultra-orthodox) weren’t allowed to go to his concerts.
So even though they loved his music and listened to it
at home, they couldn’t go to his concerts. I remember
once I had the audacity to set up a gig
Brak. Now all these guys
Brak would come to the
(celebration after Shabbat). But when it was in their
territory, they told us, “You have to watch out for the
(modestly) squad.” And I said, “What’s a
tznius squad?” And they explained, “There are these
guys who go and beat the shit out of you if you sit
together with women, or you let women sing…” whatever. I
got all these calls before the gig: “Is there going to
be a mehitzah
(separating men and women)?” And I hadn’t really thought
about it. But yes, there was a mehitzah.
We did put one up!
Shlomo passed away… it kind
of leapt up. At the Klezmer
Festival up in Tzefat, there
was the biggest show they had ever put on – in memory of
Shlomo! We played there. And
then when we got back to
were playing at this place called
Zoosha on the Prophets’ Street. And suddenly it
was like everybody knew Shlomo’s
music! So we were doing about 1/3
Shlomo songs, 1/3 originals, and 1/3 covers of
other peoples songs, and this remained the menu for all
the years of
And Shlomo’s popularity
zoomed. We brought him to a younger audience. That
until ’97, when the band
By that time there was
L’Sheva, and Chayim
Dovid, and a whole host of
post-Shlomo people who sort
of grew up on the way
did Shlomo. And it
kind of bugs me now. Because Shlomo
a concert just by himself,
and that’s what he did. Right?
A lot of times there was no drummer at his concert. He’d
just play the guitar and sang his
niggunim (melodies), and he told a lot of stories. He
was a very serious person. And due to all sorts of
things, he’s going down in history as a sort of
entertainer – which he was not.
I was at Shlomo’s House of
Love and Prayer when I was in San Francisco, at the
beginning of the 1970s. Everyone was following a
spiritual path, and I wasn’t ready to follow a teacher.
But I was connected to Judaism. So I hung out at the
House of Love and Prayer, and I learned to cook Chinese
vegetables in a wok, and learned some yoga, and learned
a softer way of davening –
being sensitive to the space and to the people around
you, when you pray. And all this was from
Shlomo’s people. I felt at
home there, with that kind of Judaism. And then
Shlomo would turn up… and he
wasn’t my spiritual teacher. I couldn’t buy the na?ve
thing – that all the hippies
are “holy beggars” like out of a story by
Nahman. I had had grown up on the
conversation, “how we adapt Judaism to our times?” And
here everyone was doing it, but they didn’t want to talk
It was only after I
went up to Canada to study with Reb
Schachter-Shalomi, who was ready to talk openly –
about everything – and it was with
Zalman’s guidance that I began reading and
translating Hasidic texts. It was only after that, that
I began to really appreciate Shlomo.
Later, when I was in
Israel on the Mount
of Olives studying with my Sufi Sheikh, I would take an
evening off and go see Shlomo
teaching, somewhere in the Old City. By then I had some
idea of the texts that he was ‘riffing’ off of… and I
understood how he was adapting Hasidic tradition, just
as the Hasidic Masters had adapted earlier Hasidic and
Kabbalistic teachings. And I
understood how authentic he was – and actually, how
sophisticated he was – in his handling of the texts. And
I was blown away! Shlomo
really was the living Hasidic teacher of our times.
Everybody else is just quoting the old stuff, and maybe
expressing their opinions. He was actually doing it.
Yeah. He was definitely right in the line with the
Rebbe, and this one, and
that… from the Baal Shem Tov
forward. I hope maybe someone else will come along who
is like that. Certainly there was no one else with such
an encyclopedic knowledge of Hasidic books. He’d sit
there with a stack of ten Hasidic
the teachings of Rebbe
Nahman and all the
famous Rebbes, and then the
ones he’d discovered, like the Mei
HaShiloah. And he’d just open it up and take a look at it, “Oh
yeah,” and he’d remember the whole thing. And off he
goes, improvising on this one and that…
So, in addition to
what Shlomo might have
gotten from me in the way of back-up arrangements,
presenting him to a new generation, I want to talk about
what Shlomo did for me.
For my music. There’s a
tendency in modern music – rock, pop, soul, whatever –
there are influences like Bob Dylan, who can go on and
on with his words, without much of a melody. We were
sitting around one Shabbat, trying to think of a Dylan
song to which you can sing Shir
the Grace after meals). I couldn’t even think of three
Bob Dylan songs that have a strong enough melody to sing
without words! And he became the model for so many…
“Blowin’ in the Wind”… it
sort of starts and ends there.
Right, and that’s also a four-note melody. There’s
nothing much going on there. But with
Shlomo I learned the power
of melody. Melody… that’s the hook you hold onto. That’s
what you can take with you. You know? If you’re walking
down the street, you can sing a song to yourself. You
can hum to yourself, whistle a tune. You can’t really
whistle a Dylan song. You can’t whistle a drum beat, a
rap… it doesn’t have melody.
“I think that melody is
what makes a song last – in the listener’s memory. It
creates a resonance. And that’s what art is about: it’s
resonating with another person.”