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    The Olam Qatan Interview
    with Aryeh Naftal

    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 Qatan! – 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 landscape of Israel.

    As 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 ‘Olam Qatan School’ in the basement of the bookstore a few years ago, and made coffee-house evenings at “Beit Caf? Olam Qatan,” Aryeh was the first act I booked.

    He was the last one as well, whom I asked to play at our closing performance.

    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.  – Ya’qub ibn Yusuf

    Ya’qub:  Where do you want to start?

    Aryeh:  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 until now.” 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…

    Ya’qub:  …and sum it up.

    Aryeh:  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.

    Ya’qub:  So let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get to Israel?

    Aryeh:  I came to Israel on the Young Judea 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, cellphones, and they're 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.


    Ya’qub:  So you made aliyah in 1981?

    Aryeh:  I made aliyah in 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”? Designer drugs and cocaine – instead of hallucinagenics. 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 of searching…


    Ya’qub:  ...a searching which includes initiation, death and rebirth.

     Aryeh:  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 a 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.


    Ya’qub:  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 spiritual practice.

    Aryeh:  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…


    Ya’qub:  What music were you playing?

    Aryeh:  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 sloppy hippie 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 they're 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 and with Shammai, then I’m wrong and both of them are right… even though they disagree!


    Ya’qub:  Right.

    Aryeh:  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…


    Ya’qub:  So how did you wind up in the Shlomo Carlebach community of Mevo Modi’in? 

    Aryeh:  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 Rubin 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 country.

        Now I had been to the Moshav (Mevo 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 were 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 Jerusalem to 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 work.


    Ya’qub:  In the music world?

    Areyh:  The music world. I was playing in a very special little wedding band with Yitzchaq Attias and a violinist named Shmuel 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 makolet, the little market there, and he said, “You must be Aryeh Naftaly, the 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…”


    Ya’qub:  But he got your attention.

    Aryeh:  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 Aryeh Naftaly. 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!


    Ya’qub:  You had no idea.

    Aryeh:  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, N Safeq, 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 that time.

        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.


    Ya’qub:  It was the ‘60s crowd.

    Aryeh:  It was the ‘60s crowd, exactly. And the haredim (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 in Bnai Brak. Now all these guys from Bnai Brak would come to the Moshav for Melaveh Malkah (celebration after Shabbat). But when it was in their territory, they told us, “You have to watch out for the tznius (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!

        Anyway, after 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 Jerusalem, we 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 N Safeq. And Shlomo’s popularity zoomed. We brought him to a younger audience. That lasted until ’97, when the band broke up.

        By that time there was Reva L’Sheva, and Chayim Dovid, and a whole host of post-Shlomo people who sort of grew up on the way N Safeq did Shlomo. And it kind of bugs me now. Because Shlomo could play 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.


    Ya’qub:  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 Rebbe 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 about it!

         It was only after I went up to Canada to study with Reb Zalman 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. 


    Aryeh:  Yeah. He was definitely right in the line with the Rhizhiner 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 sepharim, 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 HaMa’alot (before 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…


    Ya’qub:  “Blowin’ in the Wind”… it sort of starts and ends there.

    Aryeh:  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.”

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