Quiet King of Orthodox Music
Yossi Green, the Satmar-raised composer who found inspiration in Roberta Flack, writes Jewish spirituals
One evening last month, under a ceiling visibly weighed down by a library of over 10,000 books, Yossi Green, one of the most prolific and talented composers in the world of traditional Jewish music, performed a kumzitz. Part VH1 Storytellers episode and part campfire singalong, the performance was for a 40-strong gang of jittery, somewhat inattentive 18- to 21-year-old yeshiva bochurim. Green, who speaks in the style of Don Corleone and dresses in designer shoes and glasses, played with genuine spirituality and, ever the entertainer, molded his reactions and songs to the audience’s desire for a more jaunty experience. They wanted to sing and shout, and Green obliged them.
Though you might not know it, even a cursory look at the contemporary Jewish music scene reveals Green’s comprehensive influence. He is the composer behind the stars of contemporary Orthodox music, with its ecology of popular songs, including those of Mordechai Ben David (“Anavim, Anavim,” “Rashi’s Niggun,” “Da’agah Minayin”), Avraham Fried (“Aderaba,” “Tanya,” “Yerushalayim Oro Shel Olam,” “V’Zakeini”), Yaakov Shwekey (“Ata Shomer,” “Yedid,” “Ki Hatov”), Dudu Fisher (“Akeidat Yitzchak,” “Kaddish”), and Lipa Schmeltzer (“Wake up Leap of Faith,” “Kaveh”). Green also works closely with many of the rising talents of the current generation, including Shloime Daskal, Shimon Craimer, Shloime Gertner, Shloime Taussig, Shragee Gestetner, and Cantor Yitzchok Meir Helfgot. His eighth album was released this summer. Green’s acolytes treat him like a visionary genius, underappreciated in the wider Jewish community.
At a time when right-wing rabbis ban large concerts—given the prominence of singers, Green’s genius is both essential to his community and imperiled. In many religious communities, music plays a central role in spiritual life. But in the Hasidic communities, music plays a more pronounced and foundational role, given the mystical and spiritualized bent of Hasidic thought. A song gives shape and voice to the innermost feelings on the whole of life. It is one of the greatest paths toward divine intimacy. In the Hasidic world, composers serve as singular creators of conduits to the divine through their music, no more so than in the niggun, a wordless, ambling, often unstructured melody that travels across souls. A niggun, in all its emotional strength, offers an unparalleled meditative opportunity to connect not only to the divine, but to the rabbi and others in the room. At times, important Hasidic rabbis will personally request a melody from Green. “The challenge to the composer at such times,” Green told me, “is to attempt to understand and access the depth and the reason beyond the request, using this as the ultimate inspiration and direction for the new composition.”
Green is also known beyond the confines of the Jewish scene. His audiences have included dignitaries, royalty, and leaders, in performance venues such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Any attempt to place him on any larger musical map runs into numerous problems, which stem from the different roles that music is perceived to fill in a religious and a secular society. Stylistically, Green ranges freely across musical genres. He feels comfortable in styles as varied as jazz, classical, gypsy, and samba. What distinguishes Green’s vision of Jewish music from secular music is his sense of religious meaning. He finds little room for the cynicism or even the playfulness of today’s music. For Green, anything other than an outpouring of the most intimate details of his soul would stray from his vision of a higher purpose, which he finds anywhere and everywhere in the contemporary musical landscape. A proud Satmar, his ability to cherish the Beatles, or to refer to Pavarotti as “divine,” or to fawn over the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, speaks to the overwhelming power of art on his sensitive soul. Before Green, Jewish music either entailed a rambling niggun sung by Hasidic masters, or the more classic verse and chorus of Shlomo Carlebach’s folk-infused style. Moreover, previous composers tended to rely heavily on the well-known poetry of the Psalms, rarely straying for personal lyrics or arcane sources. In this sense, Green views his music writing as both an act of Jewish learning and prayer.
In fact, the only person who belongs in the same conversation as Green is the complex figure of Shlomo Carlebach, whom Green loved and learned from in the twilight of Carlebach’s life. Green can tell Carlebach stories for hours, but perhaps the one that fully captures their relationship is one Green told only at my behest: At some point in the 1990s, Green walked into a kumzitz at a hotel in the Catskills, Carlebach honored the young composer by prophesying that in the time of the Messiah Green’s music would be used as the soundtrack to usher in the redemption.
The Orthodox world bears a necessarily ambivalent relationship to art and artists; the imperative that all life serve as worship of God must limit the mind and vision of an artist like Green. His work can be imagined as a potential threat to the fabric of any sort of ordered society. Singers have the ability to stoke a range of complex emotions, but they are limited in writing songs, which tend to focus on religious inspiration. Performances stay away from the garish without any hints of sensuality. Lipa Schmeltzer, who is forward-looking for a Hasidic singer, courted intense controversy for his 2008 concert at the WaMu Theater in Madison Square Garden. His charity show, which was billed as “The Big Event,” garnered reproof from the right-wing newspaper HaModia, in an editorial signed by numerous rabbis, which included “a serious prohibition to attend or perform,” adding that it is “forbidden to hire these singers to sing at any party, celebration or charity event.” Schmeltzer canceled the concert because of the pressure, and the Israeli charity, which finances weddings for orphans, lost $700,000.
Green is no stranger to this Orthodox love-hate relationship with music. He grew up in a strict Satmar family that barred instruments in their home and fostered a sense of fear and guilt over fire and brimstone consequences of any deviance or sin. Yet he also easily acknowledges the importance of his mother on his musical development. He described her to me as a beautiful, stately woman full of grace. “We were not wealthy at all,” he said. But somehow she “made sure that we were beautifully attired, tables were impeccably set, meals were creatively prepared and presented with flair, and our home was appointed with the nicest furnishings.” Significantly, Green recalls how his mother bought any and every record she could find. Consequently, Yossi listened to Beethoven’s Fifth and the soundtrack of Camelot, a play he knew before he could define the word musical. He felt that God implanted a homing beacon in his soul that spoke only in the language of melody.
At the age of 12, on his free Thursday nights in Borough Park, where he grew up, Green sat at a local YMHA with his long payos dancing down his head, watching neighborhood laypeople from the range of religious and nonreligious backgrounds learn Shostakovich’s famously challenging Fifth Symphony. He would steal snatches of time on a friend’s melodica, his first instrument, to play and teach himself music, creating his own idiosyncratic system of notation along the way. At the age of 17, as a yeshiva student in Manchester, United Kingdom, Green recalled hearing the first secular song to make an impact on him: Roberta Flack’s version of “Killing Me Softly,” out of the stereo of a red convertible. This moment, he said, launched Green on his composing career. His first composition, the enchanting Kol B’Ramah (“A voice is raised”) was built off Flack’s version of a soul tune.
To truly understand Green, though, you must listen to his music. Take his masterpiece, “Tanya,” for example. Written in July 1985 and popularized by Avraham Fried in 1988, this hit signifies a rare sort of experimental endeavor that represented a new direction in Jewish music. The lyrics were taken from an esoteric aggadah, a legend in Tractate Berachot that relates a somewhat unprecedented anthropomorphic—and borderline heretical—story. On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, at the most sacred time of the day—when the high priest enters into the holy of holies—Rabbi Yishmael, who according to rabbinic tradition was later martyred in a horrific manner by the Romans, tells us in that innermost sanctum he spoke to God through a mysterious angel named Akatriel, literally “the crown of God.” God, in a shockingly tender personified manner, requests a blessing from Rabbi Yishmael. Without hesitation at the absurd idea of a finite human blessing the Infinite, Rabbi Yishmael blesses God that his mercy may overcome his strict sense of judgment; God nods his head in assent.
This rare Talmudic gem confounded generations of commentators, leading them to sterilize the more controversial yet humane aspects of the tale. Mystics moved the anecdote into the hazy realm of divine emanations allowing true understanding only to the initiated, while rationalists sapped the story of any of its tenderness in churning out a simplistic lesson about the virtue of a righteous life. Green resuscitated the more human component of the legend through his melody of many parts, shifting rhythms, alternating styles, and abundant use of symphonic instruments. The song begins with a trembling minor tone mimicking the fear engendered by the proximity of God’s immanence, a holy fear brought upon by the immensity of his task. From there, once Rabbi Yishmael begins his blessing, the song turns into a jaunty tune in the major key meant to convey the joy of God’s intimacy with Man. Yet, ever attuned to the fluctuations of the religious experience, Green cuts back and forth between the mood of mercy and the mood of judgment, between trembling and rejoicing, to create an experience of the tortuous path of religious life.
A lover of lyrics, Green scours the endless world of biblical and rabbinical literature to find phrases and stories that require both experiential and intellectual engagement. After he finds his lyric, Green sits at his piano crafting a melody that fits the tenor of the words. Once he creates the basic skeleton of his song, he thinks of a specific singer to deliver his melody and together they work on arrangement and execution. Though he creates a song in mere minutes, it can take up to two years to perfect his compositions.
In a sense—though the ever-optimistic Green would disagree—he finds himself in the wrong era of Jewish life. In the pre-Holocaust generation, composers held a sacred place in the hierarchy of Jewish society. Composers represented a singular connection to the deepest spiritual realm of music, one venerated by the great Hasidic rabbis, and mythologized in legends. Today, Green must often curb his prowess as a thinker, historian of music, and storyteller to fit into the mold of his culture. When asked about his inability to fully display his boundless spirit, Green explains that he no longer feels slighted by the gap between his potential and its reception. Seeking intimacy more than fame he takes pride and consolation in the few that do understand him.
Nowadays, Green cares less about the flashiness of his performances at the Metropolitan or Paris opera houses and more about a chance for connection and personal expression, from hosting a roomful of billionaire oligarchs together with Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar to child survivors of cancer and their families. On his latest album, released in August, titled Shades of Green III: Hartzik, Green now sees himself as a chosen and blessed conduit to the beauty of the divine song that permeates the world.
When I visited with Green recently, he stayed up past 1 in the morning, showing no signs of flagging, alternating back and forth between the piano and a stool against the wall, talking about music and Judaism. “One need only remove ego out of the equation,” he said, sagely, right before we parted, “to tune in to the divine muse.”
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