Baruch Emanuel Erdstein is the lead singer and songwriter of a new band called Ingathering, which this year released its debut album, Connection. Erdstein talked to Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky about his music, the Second Lebanon War, the time his house burned down, and what it all means for his identity and belief.
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Q: Your album is very smooth and relaxing and easy to listen to. Tell us about it.
A: It's a tool to jump-start the redemption. It may seem like a big task, but each one of us can be an inspiration and is responsible to bring the rectification of the world the best we can. Hundreds of years ago the Baal Shem Tov was trying to raise consciousness through stories teaching the secrets of the Torah. So I guess what I'm trying to do what I think our generation needs -- some really high conscious music.
Q: How come you decided to write the songs half in English, half in Hebrew?
A: Originally the project was all in Hebrew, and I actually changed the songs, and the idea of being able to package some essential teachings in a way that more of the world can access was very important to me. Actually most of the album was recorded in the forest between Tzfat and Amuka in the northern Galilee in Israel overlooking the tomb of the great mystic and sage Yonatan Ben Uziel who was known as the translator of the written Torah and along the way revealed many secrets. That's also what we're trying to do with the project: to convey some of the inner meaning of the original Hebrew text.
Q: What is the song 'Places' about? I like the shofar.
A: The shofar as we know is meant to wake us up and to turn us on. The song is based on the text of a book called Neshilat Nefesh from the students of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. The more distant a person thinks they are from what's described on the surface as the realm of the holy, actually the greater potential they have to bring tikkun into the world, so a person should never get depressed and should never feel too far away from G-d and from where they need to be. You hear a lot of very interesting sounds in the background. There's the shofar, also a lot of middle eastern instruments, including the saz.
Q: What's a saz?
A: It's a Turkish string instrument, like a mandolin, but stretched out and over a meter long. There's a lot of oud on the album as well. Ben Canaar plays it, he is the mastermind of music on the album. Also on the album is
Q: Why is the album called 'Ingathering'?
A: One of the ideas is that the final redemption of the world is that creation is characterized by unifications and by bringing opposites together. Musically you'll hear this in a song like Places, where you have this heavy funk rock lead almost with a Motown groove to it, but also you have a lot of diverse instrumentation from the Middle East. On the album we have a lot of opposites coming together.
Q: I wasn't exactly sure how to categorize your music.
A: There's some jazz fusion, rock, reggae, definitely some folk and even a little country influence. It's interesting that with all those influences in my background, it wasn't until after I already moved to Israel thirteen years ago that I found this tremendous connection to Motown music. I'm from suburban Detroit where Motown started. There is an idea of redeeming sparks. Each one of us is sent into the exile in order to gather up something that needs to be reintroduced and plugged back into the realm of the holy. So, with the vocals you'll be able to detect a heavy Motown influence.
Q: I think you're the only person in Israel to list Gil Scot Heron as an influence. We used to listen to his song 'The Revolution Will Not be Televised' back in high school.
A: Gil Scott Heron is probably my biggest influence as far as my voice. As a teenager, even the whole idea of using music to make tikkun in the world, to energize people to change their lives even in a political way... music as we know is a tremendous tool. Gil Scott Heron was one of the early ones, certainly he influenced me. The voice on the album that you'll hear is my dear friend Yonatan Streetsong, who also lives here in Tzfat.
Q: Your album really isn't very political like Gil Scott Heron is. It's more spiritual. You don't really lay it on heavy.
A: It was a tremendous effort to tone it down.
Q: So you wanted it to be more in-your-face?
A: Well, when we're trying to convey something we should be aware of the audience. The people I'm trying to reach are maybe not quite ready yet from what I see in the mass media, to absorb the light that we have here in Israel. I'm trying to package that in a way that everyone can connect.
Q: You studied anthropology and then you moved to Tzfat. That's a pretty anthropological place...
A: There's a well-known metaphor that when a person is pointing in any one direction, there's one finger pointing externally and three pointing back at them. That's what I found. I lived in various places, with Native Americans in Alaska, in rural Jamaica as well as various communities in America and a little in Europe. I found in my travels that I was looking outside so much and I knew so little about my own Jewish roots. And so I thought might be a trip around the world, I ended up stopping in Israel and really found something incredible.
Q: Did you go to Tzfat first?
A: It was one of the first places. After a number of years, I came off the road, stopped my physical traveling and entered a real inner world of learning Torah and the especially the mystical aspects.
Q: What's it like to live in Tzfat?
A: Tzfat is said to be a place of beginnings, of revelations -- from the great sages of the post-Spanish Inquisition period to the Kabbalists soon after, to the students of the Vilna Gaon, to the students of the Baal Shem Tov and even today with the big baal teshuvah movement. The people are returning to their roots. Tzfat really has been the center of this exciting new energy. On the cover of the album, there's a big letter yood. The idea of the yood is very connected to Tzfat. It's the first letter of the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton. It's the first letter of the revelation of the Infinite. There are wonderful people here in Tsfat. A lot of inspiration connecting to the sages here, especially the holy Arizal.
Q: And there's the klezmer festival every year.
A: Yes, and what I think is even more significant, is there's a lot of behind-the-scenes amazing musicians and artists here as well. There's a tremendous renaissance happening here. It still has to hit the surface but we're just waiting. Someday very, very soon the whole world will be focusing on Tzfat. We already have tremendous influence with people coming here and expressing themselves.
Q: Tzfat is a quiet northern town. I think the population triples during the festival .
A: It's true. It's getting less quiet. The light of Tzfat is starting to become revealed.
Q: Do you want to talk about the Second Lebanon War? Tzfat was very effected by it.
A: It's true. Thanks for keeping us in mind. It seems a lot of people forgot about that. Some of the album was recorded during the war. I was hiding out in various apartments in the south but I still wanted to get this album out and used some portable recording equipment during the war.
Q: So you like many of the other people left for a couple weeks?
A: For over a month. It was very, very difficult. In the first few hours of the war a rocket flew right over my head. It's something I hope nobody else has to experience, but it's a reminder of the times that we're living in. We're not in the complete redemption quite yet.
Q: I asked someone after the war if Tzfat was back to normal, and they replied, well, Tzfat is never normal.
A: I don't think we want Tzfat to become too normal. It's never normal and it's growing. Anyone who lives in Israel knows that what's true from one week becomes completely outdated the next week. Things are moving fast and there’s no way that we're trying to go back to any time before the war.
Q: What about the rap on the final track? That took me by surprise.
A: I'm not sure I want to talk too much about that. Maybe I'll say something short. The final song is based on mediation from the Ari and there's the flow coming from above to below, from the Infinite Creator down to us. It's not enough for us to receive it all that we actually have to give it back and give ourselves completely over to the divine. This rap is a mediation based on three divine names. there's a drawing of it in the liner notes of the album as illustrated by the Rashash, the great kabbalist.
Q: You have Yonatan Razel on your album. He’s pretty well known now. Did his solo album come out before or after Ingathering?
A: Actually before. I’ve known Yonatan for a long time now. Many years ago, my wife and I had a house fire. Our apartment basically burned down two days before the birth of our first child. We were basically homeless, when our dear friend Rabbi Raz Hartman, who was a soldier at the time, let us stay at his apartment which he was sharing with Yonatan Razel. When we had the baby, we brought her home from the hospital to that apartment and that night it was one of the most amazing parties that the world has ever experienced. Incredible musicians. Yonatan was there with his grand piano. There were violins and cellos and horns and guitars and all kinds of instruments. That night was the night when one of the songs on the Ingathering album came down. I called it Maayan in the Desert. It means spring and it’s the name of my daughter.
Back in the day when I used to live in America I used to be what people would call a road rat. I would hitchhike on highways all over North America from Michigan to Alaska to Florida to California to Quebec. Sometimes with a guitar. A lot of these travels really showed me a lot of really deep things about life. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook has many teachings about paths and goals. Often people are focused on the goal and they forget about the path to that goal. Then, hitchhiking for months at a time you become very conscious of the value of the path and the process that each one of us goes through. So this song is very much about the process of understanding that we’re here in this world to grow. Each one of us and also the whole world is going through a process and we should revel in that.