The musical life of Yerachmiel "Rocky" Zeigler has taken many turns. Its latest is Optimystical. The young religious Jerusalem-based band has released two original Chanukah songs in English. The first, entitled Days of Light, has been turned into a video which features all local actors and was filmed at the historic Pargod Theater in the picturesque Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The other, Chanukah Nights, has a catchy chorus which reads "I'll fight alone if I have to / Chanukah Nights/ I'll stand alone if I have to / Celebrate the light."
Although Zeigler has always sung upbeat lyrics, he hasn't always been a funky hipster rocker. Growing up in the religious neighborhoods of New York City, he began his career as a child with Uncle Moishe and the Miztvah Men. As a teenager, Zeigler danced and performed with Hamsa Boys, a five member boy band that sung Hebrew and Jewish themed pop songs in the style of N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.
Subsequently, he formed a band called Gideon Sword, which had a more hard rock sound and released songs like Song for the Settlers and other politically oriented tracks. In 2005 he released a solo CD under the name Yerachmiel called Ahava V'Achva, a wedding themed album with a Shlomo Carlebach vibe. In 2006 he released A Time and Place by Yossi and Yerachmiel, which had a more Hasidic pop feel. During his time in New York, Zeigler met up with then unknown stars Matisyahu as well as Soulfarm, the Moshav Band, and a host of other well known names in the Jewish music world. Finally he moved to Israel permanently in 2006.
Rock seems more like Rocky's style. In an interview with Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky, Zeigler playfully describes his new band's sound. "It's a little bit of funk with a little bit of falafel balls and hummus and some kreplach. It's a mixture of Jewish rock influenced by Billy Joel piano rock and Matisyahu. It's a musical cholent." Optimysitcal consists of standard guitar, bass, drums and vocals with piano and occasional clarinet and saxophone.
Zeigler has an interesting take on the question of what Jewish music is and ties it into the Chanukah holiday. "Jews are like amazing chameleons. Whenever we live in a certain place or certain time, we take on characteristics of that place and time. It's the blessing and curse of the Jew. We can blend in. We can be more German than the German. That's the thing about Chanukah. We took the Hellenistic points of the Greeks and we became more Greek than the Greeks. That's what the Maccabees were fighting against. But the irony is one of the reasons we have the Book of the Maccabees is because the Hellenistic Jews wrote it down. We're like the subculture that mixes in. We're lifting up sparks of the world. There is kadosh in the nations that we can learn from. Like Matisyhau, the Jewish reggae singer, who is topping the charts and was nominated for a Grammy. For me, he already won a Grammy. He doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. They don't have a Jewish music category. He may be in the reggae category, but we know he's singing about Hashem."
Zeigler is known almost more for his live performances then his CDs. He currently has a weekly gig at the Comedy Basement on Ben Yehuda Street with Optimystical. Previous to that he performed as a duo called Think Twice with Yitzchok Meir Malek, a talented young folk singer from Jerusalem's Old City. The two performed 60's cover songs by Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel and also shmoozed it up on their own podcast called Jerusalem Grooves.
Zeigler's smile seems to stay with him through the best and worst of times. He ran his own recording studio in Jerusalem until it was destroyed by fire this year, consuming the equipment as well. The small studio was a short lived hangout for area religious musicians. "We need to have optimism at look at everything in a new light," says Zeigler " We need to see everything in the goodness that Hashem is giving us at each and every moment."
The young singer's latest project is a duo album with popular Israeli singer Aaron Razel. "I think people worldwide are beginning to see Jewish music as an authentic expression," Zeigler says of the scene. "New artists and new venues are popping up. It's thriving. The world is getting a taste of it all. Come here to Israel and help to send out the good vibes to the whole world."
The song Chanukah Nights can be downloaded for free by clicking here.
Ben Bresky is a music journalist and host of The Beat on Israel National Radio. To view his blog and archives click here.