Jewish Singer Oneg Shemesh Promotes Unity at Summer Camps

Jewish singer Oneg Shemesh talks about his childhood on Moshav Modiin and his Jewish unity project at summer camps.

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Ben Bresky, | updated: 09:36

Oneg Shemesh has recently released a second CD of guitar based Jewish music. He talked to Israel National Radio about his newly released video, his Jewish unity project for summer camps and tells a Shlomo Carlebach story of a wedding in a closed military zone in the Sinai Penninsula.


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Question: You have a very interesting name. When I first heard it, I thought maybe it was a band, and not a individual.

Answer: That's my name. My father liked it. I wasn't born on the Sabbath, from what I know, even though Oneg, meaning joy, is usually coupled with the word Sabbath in Hebrew. And Shemesh is my last name. It works well for the band and it works well for me.

Question: Tell us about your Jewish unity projects.

Answer: There are so many different types of Jews out there, with diversion and complication within the Jewish people. But really, we're all Jews and we have things in common, and we need to find that common denominator. I feel it is music. Jewish music is something we can all relate to. Of course everybody has different tastes.

I was thinking about how we can get out the message of Jewish unity. So I came up with an idea two summers ago of doing a summer camp tour at camps around North America. I booked a tour of 35 shows in seven states in three and a half weeks. From New York, to Boston to Florida and back to New York. The idea was to connect the Jewish people by making a poster sized postcard that I would deliver from one camp to the other.

The first camp I went to had a poster ready for me addressed to the next camp that I was playing at. It read, "this was made from camp so-and-so with a lot of love. We're all united, we're all Jewish. We all love each other." And they had one ready for me to bring to the next camp to create a link.

It was a huge success and everyone had a good time, the shows were amazing. At the end I made a postcard of all the different posters from all the different areas. I sent one to each camp. I did it again this past summer. I'd like to keep the theme going by doing Jewish day schools or communities. I'm not sure how it will play out but I want to keep it going. Unity is our strength and it's time to put all our differences aside and just come together.

Question: I suppose these students go to different synagogues and never met each other.

Answer: Yes. I am the messenger from one camp to the other.

Question: Let's talk about your new video Shine Forward.

Answer: It also has a unity message. It was written around Chanukah time. The Jewish people have a light and are supposed to be a light unto the nations and we just need to shine forward. Someone once said we are more afraid of our own light than of the darkness. So I want to encourage us all not to be afraid to shine. It doesn't matter what other people say. Just be real. Keep that light alive by doing good deeds and helping out and helping make this world a better place.

Question: Tell us about your background and how you grew up in Israel on the Moshav.

Answer: My father was a disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. They met in San Francisco and my father became his shames (personal assistant)  and took care of him, travelled and performed with him throughout Israel. My father was one of the founders of Moshav Modiin of Carlebach followers. Growing up on the Moshav was wonderful. I had a lot of freedom to run around and be a kid. It was a great experience and when Reb Shlomo was around, it was always very exciting. I would go with Reb Shlomo to concerts and when I learned to play guitar at age 14, I joined him on stage when he was in Israel.

I have a good story. When I was about eight years old, there was a guy who was marrying a woman from the Moshav who was an activist.He was one of the settlers down in Yamit which was the last stand for the Jewish people who didn't want to leave Sinai when it was given to Egypt in the agreement with Sadat. He decided that he was going to get married down in Yamit and the whole Moshav was invited. So we chartered two buses. The plan was we would meet Reb Shlomo who I think was travelling in Europe at the time and he would come down to Yamit and officiate at the wedding.

So we drive down to Eilat. We get there late at night and they stop us at the border, which was now going to be part of Egypt and they say, "no Jews are allowed in Sinai." So there we are, stuck at the border for hours and we're waiting for Reb Shlomo to come and save the day. Hours go by and we're thinking, what's going on? Maybe he's not going to make it? What's going to be?

All of the sudden, finally, Reb Shlomo pulls up in a car with a some more people. We run up to him and say "Shlomo! We've been waiting for you for hours! They won't let us through the border!"

Reb Shlomo says, "Who's the general in charge here?" So they bring in the big general and Reb Shlomo says "Hey, holy brother, I'm sure you're a top, top, general, in the Israeli army." Within seconds, he becomes best friends with this general. The general said, "look here's the situation..."

But Reb Shlomo said, "We're not causing trouble. You have my word. We're just going to the wedding and we'll be out of here."

Shlomo's word is his word. He gave the general a big hug and off we were down to Yamit. The wedding went on until the morning light.  It was very spiritual. And then we drove back to the Moshav. So that's a story about Reb Shlomo. He had this ability to become friends with anybody, even someone he had never met before.

Question: Did you grow up with chickens or cows? Was it like a farm?

Answer: We had some livestock, but it wasn't our main thing. Our main thing was music. The Moshav had a band that played at weddings. It was a Carlebach cover band and was Reb Shlomo's backup band. They were pretty much the most successful enterprise the Moshav had. The livestock was just for fun.

Question: So you were a member of the Moshav Band and grew up with Soulfarm and Neshama Carlebach  and all those guys?

Answer: Yes, we all grew up together. I was in the original Moshav Band. Well, the original moshav band was our parent. And then we started the second generation moshav band. I was involved for the first few years and then I took off and started my own thing.

Question: On your web site you say the songs are prayer. What's your philosophy on that?

Answer: I think music is really a spirit. It touches the soul and can heal it. When you add music with prayer you are combining two elements. One is the prayer itself and on is the song, which is also a form of prayer. It's like you're praying twice. It's two levels, one of top of the other.

Question: So if I just hum a melody that's like a prayer?

Answer: Definitely. There are a lot of stories about people who couldn't read or write, so to pray, they would just sing and all their feelings and emotions were put into the song. People say they were feeling really sad and then played a song and it lifted them up and made them happy. Music definitely has the ability to change our mood and change our feelings and break through to places that just prayer alone could not reach.

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Ben Bresky is the host of the Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast on Israel National Radio and a music critic based in Jerusalem.