Aharon Razel: The melody is still burning

Arutz Sheva speaks to singer Aharon Razel about his music journey, his Holocaust song which became wildly popular and his daily schedule.

Yoni Rotenberg,

Aharon Razel
Aharon Razel
Credit: Chana Taib

"The people of Israel are like the burning bush - they fought and overcame, they return at dawn and they alone will remain." When I heard this line from the song "Am Yisrael" from Aharon Razel's new album, I didn't pay much attention but when I heard the same line on the way back from the interview with Razel, I understood its meaning and the story behind it.

"My grandmother, Grandma Fanny, was a Holocaust survivor," Razel told me. "She fled to the forests with my grandfather, jumped out of the train and survived the war. She would always tell me, 'Aharon, you sing, 'And the [burning bush] is not being consumed. My [burning] bush is being consumed.'"

"Just before she passed away two years ago - she already had 50 great-grandchildren - her children became religious and had many children, she called me. She already was in a wheelchair with a full-time aide but she was clear and sharp as a razor and said to me: 'Aharon, remember that I told you that my bush is being consumed? I was wrong, I want to take it back.'"

These two songs about the burning bush, the first of Aaron Razel's career and the latter a current song, symbolize the path the young Ba'al Teshuvah (a secular Jew who becomes Torah observant) took from the alleys of Tzfat twenty-two years ago, until he became a Torah scholar, living in Nachlaot with his wife and nine children. The topics of his songs changed and Torah verses replaced his original lyrics. But creative people always try to distance themselves from being "placed in a box."

"I'm a complex person," Razel said. "In my song, 'I Established My Place in the Beit Hamidrash' (Torah study center), I come across as an image of a Torah scholar. It's a song of salute to the Torah. People took it too far. If they saw me on the street, they would say, 'Hey Aharon, what are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be in the Beit Hamidrash?'"

"But on the other hand, I also wrote a song with an opposite message, 'Come, let's go out to the street.' People approached me, saying, 'Once you said this and now you're contradicting yourself.' But the truth is that each song with its specific feeling represented a particular feeling I had at that moment. I feel 'this' but also feel 'that.'"

Still, people were a little surprised by the new type of person you presented yourself as in "I Established My Place in the Beit Hamidrash." People felt like you abandoned them?

"I moved a bit to the haredi sector," Razel admits, "even though I come from all the worlds because I'm a Ba'al Teshuvah. I would call it Chabakkol - Chabad, Breslov, Rabbi Kook and Litvak."

Razel pointed out that "I Established My Place in the Beit Hamidrash" isn't a contradiction to other approaches, but a song of praise of the Torah. "Our desire to believe in the Torah is not because it's better than being a doctor, but because it is the area that needs strengthening. Everything is important but there are things that feel natural to do because they 'set you up for life' like becoming a doctor. The nature of the Torah is that it's something that needs inspiration. This is the main goal for haredim."

"The whole song is a paraphrase of Arik Einstein's 'I Love to be at Home,' Razel explains. "There's a nice feeling here, like he says, 'I'm that kind of person.' I did cause some controversy, but it doesn't belittle all the other approaches. My wife was nervous when I released the song. She said to me that I'll be in conflict with Chabadniks and Breslovers and National Religious people."

"But ultimately people understood - that everyone loves Torah. I can't say she wasn't right because there were unpleasant incidents. I gave a ride to a teenager who was distributing Breslov pamphlets and he said, 'I love your songs, but you besmirched me in this song. I was insulted.' Or a Chabadnik who said, 'What, you're opposed to shelichus (teaching unaffiliated Jews about Judaism)?'"

"But I say - there are songs that glorify everything, love of Israel and other topics. Does it hurt that there's one song which glorifies the Torah? On the other hand, there was a Torah scholar who said to me, 'You gave us a feeling that we're worth something with this song.'"


Each song brought different tears

Razel's new album, "The Soul Wants More" reveals a rare variety of musical and textual styles. The listener meets Rahamim Nissan - a cantor from a Nachlaot synagogue, a newlywed Baa'eli Teshuvah couple from a kibbutz, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a holy hunchback, and even a segment from Ashkenazi Selichos (prayers of repentance said prior to the High Holy Days).

"Yedidya Meir, a good friend of mine, accompanies me throughout the creative process. He has a good eye, he's a disciple of Rav Kook. He said he doesn't understand how there's one song about Rahamim Nissan, a second on teshuvah (repentance), another song about a Ba'al Teshuvah, and then a song about a person in the Holocaust. He left me a very moving message one night: 'I heard your CD, I cried during the first four songs - every song brought different tears.'"

Razel tells me a little bit about his world as a writer and composer. "I don't have a studio although friends have long told me that I have to get something like that for myself. Composing is part of my life, it fits into my daily schedule. At times I find myself writing in the car on a trip when my wife drives."

Razel adds that there is another factor which is very significant in the creative process. In contrast to the popular image of an artist being independent and free of restrictions, Razel says that the framework of family and Torah is what ensures continuity and balance of creativity rather than temporary bursts of inspiration that usually end up drying up.

"You need perspective," he says. "It's not like I'm sitting and creating all day and it's good for me like that. It gives power to the music because I control it. I don't drown in the chaos of Bohemian creativity. It's a part of my daily schedule of Torah and family, part of the privilege of being religious. There are many artists who become successful and get divorced or remain single, and they don't understand how religious people can be artists and have a family. The truth is that religion balances the creative work. Being religious is a great blessing in this sense."

"The Holy Hunchback"

One of Razel's most recent songs - which made waves recently before Holocaust Remembrance Day - is "The Holy Hunchback," a Carlebach story which Razel turned into a song. The song tells of an old street cleaner in Tel Aviv, a disciple of the Rebbe of Piaseczno during the Holocaust, and describes how he told Carlebach about a powerful message that the Rebbe taught in the ghetto. In addition to the song becoming very popular on social media before Holocaust Remembrance Day, Razel was inundated with videos and announcements about schools that used the song for their Holocaust Day ceremonies.

"The song became wildly popular, which I didn't expect. For me, it was a dream come true because I knew the story from long ago, but I always dreamed of composing it."

"Carlebach, with his ingenuity, succeeded in empowering the Holocaust to the most positive place - the Rebbe's message: 'To do a favor to someone else.' Our education about the Holocaust is about how important it is to be in the land of Israel, to take soldiers to Auschwitz to declare 'Never Again.' But it's not enough. It only explains what could have prevented the Holocaust. The story touches the holy Torah and our essence. Carlebach tells you, with all this pain, that what strengthens a Jew is to do favors for others."

Hajdu's rebellious student

Aharon Razel, 44, is no longer a child. At the beginning of his career, he rode on the wave of "a Ba'al Teshuvah who sang something that is not hasidic music," but over the years he proved that his work stands on its own, and has established a place of honor in the Jewish music world for over 20 years. What hasn't changed during all those years are the almost contradictory elements upon which his work is based, which are in fact the great teachers he studied under.

Razal began his musical career at the Conservatory and the Academy. He completed his master's degree in composition at an early age, while his teacher and guide along the way was the Israel Prize laureate for music, Professor André Hajdu. In those days his head was in Mozart and Vivaldi until one day he disappeared from the horizon to far away Tzfat. There, he released his first songs, which were far from what he had learned from Hajdu. Hajdu wasn't comfortable with the move, and he continued to follow his "rebellious" student and try to persuade him to return.

"It was a kind of rebellion," Razel recalled, "and also a return to simplicity from my master's degree in music. It was a journey of discovery after years of classical music. But to this day I listen to Mozart and Vivaldi - it's the music that excites me. You hear it in my work - my arrangements and harmonies are woven from this music. Classical music is the basic tool, it lends understanding to how music is built."

Those were the days of post-Carlebach. After he died, R 'Shlomo Carlebach's nature began to emerge in the world, and Razel joined the group of artists who echoed his work. "Jewish music was at a crossroads due to Carlebach's death. It was already at a turning point. Carlebach cleared the way and left a paved path behind him, which was the opening through which Jewish music entered the world of music."

This encounter, which never took place face-to-face, determined the fate of Razel's work. "Carlebach changed my life, gave me the license in which composing songs is a part of serving God. When Carlebach was alive he didn't interest anyone, was known to few. They didn't recognize his depth."

"André Hajdu was and remains my teacher and master of music. I connected very deeply to him and I feel like his main student. Many things I do, like writing in many different styles and releasing many CDs is from him. It's considered unusual to release a new CD every two years, but I feel that my mission is my songs. It doesn't interest me that I just released a CD - it comes from a non-commercial place. My songs are my mission," Razel concluded.




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