Wailing Wall is a band of one — and that one is 23-year-old Jesse Rifkin. With guest members (a population that has numbered over 30), he records and plays music that is folk-rock at heart and orchestral in scope. We asked him to guest blog for us about a few Jewish songs he liked. “You know,” I wrote, “3 or 5.” He hit us back with an authoritative list of…well, see for yourself.
Ten Jewish Songs That Don’t Make Me Want to Stab My Eyes Out
by Jesse Rifkin
1. Leonard Cohen â€“ â€œIf It Be Your Willâ€ (from Various Positions)
Could just as easily have been â€œHallelujah,â€ or â€œStory of Isaac,â€ or â€œAnthem,â€ or â€œWho By Fire.â€ They are all so completely perfect in every way. This just happens to be the one I was listening to today. I also highly recommend Antonyâ€™s performance of this song on the I’m Your Man soundtrack.
2. Bene Israel â€“ â€œYah Ribonâ€ (from Eliyahoo Hanabee)
My dad gave me this record pretty recently. Apparently Bene Israel is a congregation in India that uses a harmonium and tablas in their services. I donâ€™t know that much else about it. It sounds more like Hindu kirtan chanting or Pakistani qawwali music than anything I have ever heard in synagogue. I really like it.
3. Shlomo Carlebach â€“ â€œLâ€™Maâ€™an Achaiâ€ (from Holy Brothers and Sisters)
I grew up hearing Shlomoâ€™s music around the house. Heâ€™s such a powerful and soulful singer that I think it is pretty hard to not like listening to him. Unfortunately, most of his records that I have heard are bogged down by truly horrendous production choices — if he wasnâ€™t singing, I would swear they were early 90â€™s porn soundtracks. Holy Brothers and Sisters, though, is a treat â€“ it is tastefully arranged with nylon-string guitar, bass, hand drums, flute, tambourine, and finger cymbals. His â€œfreak folkâ€ record, if you will.
4. Akron/Family â€“ â€œRaise The Sparksâ€ (from Akron/Family/Angels of Light)
This band is one of the best in the world right now. They give the impression of being serious spiritual seekers, as their songs have referenced everything from Buddhist sutras to Black Elk Speaks. This song would be their Kabbalah song; complete with Thin Lizzy-style harmonized guitar leads, a gospel breakdown, and a niggun that I am like 75% sure they stole from Yentl. It totally rocks.
5. Mirah â€“ â€œJerusalemâ€ (from Câ€™mon Miracle)
This song is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I usually donâ€™t like listening to â€œpoliticalâ€ songs because I donâ€™t like being preached at. In this case, however, I already agreed with her, so I guess it is nice to have a catchy song that reinforces what I think. Supposedly this was written for a Hanukkah compilation and the people who were putting it together rejected the song because they thought it might rub some people the wrong way. I think those people who were putting that compilation together should be ashamed of themselves.
6. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band â€“ â€œMountains Made of Steamâ€ (from Horses in the Sky)
ASMZ (as they are known for short) are anarchist, anti-Zionist, classically trained Jewish punks from Montreal. All their records are amazing, but Horses in the Sky is far and away my favorite. There are shades of Eastern European Jewish folk music all over the album, but the influence is especially strong on this tune. It reminds me of traditional Yom Kippur klezmer influence even more overt.
7. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band â€“ â€œDachau Bluesâ€ (from Trout Mask Replica)
A lot of people I know seem to take this song as a joke, which I donâ€™t understand AT ALL. This is one of the scariest songs ever written about the Holocaust. It is actually very hard for me to listen to. I am pretty sure that nobody in this band was Jewish, but I think that might make it even more powerful.
8. Neutral Milk Hotel â€“ â€œHolland 1945â€ (from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea)
Here is another really scary song about the Holocaust, and specifically about Anne Frank. This whole album is actually about her. I canâ€™t possibly say everything I want to say about this song and this album in this short paragraph here, so I will just say that Neutral Milk Hotel are the reason I do what I do. Every day of your life that you spend not having heard Aeroplane is a day that you have wasted. Again, no one in this band is Jewish, and again, I donâ€™t think it matters one bit.
9. Chabad Hassidim feat. Mendi Jarouffi â€“ â€œOvinu Malkeinuâ€ (from Hitvaâ€™adut Hassidit)
I really enjoy listening to niggunim. This is the only album I have been able to find of unaccompanied singing, which is what I prefer to listen to. Again, I canâ€™t say I know that much about this record. I did a Google search but not much popped up. It goes real deep for me, though.
10. Damon and Naomi â€“ â€œJudah and the Maccabeesâ€ (from Damon and Naomi with Ghost)
This song, as I understand it, is about Damon Krukowski wanting to feel a connection to his Jewish heritage but also feeling lost and unwelcome because he canâ€™t understand the Hebrew texts. Damon, I totally feel you on that. Like everything else in the D&N catalogue, itâ€™s a slow, mournful song with softly strummed acoustic guitars and a nice melodic bass line. Damonâ€™s voice is naturally untrained and uneasy, and I think it does a particularly good job here of conveying the identity crisis in the lyrics. The chorus in particular kills me every time.
Pronounced: KHAH-nuh-kah, also ha-new-KAH, an eight-day festival commemorating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks and subsequent rededication of the temple. Falls in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually corresponds with December.
Pronounced: kah-bah-LAH, sometimes kuh-BAHL-uh, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish mysticism.