Kohane of Newark: The Interview

Ricky Orbach is a singer, poet, music producer, and patron of the arts — but, really, it’s more accurate to just call him Kohane of Newark.

His first CD features some of the most highly-acclaimed experimental rock and jazz musicians in the New York scene — but, most prominently, it features Orbach’s lyrics. They are sometimes awkward and darkly meaningful, like “Pizza” (an ode to the victims of the Israel Sbarro’s bombing); sometimes funny and angry and nostalgic, and the angst and sexual awakening of “Festival” — which is quite possibly the most introverted Hanukkah song I’ve ever heard. Then there’s the “White Wedding”-inspired anti-love anthem “Shoshana” (“Shoshana’s had all her dreams shattered/by me”). Characterized with deep grooves, moody, dark jazz, and all-out rock, “Kohane” is weird and extroverted and unexpectedly both raucous and meditative.

Below, we talk to Orbach about his music, his idols, the tenuous status of his priesthood, and the status of New Jersey as the new Jerusalem. Listen to the album and buy it here. Come back later today for a chance to win a copy — but, for now, check out the Kohane himself.

There’s a lot of potential midlife crises on the album: religious, emotional, relationship-al. What’s it like to have a midlife crisis — presuming, of course, that you’ve had one?

You happen to catch me on a good week. It’s actually not a midlife crisis I’m undergoing, but a “new†midlife crisis (emphasis on “new” for renewal) like the record says and yes, it is in full swing!

Why do you think there’s no sort of official midlife ritual in Judaism, like there is with being born or getting married or becoming an adult?

Rituals serve as bookends for all the stuff that goes on in between them. The unofficial midlife ritual for most human beings is the “crisis†itself. The significant events — birth, marriage, bar/bat mitzvah and death -– are really the parents of crisis. You could argue that “midlife†begins when you’re born because damn it, who knows if you’ll make it through the night?

The title song celebrates this “candle flickering†signifying both life and death co-existing in the space between our breathing and not breathing as we make our way through our lives.

What’s your relationship with Marc Ribot?

Since the early 1980s, I’d seen Marc play dozens of times around town and sometimes we’d talk shop after a show. We really met however when he came to a shul in my neighborhood for Shabbat in search of a potential shul for him and his daughter shortly after his divorce. After services, we had coffee and conversation. A few months later, Marc and his daughter joined my family for Kol Nidrei. I’d like to get together with him more often but because he’s such a studio rat, Marc is usually booked solid.

How did you two start working together?

Like I said, Ribot is a very busy guy. Initially, he turned me down but I was committed to his presence and I changed my schedule to work with his. I also begged him.

ricky orbach, kohane of newarkI hold close to my heart the first time Ribot “read†me. In the studio after we performed a take of “Festival,†he pulled me aside during playback and said he knew what I was doing. “You’re the Jewish Brian Wilson,†Marc began. I think of this moment as a watershed; I had my first taker and these words were coming from the guy who shaped whatever Tom Waits did after Rain Dogs. Ribot went on to say that my “writing songs about the ordinary everyday American-Jewish experience†was “subversive stuff.†Marc nailed my Velvets/Talking Head connection then and there and my cat was out of the bag.

Did you play these songs live before recording them, or did it work the other way around?

I wish that I could have played these songs out first but I didn’t. Most of these songs were fresh out of my head and I never played them live before recording them. Essentially, the musicians were introduced to the music in the studio from a homemade demo I made a couple weeks before the session. Eight songs were written in a three-week spurt two months prior to the studio, and they shaped the New Midlife Crisis storyline. No rehearsal, no pre-production, no transcription and no real rules; I just figured as long as I have people like Ribot, Richard Lloyd and Avram Pengas in tow, I may as well go for the jugular and catch their first attempts -– and mine -– at shaping the songs. Our average was two takes and a couple tunes went to three. Otherwise, it was vitality uber alles. I don’t think many other concept records are born this way, though I could be wrong.

In your band name, “Kohane” has an ambiguous spelling: it could be kohen, like the high priest, or “Kahane,” like the Jewish terrorist and founder of the JDL. What made you pick it? If you’re a kohen, have your special skills ever gotten you anywhere? And, why Newark?

Like Philip Roth, Jerry Lewis, Allen Ginsberg and Marc Ribot, I was born in Newark. Newark was a hub of Jewish life in the tri-state area, and now all evidence of Jewish life and learning has been erased from there.

In 2004, I traveled a number of times to Newark to photograph all of the shuls and Jewish landmarks I remembered as a child, and took my late dad with me to help me recall names and places. Our trips revealed that all traces of Jewish life in this were purposely extinguished. Shuls were turned to churches. The Custer Avenue Shul, where my grandfather (Chazan Yehuda Geier a well known cantor) led the davening, now has all of its stained-glass windows covered up and a plaque awkwardly inserted on it making it appear as if it was established as a Baptist church in 1936.

My day school, the Hebrew Youth Academy, is now an “annex,†while the two largest shuls in Newark in the 1960s are now Baptist churches. I come from a place whose demographic sociological essence has now been completely covered up. All evidence of a once thriving Jewish community has been obliterated and this is the stuff of my origins. While relatively benign compared to my parents loss of their home city (Berlin), this loss of my home city is no small thing for me, a child of holocaust survivors.

As for “kohane,†I can’t say that any conscious purpose went into its spelling but as long as you’re Rorschach-ing me, I suppose that I may have wanted a spelling that could be both easily read and easily pronounced. You could say I enjoy doing stuff the kohane way; I duchen [bless the congregation] in shul, I give blessings to my kids and family, and I am very cognizant of the responsibilities associated with my ancient station.

I often wonder how “real†my kohane title is and I probably will do a genetic check one of these days — but, till then, I have a theory I call the “kohane on the hill†theory. [Read the theory here.]

What’s the story behind “Festival”? How much of it is true — and where did the idea to turn that into a song come from?

“Festival” is the oldest tune on the CD. The story is pretty much as the story reads: A 13-year-old boy documents his loss of innocence by betraying his older sister making out in her boyfriend’s car the night before Chanukah. Holocaust-surviving father with a penchant for emotional explosions drags the sister and brooding boyfriend in the living room for his paternal ultimatum: “If you want to stay in this house, you stop seeing him.†Sister chooses “him,†storms out of the house and goes AWOL for most of Chanukah. Mother holds the pain inside to hold the family together, to counter the father’s brooding while the lighting of the menorah becomes a reflection of the “pain†in her eyes.

Sister shows up a week later Shabbos morning with breakfast and life goes on — but never quite the same after that. Kind of like Tennessee Williams heads to the Garden State and discovers a Jewish refugee family in suburban distress, wouldn’t you say?

I wrote the tune in the late ’90s and presented it to Lou Reed around the same time backstage at the Bottom Line after reading that he was looking for a “Hanukkah song.†I convinced Alan Pepper (co-owner of the Bottom Line and a friend) to allow me backstage and he ushered me in. I gave Lou a lyric sheet and a cassette. He put them both in his guitar case. Lou never said a word and I never heard from him. I gave him my CD recently too –- not a word so far.

Was this a one-off project, or are you going to tour with the material? What are you working on next?

Kohane of Newark’s world is just getting started. I’m sifting through 33 new songs to end up with a dozen for my new CD, and I’ll start performing in the fall. I hope to record in early 2010 and release it later that year. The new record will be very pared-down and will be more about my guitar and voice than New Midlife Crisis was. I also founded the nonprofit Joodayoh, which has some really cool stuff on the burner like Pioneers for a Cure, which raises funds for cancer research, care and treatment by rejuvenating pioneer songs of yore. And Joodayoh’s got some other cool projects in development as well.

I’m overloaded — and that’s not even counting my day job. All this activity gives me hope to that at a time when most of my peers are heading into the “descent†and “comforts†stages of their midlives, I am still raging against the dying of the light.

Ricky Orbach’s Theory of Priestly Descent

Imagine an Eastern-European couple -– Yankel & Rivki — in the 1800s, leaving their seaside village with their children, the few possessions they could muster in an hour and fit in a rickety wagon whilst escaping from an anti-Semitic pogrom. They travel inland for weeks sleeping outside and always with one eye open to keep watch over the children and protect them from wild animals and robbers in the night. Then one morning, as they ascend a hilly mountain range, they find themselves perched upon a hill from where they see a bustling village in the distance.

“Yankel, this is a good place to settle and raise our family,†says Rivki

“Yes,†Yankel sighs, “but, Rivki — what will I do to earn a living? All of my skills were those I learned being a fisherman and working by the sea. There is not even a pond in sight let alone a lake where I might catch fish to sell. We have no friends or family here and I do not know where I can start. I will have to beg until I can establish myself here in some way.â€

“My husband will NEVER beg,†Rivki exclaims in a quiet insistent voice. “You must re-invent yourself to save your family and start anew. You will go to the shul tomorrow morning and introduce yourself as a ‘kohane.’ This way, we will have a chance to win favor in the community and your children will eat well and not like paupers.

“I will do this for you and our children Rivki. Let us go to the town and begin our lives again. May Hashem forgive me for this deception and may my prayers and incantations as a kohane reach him as if I were truly of the caste.â€

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