The hip-hop artist Kosha Dillz recently scheduled a stop on his Midwest tour at Mike’s Place, a monthly party in Chicago. It seemed like a great match: Mike’s Place — which caters to young, single Jews in their 20s and 30s — is held at a club in Lakeview, an up-and-coming Modern Orthodox community that is home to many baalei teshuva, or newly Orthodox people. And Dillz is himself increasingly religiously observant. Born in Israel and raised in New Jersey, he fell into substance abuse and did time in jail before he “sought out rabbis and studied Talmud in yeshivot,” according to his Web site.
The only problem was that the tour date fell during the first weeks of Sefirah, a seven-week period of mourning between Passover and Shavuot that commemorates the deaths of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. During Sefirah, also known as the Counting of the Omer, many observant Jews believe that it is forbidden to attend live music performances. (Different people hold differently on the mourning practices of Sefirah: Some don’t abide by the mourning period until after the month of Nisan finishes; some dispense with the restrictions after Lag B’Omer, the celebratory day in the middle of the period.)
Dillz said he had no idea that there were restrictions for Sefirah. “I’m not so up on it,” said the rap artist, whose real name is Rami Even Esh. “In a sense, I’m not there yet, but I’m gonna get there. I don’t know when. This year I do, but next year I might not.”
While Mike’s Place is associated with an Orthodox synagogue, it caters to a wider range of young Jews — some who aren’t Orthodox at all, and some who are just becoming Orthodox. Most of the time, the club serves the highest common denominator of religious observance, even enlisting a rabbi to make sure only kosher alcohol is served on Mike’s Place nights. In this case, however, Mike’s Place, citing leniencies in Jewish law for the first two weeks of Sefirah, decided to host Dillz— even if the situation was not ideal.
Michael Abitbol, who started Mike’s Place, says he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of attending the performance at first, but decided to attend after he received approval from his rabbi, who referenced a rabbinic opinion that the stringencies of Sefirah are less severe during the month of Nisan. And, Abitbol added, the night had the potential to bring a lot of people closer to Judaism.
Still, Sefirah presents many Jewish musicians with a dilemma. Some of the best weather for outdoor concerts and music festivals coincides with two significant mourning Jewish periods, the 49-day Sefirah in the spring and the three weeks commemorating the destruction of the Temple in the summer. While many Orthodox Jews refrain from listening to live music during these two periods, some rabbis have ruled that professional musicians may still perform for the sake of earning a living. Yet some musicians feel conflicted, particularly when they present themselves as role models for young Orthodox Jews and for those who are becoming more religiously observant.
“I still perform because that’s how I make my money,” said Erez Safar, better known as D.J. Handler, who performed with Dillz at Mike’s Place and has several performances scheduled during Sefirah. “I can’t not pay rent for a month, you know?”
One of Handler’s main acts, however, the up-and-coming Hasidic rapper Y-Love (aka Yitz Jordan), has a policy of not performing during Sefirah — mostly. Handler and Y-Love, who handle their own bookings, accidentally arranged one show the day after Passover and didn’t feel comfortable canceling. But other than that one, Y-Love’s only performances during Sefirah will be a cappella, backed by human beat-box Yuri Lane, and without the use of instruments or prerecorded music, which is perceived as being more acceptable during Sefirah. (The two just released a CD of a cappella hip-hop songs about Passover and Sefirah, which they’re marketing specifically to Hasidic youth.)
Some justify performing during Sefirah by invoking a higher purpose.
“We want our music to get out to as many people as possible,” said Yehuda Solomon, lead singer of the Moshav Band. “Every human wants to connect to their Creator. Performing this music during any time of the year is a positive thing because we want our music to get out to as many people as possible…. Our music isn’t intended only for a Jewish audience; it’s for all mankind, and our goal is to get it out there.”
Solomon tells the story of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who came with a group of his followers to the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av, the solemnest mourning day of the Jewish calendar, singing joyous songs. An angry crowd formed, and just as violence was about to break out, a Hasidic rebbe ordered his Hasidim to surround and protect Carlebach’s group. “This man sees a time when the Messiah will come, and Tisha B’Av will turn into a day of joy, and there will be music,” he told the crowd. “Why should we fight that?”
But recognizing the spiritual power of music can be a double-edged sword: Music can bring comfort, but the purpose of religion is not always to make people comfortable — as is the case with Sefirah. And no matter where musicians stand on the issue of performing during Sefirah, observant musicians acknowledge that it’s a difficult issue.
“It is a time that a lot of heavy things happened to the Jews, and I understand why we’re asked not to listen to music,” Solomon said. “It’s a time to reflect and connect — but at the same time, there are a lot of really important things you can do with music to reflect that.”
The best-known Orthodox musician is, of course, Matisyahu. The reggae-singing Hasidic pop phenomenon routinely plays concerts both during the period of Sefirah and the three weeks of mourning for the Temple. Last year, Matisyahu toured Australia during the three weeks of mourning. Some Orthodox Australian fans felt torn, since many rock stars rarely make it to Australia — let alone Hasidic, role-model rock stars.
But for Matisyahu and other Jewish musicians, the observant Jewish community is often a starting point, not an ending one. Many of Matisyahu’s fans are not Jewish, and he told the Australian Jewish News, “I think that it’s become my role, to a certain degree, to introduce non-Jews to ideas that they may not recognize as Jewish.”
Similarly, D.J. Handler says that something good can come out of his music — even when it’s performed during Sefirah. “We play to mixed audiences, so more religious people aren’t going to come [anyway],” D.J. Handler said. “And, as for less religious people—hey, it’s good for them to hear us, right?”
Matthue Roth is the author of “Never Mind the Goldbergs,” a novel about a sitcom focused on an Orthodox Jewish family, and the upcoming “Candy in Action.” He keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.