In her large contemporary house perched on a cul-de-sac at the end of a winding road deep in the heart of the suburban Jewish oasis of Monsey, N.Y., Dana Mase is relaxing after her mid-morning workout at the gym. Still dressed in her brown form-fitting exercise slacks — the rear end boldly advertises “Lucky Brand,” one word per cheek —and wearing a red zip-up sweater top and red sneakers with no socks, the 40-something mother of five looks like anything but a stereotypical Orthodox mom in Monsey.
“I’ll never fit the mold,” said the pale-skinned singer-songwriter from behind her dirty-blonde tresses, speaking to a visitor while folding her legs up onto the sofa in the combination music room and library. Amid a painted piano and a stand holding several acoustic and electric guitars — the tools of her trade vying for attention with a bookcase housing dozens of volumes of sacred texts and books about Judaism — Mase acknowledges that in more ways than one she is a fish out of water. None of her children’s friends’ mothers are singer-songwriters with their own CDs and rock bands. None of the other women who live in her suburban development have a personal website (danamase.com) with a gallery of photos revealing hints of thigh and cleavage. And it’s a pretty sure bet that none of the other moms in Monsey holds a degree from Oral Roberts University, an evangelical Christian college in Tulsa, Okla.
What she does have in common with her Orthodox neighbors, however, is her total commitment to and belief in a Torah lifestyle. Mase keeps a kosher home, fully observes the laws of the Sabbath and family purity, and sends her children to cheder and yeshiva. She just also happens to be a pop-rock singer whose profession sometimes keeps her out in nightclubs until three in the morning, places typically not known for their denizens’ pious behavior. And she also has a terrific new CD, “Thread of Blue”(Water Music/WEA) — credited, Madonna-like, just to “Dana” (rhymes with banana) — combining spiritually-infused lyrics with sounds not ordinarily associated with the sacred.
These days, Mase and her husband, Barry — who, like her, is a ba’al teshuva, or newly religious Jew — are preoccupied with promoting her latest CD. Her fourth and best album to date, it includes 10 original songs that could comfortably be played on the radio beside songs by pop stars like Sheryl Crow, Peter Gabriel, Sarah McLachlan and Kate Bush. “Over the course of the four records, I’ve become more secure in myself as an artist and spiritually,” said Mase. “And the music has evolved with me. The new record is the most me, the most transparent me of all the records. I’m trying to be more honest.”
That honesty includes her profound faith and love of God, as heard on numbers such as “Tear Streaks,” in which she sings, “I see you everywhere, so far away/Darling I’m pulled right in to you.” But that honesty also includes a few numbers that might raise eyebrows at the same time as they perk up ears. “Tuscany” is an ode to getting away from it all by escaping to a romantic setting by the sea — not the sort of advice you’d likely hear dispensed by a rebbetzin. And the song “Passion” opens with the sound of heavy breathing of the unmistakably sexual kind.
“I have to be comfortable, it works better for me. I have to really be free,” said Mase, at times sounding more like a hippie than one who has taken upon herself the yoke of Torah. “I’m trying to access all my feelings. I want to put out only positive things in the world.”
Mase is particularly determined to stay positive for the sake of her children, especially given her own upbringing. “I had a father who was a terrible alcoholic who left when I was 13, and I never saw him again,” says Mase. “I went through sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a miracle I’m still here.”
A troubled teen who fell in with a rough crowd, Mase — whose Jewish upbringing was nominally Reform — went through a born-again Christian phase beginning when she was 17. She describes undergoing a vaguely spiritual epiphany following a fainting spell after an afternoon spent hatching plans with a friend to drop out of high school, leave her suburban Cleveland town and move into a rough part of the city to deal drugs. Mase awoke from her spell feeling as if “God was speaking to me from inside, and that God would be with me my whole life,” she said. “What came out of it was a completely different, clean new sensation of the world from that point on.”
Saved from her downward descent into a life of drugs and crime, Mase was also saved in another way, according to friends who were quick to label her experience a personal encounter with Jesus. “I never looked into it as a Jewish experience, because in my Reform Jewish upbringing that wasn’t where God was,” she said.
Mase went on to Bible school as part of her search for God, first in North Dakota, and then at Oral Roberts, where she majored in pre-med. During those years, she wrote songs and played in an all-girl, Christian-rock band. She even performed in Germany on a missionary trip. But at Oral Roberts, Mase reached an intellectual and emotional dead end. “A lot of Christian doctrine I couldn’t come to terms with, like the trinity and God as a human,” she said. “Also during this time I really missed being around Jews.”
In retrospect, said Mase, “It wasn’t Christianity I was trying to connect to, but God. I just couldn’t find the way.” Meanwhile, Mase’s older sister was becoming more Jewishly observant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. During a visit, Dana saw a side of Judaism she had never seen before. “I saw that I’m a Jew, and it was natural and unforced.”
Mase moved to New York and got a job working with horses in Central Park. Around the same time, she met Barry. They formed a rock band called Puss and Boots and played in Manhattan clubs while inching toward a more observant Jewish life. “I pushed him to do more of the learning at first — after all those years of Bible school, I was tired of that,” she said. “He began studying with someone downtown during lunch and got really into it. I encouraged him. I thought it would be really cool if he wore a yarmulke.”
Barry soon became involved with Ohr Somayach, an outreach yeshiva with a branch in Monsey. Shortly after they had their first child, they moved there. Mase began writing songs reflecting her newfound Jewish spirituality. Her first album, “Diary,”was addressed specifically toward Orthodox women and was released on an Orthodox record label. Her subsequent albums, “Sitting with an Angel” and “Through the Concrete and the Rocks,” straddled the secular/religious divide, so the Mases released them on their own label.
From the title of the new album, which refers to the lost indigo dye of the tzitzit, or ritual fringes, to the love songs that could be about another person or about God, the messages on “Thread of Blue”are undoubtedly those of a believer — albeit one who still asks questions and has doubts. They’re also not without a sense of humor. On “Stronger Than” — one of the album’s hardest-rocking tracks, boasting shimmering 12-string guitars and a heavy backbeat recalling The Byrds or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — the singer recites a litany of things that an unnamed “force” is stronger than, including the Internet, the “best sex” and the IRS. In a sly wink, the singer also characterizes the force thusly: “And you’re outta sight.”
Mase knows that her music, her job and the promotional efforts that go along with them — including recent appearances on TV shows including ESPN’s “Cold Pizza” and Comcast’s “Real Life” — are likely to ruffle any unruffled feathers remaining in her neighborhood. She has already received some “cancel my subscription” e-mails from former fans asking to be taken off her mailing list because of the pictures on her website (pictures that, mind you, don’t exactly threaten to dethrone Janet Jackson as the queen of décolletage).
In her new song, “Seraphim and Seagulls” — which was recently licensed for use on the hit TV show “Joan of Arcadia,” and which is also available as a CD single in a 64-page gift book of the same name, a fund-raiser for the humanitarian group Children of Terror, which aids young victims of terrorist attacks in Israel — Mase sings, “You have a song, so go ahead and sing…. Everything you gain must have a cost.”
“In the past I questioned myself and asked who was I pleasing,” she said. “Now I’m like, whatever. I just don’t care. I don’t want to behave in a certain way to please other people. It’s between me and God. Besides, I think of myself as a little bit of an island. When I’m isolated I’m more creative.”
Seth Rogovoy is a music critic and the author of “The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music” (Algonquin).