This year, David Berman forgot when Yom Kippur was to begin. With his band, the Silver Jews, releasing a new album, “Tanglewood Numbers,” and Berman doing interviews to publicize it, he was convinced the holiday started a day later than it actually did. He realized his mistake an hour before the holiday began, and he and his wife, Cassie, raced through the streets of Nashville, Tenn., to make it to services. As Cassie drove, Berman flipped through a book about the holiday and came upon an idea that he found very heartening: “Sometimes when a person first awakens to the idea of living with God, God throws up impediments to faith.”
Until recently, Berman’s problems were of his own making — and much greater than getting to the temple on time. After the release of his last album four years ago, he became addicted to crack cocaine — a drug that isn’t usually associated with Jewish songwriters. Depressed and despairing, Berman tried to kill himself two years ago with an overdose of Xanax (in the same hotel suite where Al Gore waited out the 2000 election). When he came to, at his father’s urging he checked into the Hazelden Center in Minnesota.
While going through rehab, Berman was allowed to attend Sabbath services Saturday mornings. Raised in a secular home, he started going because it was the only time he was allowed to leave the facility. But soon Berman began to feel that Judaism could help him in his recovery. “I want whatever it is that makes a people last so long against such long odds,” he said in an interview with the Forward.
After completing rehab, Berman returned to Nashville and began attending services at Temple Micah once or twice a month. At home he lights candles every Friday night with Cassie, who is Catholic. She attends synagogue with him, and Berman claims that this is where she gets her dose of religion. “It seems to make sense to me,” he explained, “in the sense of a meat eater being able to eat at a vegetarian restaurant.”
Recently Berman discovered “A Woman of Valor,” the poem traditionally sung by Jewish men on the Sabbath to honor their wives. While packing for a press trip to Europe, he was trying to travel light and couldn’t decide whether to take along his copy of the Torah. “Cassie said, ‘I’ll carry your Torah across Europe to show you how much faith I have in you and what you’re doing,’” Berman explained before adding, only half in jest, “That was kind of her valorous woman initiation, carrying this massive book on her back.”
But fans needn’t worry that Berman’s embrace of Judaism means he’s now metamorphosed into an indie-rock version of Shlomo Carlebach. “Tanglewood Numbers” is classic Silver Jews: a ramshackle structure of poignant lyrics, bad jokes and closely observed reflections on daily life situated atop a foundation of country music and alternative rock. Cassie provides vocals on many of the album’s songs, and her honeyed country croon provides the perfect foil to Berman’s ironic drawl. His voice has become rougher and deeper since the last record — “from the ingestion of a lot of toxic smoke and the frequent use of a PlayStation karaoke game” — but his lyrics have an added emotional heft, as well. Lighthearted songs like “How Can I Love You If You Won’t Lie Down?” nestle up against darker fare, like the haunting closer, “There Is a Place,” with its refrain: “There is a place past the blues I never want to see again.” It’s hard not to believe him. Humor and despair often partner up in a song. Such is the case in “Punks in the Beerlight,” where Berman shouts: “I love you to the max” like a giddy teenager only moments before acknowledging, “It gets really, really bad.”
While “Tanglewood Numbers” has its share of religious imagery, Berman’s songs always have featured God and biblical figures. Past albums contained such songs as “Slow Education,” which begins: “When God was young, he made the wind and the sun” — a succinct if slightly inaccurate summation of the first verses of Genesis. On those albums, though, God was merely a character in a song and Berman used sacred tropes simply because they were underused in ’90s rock. The difference is that now, when Berman sings about seeing “God’s shadow on this world,” he means it.
Benjamin Levisohn is a freelance writer and stock trader in New York.