The English-speaking Haredi Jewish community produces an awful lot of original Jewish music, though critics might consider it a lot of awful original Jewish music. With rare exceptions, the lyrics of popular songs in English — as opposed to settings of liturgical texts or Yiddish lyrics — come in just a few flavors, ranging from preachy to maudlin to just plain bad. Good lyrics are few and far between, the repertoire consisting of less-than-subtle presentations of the importance of Torah, Shabbos, and especially Moshiach and Geula (the Messiah and Redemption).
The recent passing of one of the few compelling frum English-language singer-songwriters is an opportunity to reflect on the story and songs of a man many consider the most influential English-language song lyricist of contemporary Orthodox Judaism.
In 1978 singer-songwriter Moshe Yess (born Morris Arthur in 1945) bought a one-way ticket from Hollywood, Calif., to Jerusalem and enrolled in Yeshiva Dvar Yerushalayim to learn more about Judaism. He quickly teamed up with another ba’al teshuva (returnee to observance), Rabbi Shalom Levine, to form the Megama Duo (“Megama” can be translated as aim, direction, or purpose), a project using American folk-rock sounds to express Jewish values. Megama’s most enduring hit is “My Zaidy,” a song off their debut, self-titled record.
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