Jewish Music Goes Grunge

Recently, before a packed audience in New York, a musician named Yaniv Tsaidi readjusted the clip holding down his yarmulke, stepped toward his microphone and began to scream. But the 29-year-old singer wasn’t just screaming. He was screaming his prayers.

Tsaidi is the lead singer of Heedoosh, a new grunge-pop Jewish band that played to a sold-out crowd at The Triad, on the Upper West Side, and that is scheduled to play Yidstock, a Jewish music festival upstate at the Monticello Raceway, on August 21. In the past decade, numerous Jewish musicians have tried their hand at synthesizing mainstream music with Jewish prayer — one thinks first of the jazz-klezmer fusions of Andy Statman, and then also of the aggressive punk of Yidcore or the jam band tinged rock of the Moshav Band. But Heedoosh is one of the first to use the angry howl and bludgeoning sounds of grunge to put a novel spin on the traditional Jewish song. Drawing from such mainstream influences as Nirvana, Radiohead and Oasis, the band reinvents prayers as pleas from the gutter of spiritual vacancy. Instead of clean, over-synthesized songs that singers overwork into inhumanity, Heedoosh takes a page from Alice in Chains’s tablature: Less is more, and anger sounds more authentic than plastic smiles. Plus, the band has an additional claim to authenticity: Nearly all its songs are in Hebrew.

Despite this commitment to authenticity — a trait that was always cited as grunge music’s triumph over the excesses of heavy metal — there is still an undercurrent of excitement in the possibility that Heedoosh will break into the mainstream.

“We never came to this thing thinking we wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, or opening for Phish,” Tsaidi explained, referring to some of the indications of a band’s mainstream acceptance. But, he added coyly, “I’m not going to say that if this stuff goes mainstream we’re not going to be happy. Or that we’re not going to share a bill with Phish. We will.” Part of that excitement has been triggered by the success of Matisyahu, the Jewish Reggae star who is indeed opening for Trey Anastasio, lead singer and guitarist of Phish, and who has also gotten ink in Rolling Stone. Along with the burgeoning popularity of such Christian rock groups as Evanescence, the idea of a religious Jewish band “making it” seems likely where it once seemed impossible.But there is nothing likely about the group, which shares more similarities with Oasis than with classic Jewish performers. One similarity is the familial makeup of both bands. Oasis has the famous Gallagher brothers and Heedoosh has two sets of siblings. Yaniv Tsaidi and his brother, Yahav, the artistic force behind the band, are the first; Daniel and Guy Engleman, who play the bass and guitar, respectively, are the second. In fact, Yaniv emphasizes over and over throughout his show that his brother wrote all the music. And though Yahav is currently studying in yeshiva in Israel, Yaniv credits him with being the source of Heedoosh. “My brother wanted Jewish music unlike anything anybody ever heard,” he explained. But part of what separates Heedoosh from mainstream grunge bands is an ethic that aligns them closer to the straight edge. While Yaniv Tsaidi drinks alcohol, he is firm about his resistance to many of the trademarks of rock ’n’ roll, particularly the sex and drugs. And the Tsaidi brothers envision their purpose as spreading a message of observant Judaism, even if the means to do so take an unorthodox turn.

Yaniv’s fear of not spreading that message is the uncomfortable yoke around his neck. When asked about the dangers and pitfalls of his particular lifestyle, it takes coaxing before he relaxes. Then he smiles, and the charisma he shows onstage comes through — a charisma manifested by all the contradictions with which Heedoosh flirts: the grunge band playing Jewish music, the desire to break through tempered with the fear of success and finally, the bad boy just trying to do what he sees as God’s will.“It’s really the women,” he said. “Women are tempting.”

Then he laughs. “What’s their deal with music, anyway? Why are they attracted to rock stars?”

Mordechai Shinefield writes about the arts for The Commentator, Mima’amakim and other publications. The first album he ever bought was Nirvana’s grunge classic, “Nevermind.”

This story "Jewish Music Goes Grunge" was written by Mordechai Shinefield.

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