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A conversation with Raz Hartman, musician and spiritual leader

by simone June 22 2008
InterviewEnvironmentThings to do

Raz Live

Raz Hartman, musician, teacher, prayer, and a mainstay of Jerusalem's Nachalot community, celebrates the release of his second solo CD, Shuva, on Tuesday night at Cnaan. Hartman holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of Southern California and rabbinic ordination from the Bat Ayin Yeshiva, a hotbed for outside-the-box spirituality and religious musicianship. When he's not writing and recording music, Raz teaches at the Simchat Shlomo Yeshiva and leads the V'Ani Tefillah congregation in Nachlaot, gathering place of the hip, the hippies, and those looking for a little spirituality in these materialistic times.

How does Shuva compare to your previous album, Shabbat Olam? What were the creative influences behind each one? Shabbat Olam is a CD about Shabbat, it's more contemplative, with lots of niggunim (meditative melodies) and many of the songs featuring just piano and singing. Most of the songs on Shabbat Olam are not my songs, they're covers of Shlomo Carlebach songs, covers of songs of the Breslav Hasidim.

On Shuva, the focus is different. It's a range of songs that I wrote over many years. It's not as slow and introspective as entering Shabbat, which is what I was trying to achieve with Shabbat Olam. I think the music on Shuva is more creative, the expression much more diverse and alive. There are more musicians on it, only two songs are just me on my piano, whereas in Shabbat Olam that was most of the CD. A lot of thought went into Shuva, so while it's definitely also deep and also has an intention, Shuva has more fast songs than Shabbat Olam and more jams, including a sax solo, so its energy is not just inward but also forward.

Whom do you imagine your prototypical listener is? What listeners would you like to reach, but feel you have not? I don't know. I'm always surprised when I find out who listens to my albums. I can't imagine that someone who likes groovy pop music will like the album, but I do feel that there's a generation of people, especially in Israel, who are searching for spiritual expression and I'm hoping to tap into that.

I'm not a popular type of musician and that's not necessarily a positive thing. Perhaps it's something I'm lacking, that I can't be a little simpler, that I'm not more tapped in; not to what people want, but to what people have access to. I'm hoping that with this album I'm bridging that gap a little, that it's more accessible to people.

With Shuva I am really trying to reach a world of Israelis, but also a new generation of searchers. The album is a religious album. In other words, all the words on the album are religious, but the music is not typical religious music and I'm hoping that the album will connect to people who usually find Jewish music to be stark or constrictive. This album has classical, jazz and reggae influences, which are conscious influences in my music. Being spiritual and being Jewish doesn't mean fitting into a specific mold. Although there are a couple of explicit geula (redemption) songs there, if they don't speak to you and you just like the music, that's good too.

When Shabbat Olam came out, you were just making the transition from Bat Ayin to Jerusalem. Now you are a full-fledged Jerusalemite, teaching at and steering the Simchat Shlomo yeshiva and running the V'Ani Tefillah minyan in Nachlaot. How has being in the city influenced your various projects? I've always been a Jerusalemite, it just was not expressed when I was in Bat Ayin. But it's true there's been a transition. A large part of my connection to Jerusalem has to do with it being a very alive center with people Eco Beit Midrash in Nachlaotcoming through all the time. In a yishuv (settlement) there's a certain regularity to it. So the work I'm doing in Jerusalem is by nature more dynamic because it's work done in relation to new kinds of people, new situations and new realities.

Jerusalem is an intense place. It's definitely influenced me a lot. I don't think the V'Ani Tefillah minyan could exist outside of Jerusalem, because there's a real range of people who come to it specifically because it's in Jerusalem. People come to it from different neighborhoods and different walks of life; it fosters connections between many different people.

Regarding my music, there are songs on Shuva which I wrote before I was even married, so it's interesting for me to hear and record them now because I'm in such a different mode these days. When Shabbat Olam came out I had one kid and was living in Bat Ayin, so it’s a much quieter album. Now I have four kids and am living Jerusalem so Shuva has a very, very different sound.

How does teaching (and/or learning) in Jerusalem differ from teaching (and/or learning) in Bat Ayin – are the issues different, the focus? Every environment is different. In Jerusalem, people walk out of a class and they are in a totally different environment. People learn and then go off to work or to shop in the shuk (Machane Yehuda). In Bat Ayin, you were in some way always in the learning environment.

Teaching and learning in Jerusalem is also very different because there's lots of other learning going on here and there is an interaction between them.

Bat Ayin was, to some degree, more of a retreat into a "Now we're learning" type of energy. It's an environment with much less outside energy coming in. On the other hand, the energy of Jerusalem can have a downside to it as well, because it's much harder to stay focused here.

Nachlaot is famous for, among other things, its sizable young, English-speaking community. As a leader in this community, how do you see it as fitting in with Jerusalem society as large? I've been thinking about this a lot because Israel in general is a country of immigrants. I mean, that's the idea of a country for Jews from all over. But the Anglo community is different because it tends to be isolated. Both in terms of language and in terms of culture, it seems that Anglos are more comfortable among other English speakers.

I'm trying to bridge that gap because I feel that some of the strengths of the Anglo community, i.e. its openness, is something that Israel needs. At the same time, I don't want the Anglo community to be sheltered and immature in terms of their relationship with Israel at large. I'm hoping to create interactions between the two communities – for example at the minyan which I'm a part of, the official conversation is in Hebrew, i.e. speeches, announcements, etc., but a large part of the minyan is comprised of English speakers – but I feel there's a certain resistance because people want to be comfortable. This is especially Raz at Simchat Shlomotrue of people who come here on their own, without their families. They want to stay in a certain comfort zone to help ease the transition. Part of my work is to help Anglos make connections with Israelis, but it's not so simple. I guess what it comes down to is, when speaking about how the English-speaking community fits in with Jerusalem society at large, it really depends on the person.

You are also very involved with the Simchat Shlomo Yeshiva. What led you there and what makes the yeshiva unique in a city filled with institutions teaching Jewish philosophies and texts? What led me to Simchat Shlomo is my connection to Rav Shalom Brodt, founder and Rosh Yeshiva. Also, when I began teaching there it seemed to be the best context for me to be teaching in and giving over some of the sense of what I've gotten.

While Jerusalem does have many institutions in which to learn, I think the women's learning at Simchat Shlomo is unparalleled. There's a connection between serious text learning and spirituality and a sense of openness among the people that come to learn there.

There's also a sense of love there, a certain warmth and that's true not just of the women's program but of all the programs at Simchat Shlomo. It really has a personal touch. There are lots of places to learn Torah in Jerusalem but there aren't many with that personal connection. The connection at Simchat Shlomo is partly a result of the yeshiva's size, but it's also intentional, as the yeshiva places a heavy emphasis on personal growth.

I'm less involved with the yeshiva now than I was at the beginning, but the parts I'm involved with, and I believe this is true in general, are very vibrant.

You left the rolling hills of Bat Ayin for one of Jerusalem's most crowded neighborhoods. Where do you go to breathe these days? You do need to get out of Jerusalem, or at least to the edges of it, to really breathe. Thank God there's the Jerusalem version of Central Park right nearby, Gan Sacher. There are some really sweet places there.

While I go there and to Tekoa at times, I personally get a lot of life from the aliveness of Jerusalem and the interactions it fosters, but then of course I'm connected to Rabbi Nachman of Breslav and he has a lot of advice on how to do hitbodedut, your own personal conversation with God, even when you're in the midst of other people, in situations where you can't just go out into the forest. I've tried to internalize that too.

If you have to go somewhere quiet though, I would say the best spots are Gan Sacher, the Jerusalem Forest – that is definitely a strong place - and probably, though I haven't been there in a while, [the road leading out of] Talpiot, on the way to Bethlehem, there's a large undeveloped area where no one lives. In general though, parks, or anywhere there are trees are good for private conversations with God.

Photo of Raz Hartman sitting at his keyboard during a recent gig (top), courtesy of Raz Hartman; Simchat Shlomo's Eco program including the bearded Shaul Judelman, who runs the Eco program and also plays sax on Shuva – hits the streets of Nachlaot (middle), courtesy of Simchat Shlomo; Hartman, rocking his former signature dreadlocked sidelocks, teaches a class at the yeshiva in its early days (above), courtesy of Simchat Shlomo.

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