Daniel Cainer writes love songs to Judaism.
Not your typical love songs, his ballads tell of his parents’ divorce and its roots in a launderette, an immigrant tailor who steals his partner’s idea, a rabbi with a cocaine habit and Jerusalem, too.
Most of the British musician’s songs are very, very funny; some are more somber. Ever candid where others might cover up, he sings emotional truths, mostly based on actual events and his own experiences. His writing is filled with good cheer and longing as Cainer bounds along his own path back, not to the Orthodox Judaism of his youth, but ever grappling with Jewish questions.
Every day through Aug. 25, Cainer is performing his latest show, “Jewbadour,” at the Mood Nightclub in Edinburgh, Scotland. The concerts are part of the annual Free Fringe Festival, running alongside the Edinburgh International Festival, and mark his fifth run at the venerated alternative summer arts venue. Last week, the local edition of Time Out magazine gave him four stars, and Three Weeks Edinburgh said the show “oozes with charm.” Wearing a black button-down shirt, his cap askew on his shaven head, he’s an affable host, warm and chatty, more hipster than schmaltz as he spills his life story.
In July, Cainer performed in New York City and London, showcasing work from his latest CD, “Jewish Chronicles.” His music mixes jazz, folk and ragtime rhythms in unexpected ways.
In an interview, the 51-year-old songwriter recalls finding himself about a decade ago with a non-Jewish wife and non-Jewish kids, then undergoing a non-Jewish divorce. The end of his marriage prompted him to see a therapist, who he describes as “the only non-Jewish therapist in North London, who seemed to specialize in lapsed Jews.” Their sessions suggested that he couldn’t examine who he was without examining where he came from.
By the time Cainer gets to another refrain — “My smell, my vision, my circumcision” — the audience is cracking up.
He remembers the therapist as something of a maverick, with a Jungian style, and says that in one of those “waking stream-of-consciousness dreams,” he saw an old-fashioned rabbi stepping out of a line of wandering Jews, waving a finger at him and shouting, “You must write some Jewish music.”
Almost from that point, “all this stuff came tumbling out,” he says. The rabbi’s voice and wagging finger are still with him.
Cainer, who has presented “Jewish Chronicles” all over the world, grew up in a traditional home in Surbiton, a suburb of London, with two brothers, one a twin. He made his performing debut as a child, alongside his father, who played the ukulele and performed an amateur review in Jewish old-age homes.
His family attended synagogue regularly, and was observant until the scandal of his parents’ divorce, which he recounts in “Surbiton Washerama,” at 13 minutes the longest song on “Jewish Chronicles.” Cainer’s dad, after dropping off his sons at Sunday school, would bring the family’s laundry to a local launderette, where he met a miner’s daughter from northern England and began an affair. Cainer and his twin moved with their mother to Leeds, while his older brother stayed in Surbiton with their father.
“I write serious songs that happen to be funny,” Cainer says. Often, he shifts quickly from tragedy to high comedy. He adds, “I quite like being able to twist people around. I think I’ve got a good natural barometer of what is acceptable, how far I can push things.”
Cainer’s searching and longing are clear in “Jewish Man,” the last song on the CD. He sings, “I am a Jewish man/my skin and bones/ my chromosomes/Though I don’t choose to be/ one of those Jews you see/ Every Saturday morning dressed in their Shabbas best . . . that’s not the kind of Jew I am.”
A few lines later, he again tries to define himself: “I am a Jewish man/ My angst, my guilt/ It’s the way I’m built . . . So I wander in the wilderness trying to make sense of the kind of Jewish man I am.” By the time he gets to another refrain — “My smell, my vision, my circumcision” — the audience is cracking up.
He says he likes to keep his songs “rough and spontaneous.” His hope is that listeners will find something emotionally resonant, and see that “it can be redeeming to be so honest about oneself.” He manages to be funny without being sharp-edged, kind without being sentimental, all a thoughtful balance. “It’s just the way I see things,” he explains.
“Sometimes I say some uncomfortable things, in song and socially, but generally I don’t feel very malicious. It’s not the way it comes out.”
“I’m probably a lot snarkier and harder on myself,” he adds.
To compose, he sits at the piano or a digital player, closes his eyes, prays (“Baruch ata . . . what would You like me to write?”) and sees what comes out. He digs into his own experiences, and once a foundation is set, builds layers on top of it, rhyming words and adding Yiddish and Hebrew phrases. For him, writing requires a serious deadline, and “the best of it comes out under pressure.”
For years, he wrote weekly topical songs for the BBC and other radio stations, often bursting into the office at the last moment with his creations. Recently, he wrote a song about the Olympics for BBC Radio London that was broadcast live on the second day of the Olympics.
Cainer also runs business operations for his brother Jonathan, an astrologer who writes for newspapers including London’s Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia. His twin, Adam, works as a database designer, and is the only brother to remain Orthodox.
As for his own observance, Daniel Cainer “very semi-regularly attends a modern Orthodox shul in London. I’m not sure if that’s where I belong,” he says. As for God, “I’m not sure if I pray to the conventional God, but I do have a relationship with someone with whom I have a conversation.”
“I’m not very political,” Cainer says. “My own feelings are very contradictory, rather like Israel itself, a reflection of my inner turmoil.”
He was invited to write his lyrical “Road to Jerusalem” for a show in Glascow, Scotland. “I’m not very political,” he says. “My own feelings are very contradictory, rather like Israel itself, a reflection of my inner turmoil.” He hasn’t performed in Israel, but would like to do so.
In “God Knows Where,” Cainer sings about his immigrant ancestors, as well as the hopes and hardships of those relatives, and of people like them. Playing notes that sound like an Irish tune, he begins, “My father’s father’s father’s father’s father before him/Came from Russia, maybe Poland, maybe Lvov or Lublin . . . I come from them, they came from there, to another country, on a journey to God-knows-where.”
“Here With Me Tonight” makes this listener weep. He sings lovingly, with some good jokes, about grandparents, rhyming “aliya” and “guarantee ya” as he describes his life as a river into which their lives flowed.
In Edinburgh, he’s playing to mostly non-Jewish audiences, and one evening was asked to play in a church beneath a large cross. Even as he sings of Maxie and Muncie, a pair of dueling tailors, or the grandfather he’s never met, listeners seem to get it — and even join in on the “Washerama” chorus.