BERKELEY — One of Mikey Pauker’s favorite spots to pray is a wooded pocket in the hills of Berkeley.
It’s easy to see why he goes there: The meandering hiking trails, the light beams peering through giant tree trunks, the fresh forest aroma, and the feeling of being totally alone with nature present an opportunity for hitbodedut, a one-on-one meditation with God. And if that’s not enough, the winding drive to the top of the mountain offers a glittering view of San Francisco across the bay.
In keeping with the spirit of California folk singers who came before him, Pauker draws artistic inspiration from his surroundings, which also serve as his connection to the Creator and a means of grounding in himself.
His new album “Ascension” is billed as an “invitation to listen to the call of our inner wilderness and to greet our darkness with understanding and an open heart.”
With rock and reggae beats, the album was recorded in raw, live instrumental sessions, a departure from Pauker’s more typical electronic recordings of the past. Songs “Say Yes” and “I Am” lure in listeners with catchy melodic hooks, while other songs such as “Believe” remind listeners that tragedies like the recent California wildfires and the hurricanes that swept Texas and Florida are an opportunity to rebalance our relationship with nature.
“Ascension” is Pauker’s fifth album. He’s shared the stage with artists including Local Natives, Matisyahu, Kosha Dillz, Trevor Hall, the Polish Ambassador, MC Yogi, and more, and has performed at music, yoga, and new agey festivals such as SXSW in Austin, Bhakti Fest in Joshua Tree, and Lucidity in Santa Barbara.
But while Pauker may blend in with the new age scene, he calls upon ancient Jewish wisdom and attempts to reconcile in his music his own contemporary experience of life in the context of Jewish spirituality and ritual.
Some of Pauker’s songs in his most recent album are based off Jewish text. One track is a collection of teachings from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav; the song “Summer Niggunim” draws on Yedid Nefesh, a Shabbat prayer.
Pauker describes the songs on the album as a “mashup of text study and spiritual experience,” all woven together under the guidance of his teachers.
“We’re warriors of the heart at this day and age, in a dark time of this world,” he says. “It’s really easy for us to be shut down with all the forces coming at us, so it’s our responsibility as beings to capture the light and spread the light.”
A cure for what ails him
The album responds not only to the recent slew of natural disasters that have plagued the planet, but to Pauker’s own personal depression he experienced before and during the period of writing the songs of “Ascension” to lift him out of it.
“The songs for me became prayers and medicine for me to get myself out of my depression,” he says. “What I was learning from singing these songs, was how personal they land for other people, how they became medicine for other people. If I didn’t sing my songs, I don’t know if I’d still be here. So this album is a gateway to that realization.”
The theme itself, of finding spiritual levity in a time of heavy darkness, hearkens back to Rebbe Nachman’s teachings. Pauker points out that the rabbi himself was no stranger to depression, and so for him, finding joy amid and in spite of being in a low place became one of the greatest mitzvot.
“I had to allow myself to be immersed and go into the deepest wounds of my soul and heal those,” Pauker says. “I’m not a perfect person, I still have more to deal with, but this was the next chapter of my healing of being a human being.”
The Jewish people are also dealing with ancestral wounds, he adds, so there’s healing to be done on a personal level, on a Jewish level, and a human level.
“This album invites us to invoke that grief,” says Pauker. “Once we’re through the darkness, we realize all there is is love. That’s what Hashem created before anything, this ball of light.”
Pauker’s spiritual journey began in Orange County, where he grew up in a secular-Reform Jewish family. In high school, he forayed into the Southern California hardcore screamo scene, going to underground shows at churches.
“The hundreds and hundreds of kids singing along with these rock bands and the primal energy in that room was mystical,” Pauker remembers. “When I was a kid, I didn’t like Jewish music. I was a problem child, and to me it felt cheesy, inauthentic.”
Despite his hardcore proclivities, he learned guitar and got into musical theater.
He went on to study broadcast communications at San Francisco State University, where he worked at the college radio station. He also worked as a promoter, doing talent buying for clubs, and booking bands. At the time, he says, he was at a spiritual deficit and hated his work.
Things changed though during a whirlwind period of landing a music job at a Jewish summer camp, going to Burning Man, and living through an accident in which he nearly lost his life.
He became exposed to Jewish songs that spoke to his heart, and at Burning Man, where Pauker says everything is serendipitous, he learned to “follow the flow, follow the magic.” Through his life-threatening accident, he says he realized, that God was looking out for him.
As many spiritual-minded seekers do, Pauker soon found himself in Jerusalem, studying in yeshiva, exploring his newfound religiosity.
“I went to Israel and became fully religious, wrapped tefillin [phylacteries] every day,” he says. “I had never had that happen before.”
But Pauker didn’t stay too long in the ultra-Orthodox world. He got in touch with Erez Safar, a.k.a. Diwon, a Jewish music producer who helped Pauker produce his album “Extraordinary Love,” the album that Pauker says “put me on the map.”
Dance of life
By now he was back in California, having moved back to the Bay Area from Los Angeles. Soon Pauker’s life morphed into what it is today: a magical whirlwind of touring, music, yoga, dance, and Torah.
He’s active in a congregation called Wilderness Torah, an “earth-based” Jewish organization, and in Ecstatic Dance, a transformational healing dance community with outposts all over the country.
“My life now is dance, for me dance is devotion, it’s prayer,” says Pauker.
And it’s been a true metaphor as he dances on through each chapter of his life.
“Chapter after chapter, it all overlaps. It’s not a straight road, it’s like a spiral,” says Pauker. “I was in yoga today, and in shavasana, I was lying on the floor crying, shaking. I’m seeing the big picture, getting emails from hundreds of people who have been touched by this music.
“I know this is the blossoming of everything I put my life into. The only reason I’m here today is I have my prayer practice, and do my best to have gratitude and wonder,” he says.