Taking the music & piety of the synagogue out to the street

Penitence in melody from Ishay Ribo, Israel’s favorite kippah-wearing singer

With his new album, ‘Elul 5779,’ the French-born, Hebrew-singing balladeer brings high holiday spirit into his gentle, guitar-strummed melodies

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Ishay Ribo takes a moment to talk about his latest album and what makes his music appeal to religious and secular fans alike. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Ishay Ribo takes a moment to talk about his latest album and what makes his music appeal to religious and secular fans alike. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ishay Ribo does not stand out in Jerusalem, where a guy in a black kippah, jeans and sneakers is not an unusual sight. But the immensely popular singer/songwriter, beloved by religious and secular Israelis alike, is too well-known to go unnoticed when he sits at a local cafe.

“Is that really you?” asked one woman, who walked by and then doubled back.

“It’s me,” grinned Ribo, and good-naturedly stood for a selfie.

“I’m listening to you right now,” said another passerby, pointing to his smartphone.

“Great!” responded Ribo, who posed for another selfie, and handed the fan a copy of his latest album.

Then, at Kikar HaMusica, an outdoor stage in the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood that is surrounded by several cafes, singer Nachman Solomon (of the Solomon Brothers) appeared onstage to perform for an incoming bar mitzvah party. Grinning at Ribo, Solomon began singing “Halev Sheli,” an anthem of sorts for Ribo.

This is what life is like right now for Ribo, 30, who began performing his lilting, soft (but not corny), and seriously spiritual rock songs about eight years ago.

He is everywhere these days, performing in Tel Aviv one night, at the Dead Sea Tamar Festival with Omer Adam the next, and at a women’s-only concert two nights later.

This month, part of Ribo’s song list includes works from his latest album, “Elul 5779,” based solely on the prayers and liturgical poems of the Yom Kippur service. It is an album of quiet, pensive music that deeply draws the listener, regardless of whether one is familiar with the ancient words of the service of the high priest.

The lead song, the poignant, uplifting “Seder HaAvoda,” is a haunting ballad for the Day of Atonement, speaking of God and the high priests, the bending and bowing that is an inimitable part of the Yom Kippur service, the whites that are traditionally worn as a sign of purity and piety.

As Ribo wrote on his Facebook page, the purpose of the album is “to open the windows of the synagogue so that the tunes and prayers of the high holy days will be heard in the street. That is what is most moving for me about this special project.”

Ribo does not think of “Elul 5779” as part of his regular roster of music, yet it is emblematic of his work, his songs that appeal to a wide range of fans, regardless of the words about God and belief, prayer and spirituality.

He conceived of the idea of the album two years ago, while praying in the yeshiva where he still learns regularly. It includes some nigunim — wordless tunes hummed as part of prayer, a little Shlomo Carlebach, some songs from his own childhood home, and others from his Moroccan synagogue.

“I wanted people to experience what I experience, because it’s harder to do that now, to really take the time to think and prepare for the high holidays,” he said. “Through the songs, I could offer some of that to the audience. That was important to me, to stop for a moment and do this.”

Ribo has always been, in a sense, a religious singer, composing and singing songs that are drawn from prayers and texts.

“I always wanted to sing only songs of belief and spirituality,” he said. “I knew I could have done other kinds of songs, but I stayed with this theme.”

It is an interest he has had since he was in his early teens, although he only picked up a guitar and learned how to play when he was around 18 years old. His ability to write music that appealed to a wide range of Israelis was a happy accident, and he thinks it has to do with his earlier upbringing in Kfar Adumim, a mixed community of religious and secular Israelis, as his first exposure to appreciating all kinds of people.

“I believe that good music can bring people together,” said Ribo. “When you write it in a certain way, it can touch people and it can open things up. This is the generation we’re in now. There’s a process of redemption in what I do, there’s the ethereal and the material.”

But he still had to make his own path as a musician.

Becoming Israeli

The singer’s family moved from Marseilles to Israel when he was 8 and a half, and, from the very first, he made it his business to speak Hebrew fluently, responding to his French-speaking parents in Hebrew, and turning the language into his first.

Ribo has not not studied music formally, but he taught himself guitar and composed songs for years. When Ribo married at 22, he said, he asked his newly wedded wife if they could take their NIS 100,000 in wedding gift money and use it to record an album.

“I said, “It’s not enough to buy an apartment, so let’s spend it on music,'” said Ribo. “I knew I didn’t want to go to school, and I had a lot of music ready.”

It was an unusual move for a religious guy, but he felt this was his path. And then he was drafted into the army.

By then, the Ribos had a baby — their oldest, a son who is now 8 and a half years old — and Ribo would drop him off at daycare, hop a bus to his army base, and then head to Tel Aviv at night to work on the album.

When the album came out, it did not make the waves he had hoped for, but he was contacted by singer Idan Raichel for help on another album, a break that led to increased exposure for his music, and eventually, finding his own audiences.

Eight years later, and four albums in, Ribo is a little stunned by his good fortune. He has plans to make more music, and hopefully perform it in the US, as well as in Israel and in Europe. He performs regularly with other singers, including Shlomo Artzi, Omer Adam, Natan Goshen, and Amir Dadon.

When Ribo writes, he draws from what is around him, whether that is the Torah portion of the week, a sermon given by someone, or sometimes from a commentary he read.

“That’s my big influence,” he said. “My connection to Torah opens me up. I sit in synagogue and right after the Shabbat, I sit down and write down what I was thinking about. My heart goes a certain way from things I read or hear.”

Those are the words and songs he ends up singing to his audiences, whether they are crowded into Tel Aviv’s Barby Club or spread out in an auditorium full of women.

Whoever is in the audience, Ribo says he sees the real Israel, the nation of Israel, spread out in front of him, and they’re singing every word of his songs along with him.

Truly diverse audiences

In some ways, it is more surprising to him that the ultra-Orthodox crowds are willing to listen to him as well, given that many were not accustomed to buying concert tickets, or some would have shunned a singer who also performs at non-kosher concert halls.

“It wouldn’t have happened ten years ago,” said Ribo. “They’re exposed to my songs and they come to a performance, something that used to be muktzeh (a Hebrew word that means set aside or off-limits). I want them to be at my own performance without any other reason, I want them to hear me, not a wedding singer singing my songs.”

At the same time, he thrills at the idea that secular Israelis, who often are completely unfamiliar with the words or texts he uses in his songs, are exposed to this spiritual music that connects them, that allows them to see things slightly differently.

“No one is forcing anyone to listen to this,” he said. “It’s my goal and it took me a long time to accept it, that I have a mission, and that I love to sing and that’s what I know how to do , and whoever wants to listen to it is welcome. I sing what I have, and I just have to keep doing what I know how to do.”

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