RAMAT BEIT SHEMESH — Earlier this year, viewers of Israel’s “American Idol,” HaKochav HaBa, discovered that looks can be deceiving.
When five young Orthodox Jewish men from religious enclave Ramat Beit Shemesh took the stage for their televised audition, everyone expected their band Shtar to play hassidic music. Instead, Shtar defied all expectations, bringing down the house with an accomplished cover of American rock band Linkin Park’s “In the End.”
Once the audience and judges’ initial shock wore off, they couldn’t stop cheering, singing and grooving along with the band. It was a bold lesson for socially stratified Israel that things aren’t as starkly black and white as the band members’ clothing.
Brad Rubenstein, Ori Murray, Dan Isaac, Avi Sommers and Tzvi Solomons cover their heads with black kippot, wear collared shirts, and walk around with ritual fringes dangling from their waists. By day, they study and teach Talmud. At night they rap and rock out. It’s all totally normal for them.
In fact, rock music was part of their lives long before religious observance. Prior to his arrival in Jerusalem in 2006 to study at the Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, Rubinstein served as guitarist,
Murray grew up in Seattle, Washington, where he went to a high school in a rough neighborhood in the southern part of the city and picked up rapping. At age 17 he was MC-ing raves professionally, and by 19 he had bookings up and down the US West Coast. Also a full-contact fighter, Murray got into some injurious altercations in his early 20s. Although he was raised without Jewish education, he became interested in Judaism and decided to accept an invitation from Aish HaTorah to study in Jerusalem in 2005.
Rubinstein, 44, and Murray, 33, met at the yeshiva in 2007 and formed the band as a way of melding their newfound love of God and Torah with their longstanding affinity for rock and hip-hop music.
“There was a gaping hole in Jewish music at the time. Everything sounded either like it was 20 years old or like clown music,” said Rubinstein as he sat with the band’s other core members Murray and Isaac for an interview in the recording studio he built in the garage underneath the home he shares with his wife and seven children.
The band is a way of melding their newfound love of God and Torah with their longstanding affinity for rock and hip-hop music
Isaac, who moved to Israel in 2003 right after high school, came into the picture in 2008 when Rubinstein and Murray decided to do live shows and subsequently started looking for a drummer. Isaac, who was studying at a different yeshiva, brought not only his experience playing in garage bands back in London, but also his Iraqi-Indian-British Sephardic family’s musical legacy.
Proud of his heritage, Isaac, 32, readily shows photos he has stored on his iPhone of his great-grandfather Sulaiman Masri, a violin and oud player who toured the Middle East accompanied by exotic dancers. Other members of Isaac’s family have been or are currently cantors, including his grandfather and uncle.
Rubinstein, who not only plays guitar and sings, but also produces Shtar’s music, soon discovered that Isaac’s vocal talents far surpassed his drumming abilities.
“Let’s just say his drumming was a bit rusty,” Rubinstein recalled diplomatically.
“I went from singing backup to becoming lead vocalist. Brad threw me into the deep water, so to speak. I’ve really worked on my voice, and it has really developed since then,” Isaac said.
After explaining at their audition to HaKochav HaBa hosts Rotem Sela and Assi Azar what “Shtar” means (it is a document or written agreement for halachic, or Jewish legal, purposes), the band made it all the way to the show’s quarter-finals with their spot-on covers of Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away,” Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” and a mashup of B.o.B’s “Airplanes” and Oasis’s “Wonderwall.” The usually hard-to-impress judge Israeli rapper Mooke became their champion.
However, despite Shtar’s success at covering tracks by their favorite alt-rock, techno and hip-hop artists, their real passion lies in writing and performing their original songs, some of which appear on the band’s 2010 album “Infinity” and 2013 five-track EP “Boss.”
What may seem like a love song could actually be a reference to a teaching from Torah tradition
Several of the band’s original numbers, like “Modeh” and “Ma Nishtana” include obvious and familiar Jewish liturgical language and references. However, most of their all-English lyrics sound totally secular to the ears of listeners unfamiliar with the Jewish texts that inspire the men. What may seem like a love song could actually be a reference to a teaching from Torah tradition.
“I call it ‘double entendre,'” said Rubinstein, who writes all of Shtar’s music and choruses.
The band’s latest video release, a song called “Gone Again” sounds on surface-level like it is about a couple’s break up, but it is actually intended to reflect the Jewish concept of heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of one’s soul, or personal growth.
“Life is always about leaving one stage and moving on to another, about pushing yourself to the next level in terms of your spirituality,” explained Murray, who writes all of his raps.
“The approach we take to writing songs pushes me to think about what I am trying to say. Our lyrics are mashal (religious allegory) and influenced by agadata (parts of Jewish texts dealing with non-legal concepts),” he continued.
HaKochav HaBa provided Shtar with broader exposure within Israel, but for the most part the band’s audience remains Anglo-Israelis. Shtar is also known within the Jewish communities in the UK and South Africa, although it hasn’t yet commanded the attention of large numbers of American Jews. The band members obviously hope this will change.
A September show at Mike’s Place, an American-style pub in Jerusalem, drew a crowd consisting mainly of visiting American and British yeshiva students (many of whom Isaac teaches at Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh) and married religious couples.
“This is our date night,” Allison Martin from Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood told The Times of Israel as she sat at the bar next to her husband Bradley Martin, who had studied at Aish HaTorah with some of the band members.
“Shtar is definitely much more modern than your typical religious band,” Martin said.
Melissa Sussman, 31, who was with her mother-in-law Elizabeth Sussman and her friend Mimi Reichmann, said she found it refreshing to see Orthodox men relate on a universal musical level.
‘I really appreciate their music. It personally speaks to me because it is alternative rock with a Jewish twist’
“I really appreciate their music. It personally speaks to me because it is alternative rock with a Jewish twist,” she said.
When asked on TV by HaKochav HaBa hosts if they have any groupies, Shtar members laughed and replied, “Just our wives.”
The question caught them off-guard, because they claim to be oblivious to the sex appeal they project on stage and in their videos — especially frontmen Murray, with his rapper’s strut and swagger, and Isaac, with his lead vocalist’s passionate intensity.
Murray, married with four children, and Isaac, married with three, said it had never occurred to them that people would perceive them like that. They added that their wives are totally supportive of their music-making.
“I’m not trying to portray being sexy. We’re just great performers. We sound great and look great,” Isaac said.
Murray shared that a different side of himself comes out when he is on stage. While he isn’t always completely comfortable in one-on-one conversations, it’s different when he performs in front of a crowd. “I block it all out and I’m in my own reality,” he said.
“We’re just expressing ourselves and I guess that can seem attractive,” Murray admitted, but ready to change the subject.
Fortunately for him, just then his young son and some of Rubinstein’s kids burst into the garage, signalling that it was time to wrap up the interview.