Sometimes it takes years to finish a project. As long as 20 years.
It’s been two decades since self-taught guitarists Shimshon Meir Frankel and Amihai Zippor met while studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva and first founded the Bar Papas band.
In English, the name sounds like a good fit for their style of jam-band folk rock, but it’s actually Aramaic for “son of Papa,” an identifier given to several Talmudic sages who were descendants of 4th-century Babylonian rabbi Rav Papa.
The two have both become papas several times over in the two decades it took them to finally release their self-titled debut album, with music written by Frankel and Zippor and lyrics by prophets and rabbis.
Frankel and Zippor began working on the album back in 2000, recording songs on a tape recorder in the yeshiva’s stairwell, the only space in the building with decent acoustics.
At first, said Frankel, “it was just about us. It wasn’t about playing in front of people, it was a collaboration of non-musicians.”
Music has always been a “side expression” for Frankel, a clinical psychotherapist living in Zichron Yaakov, married with six children.
He likes to say he has a love-hate relationship with his Gibson guitar, purchased years ago in a Kalamazoo, Michigan music store, and has spent many years learning how to play it.
“I would play over and over and over again until it became a part of me and I wasn’t thinking about it,” he said. “If you start thinking about what you’re doing you lose it.”
It’s a similar story of melodic drudgery for Zippor, who was attending University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and was trying to strum Dire Straits in his dorm room when one of the school’s basketball players walked by and showed him where to place his fingers.
“That was my only lesson,” he said.”My experience with the guitar is a lesson for life. I’d be trying to go from G to C chord, and it was very frustrating and I would put it down and say, ‘that’s it.’ And three days later, I would pick it up and could do it. It’s a very monumental lesson in how life is.”
The two Americans met in 1998 while studying at Yeshivat Darchei Noam (popularly known as Shapell’s), where Zippor liked to head up to the roof to play guitar and sing to himself.
Frankel on the other hand tended to practice in his room. “It was my own private worship,” he said.
A friend connected them, and the two began playing guitar and learning Talmud together, spending long hours together in havruta study. They sat and learned until their attention span was gone, and then would move into their music havruta, said Zippor.
Eventually they composed their first 10 songs, with Hebrew and English lyrics, and began performing their particular brand of folk rock in local Jerusalem bars, building a dedicated following of locals and adding some better-known local musicians to their band.
“Somewhere along the way, we ended up believing in ourselves because of others who were interested in our music,” said Zippor, who now lives in Jerusalem with his family, and works for WebYeshiva. “The more we practiced together, and then with a drummer and bassist, we would have this synergy that we created and would draw people in. I would walk away and think, ‘how did that happen?’ But it only happens by investing your time and feeling, and being open to that unity.”
It became more complicated to practice together when Frankel moved to Zichron Yaakov, near Haifa in Israel’s north, but the two had invested so many years and effort that they couldn’t let it go.
The music has also been a form of therapy for both men.
“It wasn’t always just about playing the music, it was about when we were struggling and having hard times in life and reached out and helped each other through difficult times,” said Frankel.
“It’s an expression of the heart,” said Zippor. “I wouldn’t even call it writing music.”
Frankel said he likes to stress to his own children, ranging in age from 18 to 4, that life doesn’t come down to talent, but hard work.
“We put in the time with the guitar and saw the fruits of our labor,” he said.
They kept at the album, finally finishing it in 2014. By that point, said Zippor, who had continued writing other songs and niggunim — wordless Jewish melodies — he wanted to go public with the album at the 20-year mark.
“We just thought, it’s been this long, I want to take my time with it,” he said. “It’s not as sweet to say it took us 19 years. And anyway, there’s still a lot for us to do. This isn’t the end.”