A classical twist on spiritual, religious song

A conversation with Yonatan Razel, the ultra-Orthodox composer who learns by day and composes by night

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

Yonatan Razel at the piano, his instrument of choice (photo credit: Ohad Romano)
Yonatan Razel at the piano, his instrument of choice (photo credit: Ohad Romano)

Yonatan Razel’s music studio isn’t far from his Nachlaot home, but it’s not easily found. Down one flight of stairs and up another, past several apartments teeming with toys, books, and messy kitchen tables, past a tiny, cramped shul where several men sit learning, it’s the room where he spends many of his afternoon and evening hours, sitting at his piano, making music.

The classically-trained musician lives by a set of clearly defined rules, melding, as he does, a wide swath of beliefs and directions. He spends mornings and early afternoons learning in a neighborhood kollel, one of the many Jerusalem institutes for married men who want to learn full-time, while afternoons and evenings are divided between taking care of his family — he and his wife are expecting their fifth child any day — and working on his next album. His second album, “Between the Sounds,” produced by good friend and fellow musician Eviatar Banai, was released in December.

Sitting in the studio, dressed in his daily uniform of a crisp white shirt and black pants — with his black wool fedora hat that identifies him as an ultra Orthodox Jew resting on the piano behind him — Razel is clearly an amalgam, one of the hard-to-define Jerusalem types that possibly exists only in this particular city.

“The first thing for me is I want to worship Hashem (God),” said Razel. “So every decision I make, where I live, how I divide my day, is on that, and music fits into that.”

His is a life that has almost always been focused on music, but Razel’s professional path hasn’t necessarily been as straightforward. Now 39, he was born in New York to an American mother and Dutch father who met during their own post-graduate studies at New York University. The young family made aliyah to Israel, settling in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, on the very same street where Razel and his family now live.

The family was always a musical one, with each of the four children learning piano from an early age — Razel was playing piano by age five, and composing as well — and he also learned cello from his paternal grandfather. They were also becoming more religious as a family, and Razel grew up going to the small, Sephardic shuls that proliferate among the narrow, winding alleys of Nachlaot, one of Jerusalem’s first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the Old City, abutting the streets of the Machane Yehuda market.

“I grew up davening and learning authentic Sephardic music, that’s what I knew,” said Razel. “I sang as a hazzan for years, and that was a big part of my musical education. It was about improvising, singing from the heart; I learned about the freedom of music.”

There were also the sounds of James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles in the Razel home, courtesy of his rock-loving mother, Carol, who still has her ticket from Woodstock safely tucked away. But the focus was on classical music, a cornerstone for his father and grandfather, which was why Razel’s parents decided to send him to the prestigious Jerusalem Music Academy for junior high and high school. The decision was made with some reservations, given his religious upbringing, but they “were very open about it,” he said, because it was one of the few places where he could start putting all of his music education together.

“I remember I was in school, I was 13, and I overheard someone playing ‘Hey, Jude’ on the piano, and I was like, hey, I know that song,” he said. “I didn’t know I could sing, I was always all about Beethoven. That was the moment when everything came together, when I started writing songs, combining all this music I had learned.”

Razel, a musician who melds modern with classical (photo credit: Ohad Romano)
Razel, a musician who melds modern with classical (photo credit: Ohad Romano)

Razel began working on his bachelor’s degree in classical music when he was just 16, not an unusual move for students at the Academy, and spent his army years as a designated ‘honorary musician,’ participating as a conductor and musician in the army band, moving between classical and pop music in his studies and work. It wasn’t until he was 23, and was offered a scholarship in composing and conducting at England’s Cambridge University, that he started contemplating what he actually wanted to do in life.

“I chose not to go to Cambridge, which to this day hurts me a little bit,” said Razel, smiling a tad wistfully about that particular decision. “That was the break I made, because it was a road where I had to decide if I should compose and conduct, and for many reasons I decided not to.”

For a time, he studied other things, living in a settlement for several years with his wife, Yael, who is originally from a secular moshav up north. But he eventually decided to return to music, setting out to marry what he’d learned and studied in classical music with the soulful sounds of Jewish, spiritual song. He calls it his haredi approach to life, using the term in its dictionary form, meaning one who is fervent about belief, as Razel is about melding his spiritual beliefs and musical skills with the secular world at large.

His first album, “Sach HaKol,” which went gold and netted him as Ynet’s Singer of the Year in 2007, took nearly eight years to produce, as he was still seeking what kind of musical language to use. He possesses a deep and abiding love for classical music and for intricate harmonies and strings — and he still conducts local and international orchestras every so often — but he knew that listeners don’t relate to it as well. It was while working on his second album that he discovered the particular brand of musical language that made sense for him, and for listeners.

“I combined religion and rock, classical and rock, because that’s what I know,” said Razel, describing his lyrics that are often taken from the Bible, and set to a lilting, musically rich sound. “I try to look at my music, to perceive of it as not being very popular music, but relate to it as classical music. That’s the gestalt of the whole thing.”

It was while he was working on the second album that his family experienced a near-tragedy, when their then-four-year-old daughter fell from a second-floor roof while watching Yom Ha’atzmaut fireworks, after a railing gave way. Following weeks in a coma and then months of rehabilitative therapy at Jerusalem’s Alyn Hospital, she now functions as a regular seven-year-old, a miracle that he sang about in “Ashira,” with his brother, singer Aaron Razel, on the “Between the Sounds.”

Yet despite those spiritual overtones that tend to pervade his music, Razel still thinks of his albums in classical music terms, composing what he calls a suite of ten different songs that relate to one another.

“I’m trying to look at my music as a combination of the smarts of classical music with the simplicity of a song, with harmonies and orchestration, but trying to have the ability to speak to the masses,” he said. “‘I’m not even sure what to call it. I actually believe that whatever comes out of me is what the music becomes, so I want to be as pure and focused as I can on who I am. I believe in my music, and that it has a small part in what’s happening to us as a nation, opening our hearts to each other, and my music is an emissary to that.”

He’s not the only out there, either, in this land of spiritually-inspired, classically-trained music. Razel points out that singers Yoni Richter, Matti Caspi, Eviatar Banai, even Naomi Shemer, all have similar backgrounds and tendencies in their music. All classically trained, they wanted to make simpler music that would appeal to the new Israeli Jew, the kibbutzniks in the field, so to speak.

“I’m a result of something that we are as a nation,” said Razel. “I’m playing it out, I’m a symptom of things that are happening here in Israel to Jewish people.”

And now, 15 years after he set out on this particular path, his music is played on Galgalatz, the nation’s popular music station, where his “Katonti” might be played back to back with Lady Gaga and Aviv Geffen. He’s also as likely to perform at one of the Zappa clubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as he is with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s a miracle,” said Razel, referring to the idea of his music being played on a pop radio station, even though he’s never heard it himself, since he doesn’t listen to the radio. “The fact that it’s on mainstream radio is because they’re trying to portray what’s going on here. It means some percentage of people are interested in hearing a song about a biblical phrase, or they like it as it is. They appreciate it.”

It’s now four o’clock, time for Razel to return to his family, his nine-months-pregnant wife who’s already experiencing contractions, and their four young children who need feeding and baths before bed. Maybe later he’ll have some time to work on his next album, which he thinks will be more classical and orchestral in style.

Given the time constraints in his life, he feels lucky that he got to practice as much as he did as a teenager, playing, composing and listening to music for “endless hours until I was 25,” he said. “It’s like I’m using those hours now when I don’t have them, they’re almost like a bank, and maybe when I’m 45 and my kids are older, I’ll get a chance to focus like that again.”

But for now, it’s about the family, putting his artistic life to the side for the moment. He glances at a text message on his cellphone, and with an apologetic nod, heads back up the stairs, past the older men with their heads bent over a text, nodding at the neighbors in the other apartments, back to the complicated blend that is Yonatan Razel’s life.

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