I knew my conversation with the three members of Zusha (Elisha, Shlomo, and Zacharia) was going to be unique from the moment we began our skype call, and not just because I was a rabbi interviewing a group that specializes in Hasidic Soul. There they were – Zacharia strumming on a guitar, Elisha strutting across the screen while drumming on a large container of Utz pretzels, and Shlomo rocking back and forth with his eyes closed – all three humming an improvised tune in beautiful harmony. I joined them for a minute because it was fun and soulful and uplifting, all words often attributed to their music and not often attributed to one’s spiritual life. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to capture that experience in words, I then transitioned us to a more conventional style of interview. As it turned out, that experience was just as fun, soulful and inspiring, and just as hard to capture in words.
Aaron: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you guys get your start?
Shlomo: Back in college, amidst all the work we were doing, we were searching for something else. Something more. You know, a lot of people focus on their work. It’s important. But some people think the ikkar (primary) is tafel (secondary), and some people make the tafel the ikkar. You have to remember: what’s the essence and what’s secondary? And what we prioritize is friendship and connection. In college, you hang out with a lot of people at parties, you drink with them, and they help you forget everything. How many friends do you have that help you remember everything? That help remind you of the beauty of learning Torah, of singing a niggun (wordless melody) on Shabbos, of keeping Shabbos? Two of my best friends became Elisha and Zack. Our beginning was in friendship. We started singing together, and then we brought in instruments, and then Zusha was born.
Elisha: We started as an informal band, playing in different people’s apartments, until eventually we decided to gather the Jews (laughs). We decided to perform, and our first show sold out the Mercury Lounge in NYC. And then our debut EP went to #9 in the billboard charts for world music. (He then shows me a sketch drawing of me that he drew on a napkin.)
Aaron: In addition to being talented musicians, you’re also pretty goofy. Do you see any connection between humor and music?
Zacharia: I just watched an interview with John Cleese, and he talked about how throughout his childhood he was moving around and whenever he moved to a new place and didn’t have any friends, he would tell jokes. Humor broke down a lot of people’s walls and helped him to make friends. If you make someone laugh, you’re immediately connected. And I think that’s very similar to what we’re trying to do with our music. Humor is a big part of who we are. We’re trying to break down as many walls as we can. Humor does that. And singing songs without words does that too. It breaks down people’s defense mechanisms.
Shlomo: Humor is when the words take you to a place beyond the words. We’re trying to get to the ultimate laughter. Mashiach (messianic) humor. That’s real stand up – when stand up actually lifts people up after they’ve fallen from their throne.
It’s like we say (in the grace after meals): “May God lead us standing up into our land.” In the times of Mashiach, G-d will stand us up.
Aaron: For most people, talking about the Messiah gives them….
Zacharia: The heebie jeebies?
Aaron: Exactly. So to hear you talk about it so openly is both refreshing and jarring. Why do you use messianic language?
Zacharia: If you don’t have a vision or a goal, then what are you doing? I think it’s important to have a personal vision, a vision for your family, and a vision for the world. We’re asking: how can you make the world the most beautiful place?
Shlomo: It’s like taxes.
Shlomo: No, taxes. You have to keep track of all of it – where is it coming from, who paid it, where it is going to, etc. We’re not supposed to drive ourselves crazy, but there’s an idea of putting your mind into your matter, and that’s how you get mind over matter. Bringing in mind and heart in all that we do. If there’s no consciousness in what I’m doing, then where am I going?
Elisha: I heard taxis. Which is like the metaphor of a car. If you have a nice car, but if it doesn’t take you to where you’re going, then it’s a waste of money. We’re trying to go somewhere. For us, mashiach is our ultimate destination. It’s like those ride cars at the grocery store that cost 25 cents. They move around a lot but don’t actually move anywhere. That’s an immature perspective of the world – to stay in one place. We talk about mashiach because we always have a goal in mind.
Zacharia: When it comes to messianism and mashiach, we’re talking about improvement. Actively striving. For self-improvement. Societal improvement. World improvement. A better life and existence.
Aaron: You like to share deep thoughts, and I noticed that you do this on your website as well. I imagine that’s pretty uncommon for a musical band to do. So why do you do it?
Zacharia: We don’t see Zusha as just music. It’s a movement. In that movement there are so many different parts. There’s the friendship. The music. The silence. And the Torah that inspires us. There’s all sorts of different creative parts. And we’re always trying different things. Sometimes we’ll try a dvar Torah (a thought or word of Torah). Sometimes we’ll try a movie. Or Elisha will make a drawing. We want to encourage people to explore different parts of their life that can break down barriers between them and other people.
Aaron: What’s the strangest feedback or comment you’ve received?
Zacharia: It’s not a weird thing necessarily, but people are always saying that they can’t believe we’re so cool and we’re Jewish. They can’t believe that we’re doing what we’re doing, and connecting to such diverse people, and still being religious Jews.
Elisha: It seems people see a dichotomy and believe that these things are contradictory. We’re trying to unite all kinds of forces. And that comes through in our music. The idea of uniting seemingly conflicting energies or notions or influences and finding a way for them to fuse.
Zacharia: People have asked us: “What are you saying? What does it mean?” Our music is about revealing your inner light. Discovering what animates your life and your neshama (soul). The niggun allows us to unite under a common melody.
Shlomo: A niggun is the emotion behind all of our motions.
Aaron: Do I have time to ask one or two more questions?
Elisha: Yes, but then we have to go daven mincha (pray the afternoon prayers).
Aaron: Why did you decide to call your new album (which came out on January 5th) kavana (intentionality)?
Zacharia: Kavanah is so integral to what we do. Two people can do the same thing and or sing the same niggun and it will be totally different for each of them. The impetus is a person’s kavanah – what they bring to the table. We don’t like to sing at people, we like to sing with people. It’s not what we’re thinking, it’s what you’re thinking.
Elisha: That’s descriptive of our shows. We’re trying to create experiences where we’re all experiencing mindfulness to connect in a deep way. We so rarely have that experience. We want to bring people together and have kavana.
Shlomo: Maimonides says there are different spheres. And the highest sphere is the part that allows all the other spheres to shine through. That’s what a niggun is. It’s the level above all other levels that let’s everything else shine through. Thought is more powerful than action because a thought can be manifested in many different actions. An action is defined.
Zacharia: I don’t know if I agree with that.
Elisha: Machloket zusha. (Machloket is a Talmudic term for a disagreement.)
Zacharia: I think action speaks more than the language.
Elisha: And I think it’s speech. When to talk and when not to talk. What to say and how to say it.
Aaron: Gather’s target audience is Jews in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are struggling to connect to their Jewish identity. Any advice about what Judaism could look like to them?
Zacharia: It’s like if you’re looking for the most beautiful thing – a wife or husband – and you’re asking, “What can he or she do for me?’ then it will never work out for you. It is like that with Judaism. It should be presented in a way where you want to give to it. You want to sacrifice for it. Put work into it. Because it’s work.
Shlomo: There’s no beauty in that which you only take from.
Zacharia: It’s one thing to be mindful. It’s one thing to say I love you and another thing to take out the garbage. Judaism is full of opportunities to take out the garbage. (He laughs.)
Aaron: Why did you just laugh?
Zacharia: My mom just walked in. And I haven’t taken out the garbage all week…
Zusha will be playing at Tropicalia in Washington, DC on Sunday, January 17. For tickets, please click here.