A Peek into the Personal Life of Singer Yonatan Razel (10-Minute Nachlaot Video)
Over the past year and a half, I have often thought of fleeing from this crazy neighborhood. But again and again I have reminded myself of the wonderful things that I couldn’t bear to leave behind– my chevre of colorful, spiritual-seeking JewishMOM buddies, the inspirational Charedi moms I love and admire so much, the Shuk that never fails to cheer me up from the blaah-est mood, my blessed, beautiful home where my family has grown bigger and grown up. And, of course, I wouldn’t want to leave behind the Razels, my learning partner Efrat and my old friend Safta Carol and this whole vibrant and faith-filled clan who, in my eyes, provide a personal example of just how tight, strong, and supportive a family can be.
I adored this interview with singer Yonatan Razel, not only because I am so thrilled that he and his amazing music are getting so much exposure, but also because it provides you non-Nachlaoters with a peek into what it’s like to live in this unique, magical (and crazy) neighborhood.
Newscaster: In his Jerusalem kollel he explains the Gemara in Yiddish, but his songs are heard again and again on the secular radio stations. Yonatan Razel, one of the most surprising stars of Israeli music today: Charedi, a family man, born in New York, studied classical music, who creates music that is a mixture of all the places he comes from. This article is by Ruti Shiloni.
Yonatan: What song should we sing?
Moishy (his 2-year-old son): Katonti!
Yonatan and Moishy sing: “I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have granted Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.”
Y: Music is all the words together, without a single word. You can write something, and every person can take it to his own place. And something about the song “Katonti” is that I felt suddenly that I am singing a verse but, wow, I can connect to it on the simplest personal level. I don’t need to be religious to do this…I have become small from all the kindnesses. I feel this, gratitude for the smallest things in my life, for the cup of morning coffee… I see this as a kind of mission, to be a kind of translator of cultures.
Narrator (Ruti Shiloni): Every morning you can find him here, at the yeshiva. Or, as Yonatan says, “at the Koilel.” Cut off from the world, learning Torah with his friends, the yeshiva students, who have no idea that his song “Katonti” is being played constantly on the secular radio stations.
Y: My profession is “yeshiva student.” My Torah is my profession. Learning Torah is something that is very, very difficult to grasp if someone has never experienced it. I think that…I’m going to say something a bit pompous, but…learning Torah is the closest contact you can have with God in this world.
Somehow, I’m trying to integrate between two things: one of them is truly the Torah and family and life as a Jewish person, and one of them is my life as an artist.
Narrator: His life as a creative artist began in the Jerusalem alleyways of Nachlaot, where he lives to this day with his wife and four children, next door to his parents and siblings.
Y: (Laughing in front of his parents’ front door) There are people who return to the door of the home where they grew up after 50 years. But I see this door nearly every day, it’s not such a big event for me.
Narrator: When he was a child, both of his parents became religious along with the rest of the family. They left the secular life behind them, but not the music.
Y: I was a very, very spiritual child. I remember that. It wasn’t just something that came from my parents. At a very young age this had already become something that was a part of me.
Narrator: The family’s return to religion also took place in the alleyways of Nachlaot, in a Persian synagogue next to his parents’ home.
Y: (Tries to enter his childhood synagogue, but it’s locked. He runs to get the key from a neighbor’s house). “Mazal! How are you? Could you please give me the key to the synagogue?”
Y: Is there any another neighborhood where you can get the key to the synagogue from the neighbors? What do you say?
Y: (Sitting in the synagogue) The Divine Presence is really here. It’s a little synagogue in an alley, but…it has a lot of power.
Y: The thing that made a permanent impression on me took place when I was becoming religious; the decision was made to send me to the Music Academy’s high school. This is a school that is as far from religion as they come. I was the only religious person in the entire school. And my attempt to unify these two things [the religious and secular worlds], and with some success, although with quite a bit of suffering…I feel this created the person I am.
Narrator: He’s always walking between two worlds, so it was clear to him that he would join the Army. He served in the IDF band and then studied composition at the Music Academy, going back and forth not only between holy and secular, but also between classical and modern music. 5 years ago he released his first album which went gold. Fulfilling the rabbis’ instructions not to completely erase his previous life, but rather to take from it what he was good at.
Y: You could take that complexity, that we’re half-secular, with a pinch of religion. And to take all that, and create a melody out of it. Make a song out of it.
Narrator: Over recent years, he’s been busy with his new album “Between the Sounds” which was produced by Evyatar Banai. In the album, there are verses from the sources as well as “secular” songs.
2 years ago, on Independence Day everything stopped. That evening, he stood on the roof of his house with his 4-year-old daughter Rivki to watch fireworks. Suddenly, Rivki fell from the roof. She was injured seriously, and for weeks she lay unconscious. After a long rehabilitation, today Rivki is a regular 7-year-old.
Y: It’s like they took your soul and stood you up, boom, to see all of life, in its essence… And then it was like God turned to me directly. It was painful, but He said to me….these are things that are just between me and Hashem, and my wife. But they shook me up, and I learned what it means to hope, and what it means to pray, and what it means to cry. Again, it’s still very painful.
Narrator: What surrounded him during that period was his family. From the pain next to Rivki’s bed was born a song of thanksgiving that his brother, Aaron, sings with him on the new album.
Y: Aaron got up at 5 in the morning to pray, and he left a note on my bed. And I still have it. It said, “Have you prepared yourself for the miracle that Hashem is going to do for you today?” That was one of the hardest days of all, but I remember that as a turning point. I said, “From now on, I’m going to expect good.” Sometimes you need a brother or a father or a mother who will give you that shoulder.
Aaron: With love.
Y: I know.
Narrator: In the Razel home there was always music. All day all the children would practice piano, violin, flute, drums, and cello. They weren’t called the “Jackson Family” of the religious world for nothing.
Yonatan’s father, Professor Micha Razel: Music is a lot of things…My wife has a very full musical world. And she passed on her love of music to the children.
Yonatan’s Mother, Professor Carol Razel: They grew up on the music of the 60s. The Beatles, Bob Dylan. Even before that there was a bit of Elvis. Frank Sinatra. Paul Anka.
Yonatan’s Father: Yonatan still shares his songs with us, and also Aaron. Every time they bring us the drafts of the songs. Sometimes we have a word of criticism too…We enjoy their songs.
Yonatan: I feel that my ability to communicate also with the world around us, whether through music or on a human level, is good for all sides. You even feel…that this is what God wants from me.