The three members of Zusha were raised amid varying flavors of Jewish culture. But call Zusha a “Jewish band,” and the musicians will balk at the label.
“We don’t want to be a Jewish band that stays in the world of Jewish music,” singer Shlomo Ari Gaisin, 23, told The Huffington Post while sipping a beer at a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Percussionist Elisha Mlotek agreed, telling HuffPost over the phone, “The music is deeper than religion. It’s deeper than a faith. I’m Jewish, but I’m a person. Let’s start from there.”
Gaisin wears a yarmulke, a beard and payot -- the iconic curls Hasidic men commonly sport. Mlotek, 24, and guitarist Zachariah Goldshmiedt, 22, both now keep their hair short but also wear yarmulkes. On the band’s website, they refer to themselves as “three neo-Hasidic dudes with less passion for college and more passion for music” -- but even that hyphenated coinage, they say, is not an exact fit.
“Personally, I don’t like the term,” Mlotek told HuffPost. “I could see somebody saying ‘neo-Hasidic’ is taking what Hasidic really is and renewing it, whereas you could say what we’re doing is true Hasidism.”
“True Hasidism,” as the band describes it, looks back at the founding of the movement in the 1700s by Rabbi Ba'al Shem Tov, who many say reinvigorated Judaism by teaching simplicity, authenticity and the pursuit of joy. Zusha may shy away from being labeled as a Jewish band, but its message is deeply rooted in these ideals.
“People are seemingly down and missing the joy in Judaism and the joy in life,” Goldshmiedt told HuffPost. “But Hasidic teachings are about being happy, being truthful. We want to reconnect to what it means to be a person, and our music is coming to bring back the raw emotion of what everything is about.”
Just seconds into the band’s self-released, self-titled EP, which comes out on Oct. 28, the “raw emotion” is palpable. There's a quality that Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn, who has mentored the band at his East Village Chabad House, calls “swag” -- a “drop the mic” kind of coolness. Half of the songs on "Zusha" are wordless, though that does not mean voiceless: On those songs, Gaisin can be heard singing repetitive melodies that he said are aimed at reaching something deeper than words can convey.
“It’s all emotion,” Gaisin said. “When you take away the layers of word and go to the level of emotion, it can mean something different for everyone. We want to make music that can be received by anyone.”
The band's single, “Yoel’s Niggun” -- named after niggunim, a form of Jewish vocal music popular in the Hasidic community -- is a perfect example:
“A Hasid is always singing a niggun,” Korn told HuffPost at Chabad House Bowery.
When Gaisin, Goldshmiedt and Mlotek first arrived in his synagogue and shared their music, Korn knew he was hearing something that had both spiritual depth and commercial potential.
“I really feel, in their music, their search for the divine and their deep desire to share the divine,” Korn said.
Each one of the band members has been playing music his whole life. Mlotek’s father is the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre in New York City, and his grandmother was a trained musicologist. He grew up singing onstage, immersed in the tradition of klezmer music.
Gaisin said his parents played classical music to him “in the womb,” and he later studied saxophone and fell in love with the improvisational style of jazz music. Goldshmiedt brings an edgy component to the band with a background in electronic music and a passion for reggae.
Together the musicians create a sound that they describe as both ancient and modern, drawing inspiration from many places. As Mlotek said, “We have one hand reaching back to our roots and one hand reaching forward to new heights.”
According to Jon Stratton, a professor at Curtin University in Bentley, Australia who has studied Jewish-American music, Zusha’s blending of traditions positions the band squarely in a lineage of 20th- and 21st-century Jewish multiculturalism.
“In the diaspora,” Stratton told HuffPost by email, “Jewish culture has always, inevitably, been syncretic, bringing together things identified as Jewish/Judaic with local traditions. From what I have heard [of Zusha’s music] they fit well these developments.”
By incorporating niggunim and other Jewish musical traditions into their sound, said Stratton, the musicians openly pay tribute to their religious culture, which is increasingly merging with local cultures in the diaspora.
“Zusha are part of a new Jewish tradition that affirms Jewish and especially Judaic life in the diaspora while utilizing elements of the local, here American, musical tradition,” Stratton said.
Zusha's multicultural approach may seem incongruous, given the typical image of the cloistered Hasidic Jew. That conservatism has caused many young Hasids in recent years to leave a community they find to be “extreme” and “encapsulated."
“Most of the Jewish institutions are having a hard time relating to young Jews," said Mlotek. "And in the Hasidic community, people are leaving."
But Korn, whose Chabad House aims to offer a “dynamic” approach to Hasidim, said that in some ways the band is quintessentially Hasidic.
“I would call Zusha ‘Hasidically neo,’” Korn said. “The ideas of Hasidism are timeless, and the band is applying Hasidic thought modernly while maintaining its integrity and maintaining its roots.”
Korn’s organization, which first operated just off the NYU campus before moving to the Bowery, caters to many students and young professionals. Before Zusha ever came into the picture, the rabbi had a reputation for being “zany, weird and fun,” in the words of the popular Jewish rapper Matisyahu, whom Korn once mentored.
Korn said that any given Friday night, as many as 700 people pile into Chabad House for services. The members of Zusha are occasionally among them. That said, none of the bandmates identifies with a single synagogue or tradition. Instead, each man embraces a spirituality that is both religious and deeply individualistic.
“I want to connect with Judaism in my own way,” Gaisin said.
One major avenue for this is music. The singer describes his melodies as being “divinely inspired,” saying they “come down” to him in moments of spiritual connection.
“There are these tunes upstairs that, at the right moment, are given to the downstairs. They’re all heavenly, and only at the right time are they gifted to down below," said Gaisin. "It’s like a download from the heavens."
Such a description might suggest that Zusha’s music is inherently religious -- an assumption that the band, in turn, would likely say is only partly true.
“I don’t think there’s any difference between religion and life,” said Goldshmiedt. If the music is about religion, he went on, it’s only because it’s all about life. And with a musical style that Mlotek calls “infinitely relatable,” the band hopes to nurture a diverse audience.
“Some people might be thrown off that we are Jewish-identified and that the music has Hebrew words,” Mlotek told HuffPost. “But our hope is that the music will be relatable to all because we sing it from a universal place in our hearts.”
The band has played in subway stations, living rooms, synagogues and small venues around New York and in Israel. Time and again at these performances, they said, people of every description stop and listen, sometimes closing their eyes and seeming to enter a trancelike state.
Gaisin even won over a relative who was initially against the “neo-Hasidic” label by introducing him to Zusha’s sound.
“He’s struggled to understand my journey,” Gaisin said, “but I played him some of my music and he was blown away.”
Gaisin tells this story with pride. It speaks to a desire that all three men expressed -- a desire to find a place both inside and outside of the Jewish community. They aren’t rebels in any dramatic sense of the word.
“You don’t have to throw down your yarmulke to relate to everyone,” Mlotek told HuffPost. “You can still be yourself. Our music is trying to bring that message back.”
The band members plan to maintain Jewish customs even as they tour, sell albums and get further exposure. Gaisin is currently studying kosher supervision and raw nutrition, which will help with sticking to a kosher diet on the road. Goldshmiedt and Gaisin said that ultimately these customs will be easier to follow if the band remains committed to its roots.
“My hope is that when our music gets big, we don’t lose our authenticity,” Goldshmiedt said.
To stay mindful of this authenticity, Zusha need look only as far as its namesake. Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli, who served as one of the inspirations for the band’s name, lived during the 18th century and was known for his honesty and humility.
As one iconic narrative from his life goes, Zusha was weeping on his deathbed when one of his disciples asked him, "Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham."
The rabbi responded:
"When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won't ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham?' Rather, they will ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you Zusha?' Why didn't I fulfill my potential? Why didn't I follow the path that could have been mine?"
The regret that comes with not being true to yourself is something the band members seem determined to avoid.
“The biggest struggle in life is to make your ideal what you do in daily life -- the manifestation of your ideal self," said Goldshmiedt. "And the ideal self lives 100 percent for today.”
On Sunday, Oct. 26, Zusha will perform an EP release show at 6:30 p.m. at the Mercury Lounge in New York City.