‘It’s part of the Jewish story’

‘It’s part of the Jewish story’

Montclair-based Nefesh Mountain’s founders talk about how they fuse bluegrass and Jewish spirituality

On so many levels, the base of Nefesh Mountain is a love story.

It’s about the love its two founders, Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, have for each other, for Jewish music, for American music, in its many variations, for the deep traditions that nourish the music they love, and for the hope that binds them all together.

It’s about combining two and making one.

And they’re local! They live in Montclair!

Theirs is a very Jewish, a very American, and in some ways a very New Jersey story.

Nefesh Mountain released a new album, “Songs for the Sparrows,” this summer, and the band — Doni, Eric, and three other musicians, Alan Grubner, David Goldenberg, and Max Johnson — have begun to tour again, and will be at SOPAC in South Orange in December, if the pandemic allows. (See box.) So Doni and Eric are telling their story, about serendipitous meetings and long study and deeply buried feelings, now.

Both Doni and Eric were born in New York; Doni grew up in Philadelphia and Eric in Brooklyn, they said. “We met randomly in New Jersey, started working together as friends and partners, and then we fell in love, and became this beautiful family. Doni already had two teenage children, Millie and Xander, from an earlier marriage; together, Doni and Eric have an infant named Willow.

“This love story is at the core of our music, and that’s why I talk about it like this,” Eric said. “We are the most lucky people to have found each other.

“Doni brought a pride in Jewish arts, culture, and spirituality to the table that I have had my whole life too, but I wasn’t really in touch with.”

Doni is well known in north Jersey as Mama Doni — her name is pronounced Dona, so it rhymes. For years, she toured both locally and more broadly, globally really, as a children’s musician. She has won the Parents Choice award three times, as well as the Simcha award from the International Jewish Music Festival in the Netherlands. In fact, “the first story ever written about me was in the New Jersey Jewish News,” Doni said.

Doni’s background is in musical theater; she studied, among other places, at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she focused on both musical and educational theater. She began performing children’s music when her own children were small, but “now they’re taller than I am,” she said, and she’s moved to making music primarily for adults (although there are no firm boundaries between children and adults in music, or in any art). “As an artist, you grow,” she said. “You evolve.”

Eric, who had played music his entire life, went to the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers.

He plays guitar — has since he was a kid — but he’s played the banjo for only about eight years, he said. “I also want to pick up the mandolin and the dobro, but the banjo is the one that grabbed me. I’ve wanted to play it my whole life.”

From left, Alan Gubner, Eric Lindberg, Doni Zasloff, Max Johnson, and David Goldenberg are Nefesh Mountain.

The impetus for actually picking up a banjo and learning to play it came from seeing one of his heroes, Bela Fleck, perform in a solo show in San Francisco. “I had always wanted a banjo, and the next day I bought one,” Eric said. “Bela paved a way to play bluegrass. He is not from the South, and he plays unbelievably great bluegrass and he also plays jazz.

“He’s blown open the world of the banjo, and he was the catalyst for me.”

Like Eric and Doni, Bela Fleck is Jewish; unlike them, he does not play overtly Jewish bluegrass. So they took what they learned from him, and they changed it. They made it their own.

When Doni and Eric started playing together, “we realized that we both love the old-time American sound; bluegrass, country music, blues, even jazz,” Eric said. “We started writing songs, and what came out were these Appalachian-inspired, Jewish-themed songs.

“That was about six or seven years ago. We started writing these songs then, and since then we’ve been delving further and further into what it means. American music often has been spiritual, and usually that spirituality is Christian. Gospel is the bedrock of American music. We are adding our Jewish sensibilities. That’s the basis of this band.

“On a macro level, we are really interested in how does it feel, what does it mean to be Jewish and American at the same time. We happen to live in very hard times — ‘interesting’ would be a very mild word to use about these times — it is a crazy time.

“With the rise in anti-Semitism, what does it mean to be Jewish? Are we Jewish just because we go to services? Is it only about our religious faith? We think it’s more than that. It’s also about our history, our heritage, the food we eat, the jokes we make, the folktales we tell. All that stuff is part of what makes us Jewish, that doesn’t have to do with God or shul. We go to shul” — the family belongs to two local synagogues, Bnai Keshet in Montclair and Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield — “but we are trying to be larger. We are trying to think culturally, about how we connect these two parts of ourselves, the American — the music and history of our culture — and at the same time be Jewish and make music about our Jewish identity.

“That is who we are. Our music is a mashup of those identities. It sounds like a joke, but it is who we are.

“We are leaning into these two sides of ourselves.”

It’s easy to show that you’re American, but in many parts of the country, the duo, who toured nearly constantly until covid shut that down, found that it’s not so easy to be openly Jewish. “A lot of Jews try to keep their Jewish sides inside their Jewish community. We are trying to live all of it openly.

“The Jewish part and the American part, the bluegrass, it all mixes together and talks to each other.”

Since the couple began writing and performing their Jewish-themed bluegrass, “we have just been bowled over by how many people are responding to it,” Eric said. “When you’re Jewish in New Jersey, like us, we take it for granted that there are Jews all around. There are so many synagogues and other places to express yourself as Jewish. You don’t feel like an outsider. But then you go down to Texas, or to Alabama, or to many other places in South, and we’ve met so many Jews there who are the only Jews for miles. They don’t know where to send their kids to learn to be Jewish.

“And this music makes them proud.”

“What is so magical about this project — and when I say project, I know it’s not the right word, because this is our baby, our mission, our life — when we first started writing and playing this music, we were playing for synagogues and Jewish audiences, and the first challenge was to bring the banjo and the style into synagogues,” Dani said. Yes, many synagogues, particularly Reform ones, were very used to guitars, but “the banjo isn’t the same as the guitar,” she said. It’s a very different, much more specific cultural signifier. “We had to share this beautiful style of music with the Jewish world, and it was new and different. That was a hurdle.”

But it’s one that they overcame. “After synagogue shows, so many Jews have come up to us and said ‘I didn’t think I’d like bluegrass. I thought it would be shticky, or like the ‘Beverly Hillbillies.’” But it’s not.

“What happened was that after the initial hurdle, we were able to bring bluegrass into the Jewish community,” Dani continued. “And then we started being invited to play for different audiences, at bluegrass festivals and all kinds of different venues. And then it was our honor and our challenge to share our Jewish love and spirit with the bluegrass world.

“For the most part, the response we have been getting is love and gratitude. Some people tell us that they are so grateful for another Jewish person to talk to, and others say that they had never met a Jewish person before.

“And we’re like hippies, full of peace and love.

“It feels like an incredible mission, for us to put our truth out, to stay authentic, to put love out. We are not preaching anything. We are not trying to convert anyone. We are not politicians. We are not making any kind of statement. We are about love and hope. We believe that music can be a bridge to connect humanity.”

Their approach to music — using what’s around them and making it Jewish by making it theirs — is a traditional Jewish approach, Eric said. It’s how klezmer was born, as traditional Jewish and traditional eastern European sounds melded and made something sort of old, sort of new, and how it’s continued to add as it moved to America.

Neshama Mountain’s sound “shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows, because it’s part of the Jewish story,” he said. “If you are Jewish, part of your identity is from wandering nomads. We’re part of the diaspora, forced to make camp wherever we landed. I don’t consider our music to be assimilation. Jews have had roots in America since the 1600s. We’ve been living here that long.

“Our music is a product of us being Jewish Americans.”

“We try really hard to respect and honor the tradition of the bluegrass genre, as well as being influenced by folk and jazz,” Dani said. “We try to respect the music itself, and to take care of it, and to honor it. And at the same time, we are trying to respect and honor the tradition of our Jewish heritage, with love and with care.”

As they research the history of bluegrass, they’ve learned some upsetting things, Eric said. Although it’s thought of as rural white Southern music, “America’s checkered past comes through in the music. There’s blood and sweat and tears and hardship and discrimination in the music. It’s a crazy mix of Scots-Irish fiddle tunes; the banjo comes from Africa.”

It’s not news that the banjo came from Africa along with the people who were taken across the Atlantic and sold into slavery, he said, but there might be a twist, even if it’s largely folkloric. “Pete Seeger said that the banjo got to Africa on the ancient trade route from Mesopotamia.” Unlike the banjo’s trip from Africa to North America, which is history, the idea that it can trace back to the cradle of Jewish civilization is myth, and perhaps wishful thinking, but if it were true, “we’d have come full circle,” Eric said.

The fact that bluegrass came in part from enslaved people rarely is emphasized, he said. But it shouldn’t be a surprise.

“That mix has formed so much of American music,” he said. “This is a melting pot, and it always has been.”

And it’s not surprising at all that musicians use older forms in their own work, he added. In Nefesh Mountain, “we note that we are adopting and adapting other music. Other people also have adopted it. There are all sorts of ways to play American music. We are using a new way, that does have humble, beautiful, and tragic beginnings, and we don’t want you to think that we are ignoring it.

“Every form of music borrows from others,” he said. “The best European classical composers did. Bach and Brahms borrowed from other composers. This is organic.”

Bluegrass, with its mix of the mournful and the joyous, is a natural sound for Jewish musicians, Doni and Eric said. “There is something about that style of music, with its pain and joy, that reflects so much of Jewish history,” Doni added. “I feel that very strongly in my Jewish soul. We Jews have so much soul.

“You feel it in klezmer music too, a mix of sadness and a crazy ruach. I think that’s part of the chemistry we have with Jewish feeling and spirituality and bluegrass music. It just clicks. You mix it together, and it feels great.”

Who: Nefesh Mountain

What: Will perform a Chanukah concert at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, 1 Sopac Way in South Orange

When: On Thursday, December 2, at 7:30 p.m.

How much: $23 to $33

For more information and tickets: Call (973) 313-2787, email boxoffice@SOPACnow.org, or go to www.sopacnow.org/events/nefesh-mountain.

And also: Nefesh Mountain’s new album, “Songs for the Sparrows,” is widely available.