‘Music should be a bridge’

‘Music should be a bridge’

Jewish country singer Joe Buchanan is this weekend’s artist-in-residence in Summit

Joe Buchanan is at Temple Israel in Memphis. (Zach Dalin)
Joe Buchanan is at Temple Israel in Memphis. (Zach Dalin)

There’s an old Jewish concept called “pintele yid.”

It’s about the spark of Jewishness that’s inside every Jew, no matter how distant, no matter how alienated, no matter how seemingly unconnected that person may be from Jewish life.

It’s often used about Jews by choice, people who are born into non-Jewish families but who feel a pull toward Judaism that is so strong that they forsake the religion of their birth to join the Jewish people.

It’s a powerful concept; sometimes it’s seen as sentimental but more often revelatory of a deep truth.

Joe Buchanan, a Jew by choice whose connection to Judaism is soul deep although he not born a Jew — and who will be the artist in residence at Ohr Shalom in Summit this weekend (see box) — isn’t entirely comfortable with that concept.

“Someone told me one time that you can’t say that you are a convert, because that’s like you weren’t always Jewish,” Mr. Buchanan said (or maybe more correctly drawled, because he is a Texan, and you can hear it). “And I was like, ‘Well, I wasn’t.’ He said, ‘Well, your soul always was Jewish’” — that’s the pintele yid — “and I said, ‘Well, that’s a great idea, but I want to remember not being Jewish, because that way I can appreciate being Jewish so much more.’”

To talk to Mr. Buchanan is to hear how deeply he appreciates being Jewish.

Mr. Buchanan also is a musician. He’s Jewish, and many of his lyrics make that entirely clear, but his music does not. He merges Jewishness and the country music that have been part of his life since he was a child. Now he’s a full-time musician. A full-time Jewish musician.

Joe Buchanan at a bar in Texas. (Melanie Grizzel)

To say that’s a surprising path is to understate.

Mr. Buchanan was born in 1976. “My family had a ranch in south Texas, outside Houston, so I spent most of my youth either on the ranch or in town,” he said. The ranch wasn’t a farming concern — “I’ve probably eaten more cattle than I ever herded,” he said — but it was big. “My grandfather had a crazy amount of property, with white-tailed deer and bobcats, and the only airstrip for miles.

“It was a great way to grow up.”

Until he was 6, he lived on the ranch with his grandfather, who “ran a trucking business out of Texas City,” Mr. Buchanan said. He was nominally Christian, but “religion was a very vague thing in my grandfather’s house. I believed in God, and my grandfather taught me that we can see God in the world, we can see God in people, and we know that God wants us to be good in the world.

“I very much believed in the idea of a creator.”

Mr. Buchanan was a seeker for as long as he can remember. “Like kids do, I got curious,” he said. “I looked for answers. But wherever I went to look for answers, there seemed to be something wrong with me. But the idea that if I died without accepting a personal savior I’d go to hell didn’t make sense to me. Why would I be eternally punished? But whenever I’d ask questions, I’d be told that my faith wasn’t strong.”

Did he belong to a church? “I went to many churches,” he said, but he never felt at home at any of them. But he was okay with that. “I thought that it was between God and me, and that I would figure it out.”

It’s not as if he thought that really he was Jewish. “Although when I wasn’t on the ranch when I was growing up I was in Houston, and the largest Conservative synagogue in the country, Beth Yeshurun, is in Houston, I never met a Jewish person that I knew of. I never saw a kippah or a star of David or a synagogue. The synagogues aren’t on the highway; they’re in neighborhoods.

Joe Buchanan, singer Abby Strauss, and friends at a shul concert in St. Louis. (Zach Dalin)

“I never heard about Jews.”

On the other hand, Mr. Buchanan said, “There was no anti-Semitism. I never heard anything anti-Semitic. Jews just were not talked about.”

So there he was, Mr. Buchanan said, a 20-year-old working in a gaming store in Houston — “I didn’t go to college because it wasn’t something that we could afford and we didn’t qualify for scholarships; I tried but I couldn’t” — “and I had my guitar with me, because we didn’t have a lot of customers.

“And a lady walked in, her name is April, and I just lost my mind.

“I believe in love at first sight, because it happened to me.”

April Mitchell and Joe Buchanan got married “really fast,” Mr. Buchanan said. “That happens really fast when you’re having all these conversations, and she’s also your best friend.” That was in 1999.

Soon their son, Nathan, was born.

April grew up without much religion. “I said that I want to go back to church and figure out God, and April said ‘I’ll go with you, but I’m not really into it.’ And she went with me. But she wouldn’t say the prayers or sing the hymns, and I didn’t understand why. And finally we stopped going, because I didn’t want to do it alone.

The little cowboy Joe with his grandfather, Paul Malone. “I loved that man so much that I still buy Old Spice because it reminds me of him,” Joe said.

“Fast forward 13 years into our marriage,” Mr. Buchanan said. “We are standing outside the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., and she looks at me, and said, ‘I want to get in touch with my people’s faith.’

“And I said ‘WHAT??” ‘And she said, ‘I was born Jewish. Joe, my mom’s Jewish, and that means that I’m Jewish.’

“I had no idea.”

To be clear, Joe did know that April’s mother was a Brooklyn-born Jew, and her father was a Southern Baptist from Texas, but he had no idea that halacha makes clear that Jewishness descends through the maternal line, and that all children of a halachically Jewish mother are Jewish. That means that not only was April Jewish, but Nathan was too.

“It’s not as if I didn’t know that her family was Jewish,” Mr. Buchanan said. “Our first date was at a Jewish wedding in her family.”

He also knew that April’s mother had given her a star of David necklace, which she prized. “But I thought she treasured it just to be supportive of her mother,” he said. “When she was young, April’s mother gave it to her and said, ‘This is your history. I don’t know a lot about it.’”

All that background had laid dormant for some time — all of her lifetime, really — “but the museum really shakes you to your core,” Mr. Buchanan said. “We were standing there, stunned, and then something clicked with her.”

And with him.

Nathan and Joe Buchanan as Nathan’s parents, Joe and April, celebrate the 18th anniversary of their civil wedding with a Jewish ceremony. (Steven Irwin Jr.)

All together, the family, including 12-year-old Nathan, decided to learn more. They started with online research, and eventually they decided to take it further.

“So we find a rabbi,” Mr. Buchanan said. “We walked in, and I introduced us, and I said, ‘They’re Jewish, and I’m not,’ and the rabbi” — Stuart Federow, who heads the Conservative Congregation Shaar Hashalom in Houston — “said, ‘Do you want me to explain Judaism to you?’

“I said, ‘That would be great,’ and he said, ‘All right.’

“It’s almost as if he knew the stuff that was on my mind, and in my heart. He looked at me and said, ‘There is one God. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. You are loved by your creator, just like this. You don’t have to be Jewish.’

“I was in tears.

“‘Your soul does go back to God after you die, but this life is the gift you have, and you have to live it,’” Rabbi Federow told the Buchanans.

“And he said, ‘You do good because it brings more good into the world. You don’t do good for some reward, or for fear of punishment, but because all the good in the world is the reward.’

“It was like 30 years of therapy, all at once.”

Joe and April Buchanan become b’nai mitzvah together in Congregation Ner Tamid in Las Vegas.

The rabbi proposed classes in Judaism.

“And I said, ‘I want to do this,’ and April said, ‘Me too.’ And I looked at my son, and I said, ‘You don’t have to go through these classes with me. You’re already Jewish.’ And he said ‘I want to.’”

“They went to classes with me.”

That culminated in his conversion in 2013.

“As we started going through the process, I started writing music to help me understand what I was learning,” Mr. Buchanan said. “There are so many misconceptions about what’s in the Bible, and it was like, ‘Wait a minute. Judaism doesn’t believe this.’ There are so many healing messages in our tradition. There is so much that is empowering.

“So I started writing Jewish music, and started getting hired to perform, and then a friend of mine, Saul Kaye,” who is a pioneering force in the world of Jewish blues, “said, ‘I want to make your album and tell your story.’”

Until then, Mr. Buchanan said, “I was not a professional musician.”

He’d worked in human resources; later, he home-schooled his son, who now is in college. “I was a hobbyist,” he said. “I hadn’t picked up a guitar in a long time, because I felt that I had nothing to write about. I just wrote songs for my own amusement.

Joe Buchanan and a soldier are in Fort Benning, Georgia, where Joe led a service.

“But with Judaism, I had a purpose and a mission.

“For six years, I’ve been a full-time professional touring musician. Before the pandemic, I was on the road about three weekends a month.” Often, his work includes leading Shabbat services. “I do an Americana-style Friday night service,” he said. I do concerts and Havdalah. I also hold workshops on conversion, and what it means, and how we can welcome converts.”

“It sounds like I’ve lived two different lives.”

His music combines those lives.

“Early on, I had no concept of what Jewish music was supposed to be,” he said. “I grew up on classic country and classic rock. I am glad that initially I didn’t know about Jewish music, because I have formed my own school of musical thought.”

He mixes the traditions, “starting off with the idea that my wife helped me develop that I am going to be concerned with being sensitive and honoring the tradition, but I will not be so concerned with how it is being perceived.

“I am being authentic. I don’t care so much how it is received. We have played in bars, and in South by Southwest,” the music festival in Austin. “I play the same music in bars. Once, I had a guy come up to me in a bar and say, ‘Is that Hebrew that I heard you sing?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘I’m Jewish.’ And I said, ‘You don’t have to whisper it.’

“Outside the Jewish community, people don’t really know what we believe or what we’re about. I have lived in both worlds, and I feel it is my responsibility to communicate who we are in ways that are approachable.”

Joe Buchanan and Abbie Strauss perform together on a Florida beach. (Lila Photo)

He’s taken inspiration and wisdom from many parts of the Jewish world. “April and I do Torah study with different people,” he said. “I am a fan of the saying ‘Who is wise? Someone who learns from everyone.’ I will read a lot, and then ask what it means.” And a result, his thinking “is all over the place,” he said.

“Judaism saved my life,” he continued. “I used to feel like a stranger, wherever I was. Now I feel like I am sharing a lifetime with people I have never met, and I am doing some good.

“Ideally, music should be a bridge,” he said. “It should never be a wall. When I write, I try to think about how there can be a message for the Jewish community and also for people who aren’t Jewish. Live a great life. You are whole. You are stronger than you know. These messages are universal.

“I think it’s important that everyone take a minute to remind themselves that they are crucial, that they matter to the world, and that we all need each other.”

Janet Roth is the cantor at Congregation Ohr Shalom in Summit. She’s been there since 1991; since 1992, she’s run a program, Artist-in-Residence Shabbat, that has allowed her to bring extraordinary Jewish musicians to the shul not only for Shabbat but the rest of the weekend as well. Last year, the whole thing was online, with only Cantor Roth, the shul’s rabbi, Avi Friedman, and the performer, Rabbi Yosef Goldman.

This year, it will be both streamed and gloriously in person.

“I always have a short list of people in my head for this program,” Cantor Roth said; they have to be both wonderful musicians and a good fit for the time. “Joe was at the top of that list this year. When I think of Joe, a warm smile envelops me, because Joe makes you feel warm and happy.

“Particularly during the pandemic, Joe is bringing light into the darkness.”

The artist-in-residence program is supported not by a budget but by “extraordinary congregants,” Cantor Roth said. “And Avi Friedman supports me, and supports the whole endeavor, so we’re really able to experience what each year’s musician brings to us.

“I don’t want the musicians to have to tiptoe around. I want them to be able to express their musicality, their spirituality, and their textuality. I want us all to be able to sit back and drink it in.”

The weekend includes a post-Shabbat, pre-performance dinner, Cantor Roth said; this year, as befits Mr. Buchanan’s Texas background and Jewish cowboy persona, “we’ll bring barbecue from Dougie’s,” the kosher barbecue restaurant in Teaneck.

Who: Jewish country musician Joe Buchanan

What: Will be the artist-in-residence at Congregation Ohr Shalom/Summit Jewish Community Center in Summit

When: This weekend, December 10-11; the full schedule, which includes Friday night and Shabbat morning services as well as a cocktail hour and concert after Havdalah, is on the shul’s website, summitjcc.org

How much: The post-Shabbat evening program is $36 for adults; $18 for students. Services are free. Proof of vaccination is necessary for the indoor in-person parts of the weekend.

To learn more: Go to summitjcc.org.

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