Zeh: This is now
An Interview with Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit, singer-songwriter
Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit was part of the original residential community at Elat Chayyim in Accord, NY, a member of the first ADAMAH Fellowship at Isabella Freedman and an integral part of our staff for many years. Today, Shir Yaakov lives with his fiancée Emily in Brooklyn, NY, where he writes and records music. He talked to us about his new album Zeh, his time with Reb Zalman and the difference between receiving and composing.
Isabella Freedman: How has your involvement with Isabella Freedman influenced you as an artist?
Shir Yaakov: Living at Elat Chayyim and Isabella Freedman gave me an opportunity to meet so many amazing people affiliated with renewal and all streams of Judaism, including some of my closest friends and greatest teachers. Living at the Center, I had an opportunity to experience Shabbat and the holidays and be inspired by nature and the programs that go on there.
I recently had a chance to be with Reb Zalman for Shavuot—what an honor! It was a delight to be with so many new retreatants, alongside the familiar faces from “the old country” Elat Chayyim and many members of Romemu. We had such a sweet, joyous time together. Reb Zalman is a treasure—anyone who has the opportunity to learn from this luminary should do so! He said he would try to return to IF for Shavuot next year; I bet it will sell out again. Reb Eve Ilsen offered so much light and love, and Reb Marcia and Cantor Jack blew everyone away. Rabbi David Ingber was on fire and I'm glad word is spreading about Romemu, NYC's only full-time Renewal Congregation. Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger's shiur (teaching) at the tikkun (all-night study) was deep and holy. I couldn't name all the people who made this Shavuot what it was; everyone contributed something so powerful and special. The Community Offerings Open Mic on Wednesday was so much fun! I could go on…
IF: Tell us about your new album. Zeh is an interesting title. Literally it means “this,” but it's a little ambiguous. “This” what?
SY: Zeh is one of these fabulous two letter words that appear in the Bible, and like other prepositions, is often skipped over. Small words are very, very powerful. For example, there's a huge difference between saying “yes, and” versus “no, but.”
I was actually first influenced by the power of two-letter album titles by Peter Gabriel who had back-to-back releases of So and Us. I loved that. “So” is just “so,” and “us” is such a powerful concept. Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation) talks about how entire buildings, spiritual domains or arenas can be defined, at minimum, by two-letter combinations in the Hebrew alphabet.
I hope Zeh is the first in a series of albums that are named after two-letter Hebrew words. I chose the word zeh, meaning “this,” because it appears in two of the songs on the album: “Yedid Nefesh,” where it says Ki Zeh Kama Nichsof Nichsafti—“because this is what I have so yearned for.” I have yearned for this; my yearning has always been for what I am experiencing in this moment, which could even be yearning for yearning itself.
And the last song on the album, “Zeh Shir Shevach,” says “This is a song of praise for the seventh day,” Shabbat. The Sabbath, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, is a sanctuary in time. We're so attuned to the objects of space during the work week; the Sabbath is a time for time. This can certainly be a space-bound word—this or that—but perhaps zeh is a synonym for the consciousness that we are seeking to attain on Shabbat, that whatever is now, is now.
IF: You dedicate your song “Yonati” to the “restoration of the voices of the oppressed.”
SY: The text of "Yonati" comes from Song of Songs 2:14 and the word yonati means “my dove” or “my bird.” The verse continues, “Yonati be'chagvei ha'selah… My bird in the cleft of the rock on the hidden heights. Let me see your appearance. Let me hear your voice because your voice is beautiful…”
The Song of Songs is the great love song of the Jewish canon. It has been read as a metaphor for the relationship of both Israel to God and the Soul to the Body. So here, “the dove” is the metaphor for the soul or the people of Israel, and the cleft of the rock could be the constraints and turmoil of history, the pain and challenge of the body or simply the practicalities of life. The “cleft of the rock on the hidden heights” are the places we get stuck. That bird that seeks protection is a people that finds itself lost among the throngs; they need to be called to, called on, called forth. So singing to the bird of the soul “you're beautiful and your voice is important,” is a really deep and poetic image.
Song of Songs in general, and this line in particular, is one of the few places that the Hebrew bible speaks to and from the female. The voices of women are woefully absent from a lot of the explicit, revealed, esoteric texts. I sing this song with the extremely talented Aviva Chernick. I wanted this to be a duet with a woman where the woman's voice is clear and up front. Hopefully, this song, my rabbinate and my life in general will move toward partnership and equality. I dedicated this song to what I call the “voices of the oppressed,” in order to acknowledge and sanctify places that are too long hidden with the deep hope that they be revealed.
IF: Speaking of women and music, what do you think about the first annual Jewish Women's Music Festival this coming August 2–8?
SY: I'm thrilled with the prospects of this festival! Perhaps this will become a long-standing, highly anticipated event … like a Jewish Lilith Fair. I'm a huge fan of Chana Rothman and I'm excited to see what she does with the festival.
IF: Your release of Zeh is accompanied by a songbook—a very inclusive gesture to your fans, by the way. In your songbook you say where and when you received or composed different melodies. What's the difference for you between receiving and composing? Are those two words the same thing for you?
SY: No, they're quite different. The word kabbalah means “to receive” and I believe that's why I use that word. My experience for some of these melodies seems to come from a place that is not my conscious mind. A melody comes fully formed, you know, almost in its entirety and it feels like my job is to catch it or clothe it. Most of the time melodies precede text for me, and very often I basically just grab the nearest text, either physically or nearest in proximity to the season or lifecycle I'm in, and see if it's a suitable garment for the melody. The melody in “Lecha Dodi 3 (Sos Tasis)” came to me at a friend's wedding and so the closest text happened to be one of the traditional blessings that is said at a wedding. The glove fit the hand of the melody kind of perfectly.
Another example of receiving a melody happens when I might be praying from the text and literally be stopped—not be able to proceed with reading. I notice that if I stop there and wait, there often does seem to be a new melody that comes at that moment. So certain melodies, in that sense, I call ‘received.’
Other ones are compositions where I'm just struck by the beauty of a passage or the necessity of a new melody, mode or approach to a text that may or may not already have melody; there, composition is more of a direct, artistic engagement with my intention and my ego, my sense of self. “I am going to compose something for this text,” a desire to create. Receiving, on the other hand, can come while I'm driving or showering or walking down the street, and I don't seem to have much to do with that process.
IF: Do you have favorite texts that inspire you? That you might go to when you are stuck or that evoke a certain response from you?
SY: The psalms are incredibly poetic, melodic, spiritual and enchanting. I'm not the only one that turns to the psalms. They comprise most of our liturgy. They are used at times of difficult transition and during times of loss, mourning or remembrance. So the psalms are kind of a trusty storehouse of inspiration that speak in a beautifully human perspective on the divine.
IF: Are all of your songs prayers?
SY: Hmm. That gets into the question of “what is prayer?” Even the word in Hebrew, tefilah, is multi-faceted. I guess in the sense that prayer can be praise, I would say the majority of my songs are prayer. In the sense that prayer could be supplication or an expression of desire, I would say that most of my songs are prayer. I might not be singing from where I am, but rather from where I wish to be. I think a lot of the biblical texts express a sublime reality that's often far from what we experience. Prayer is to attain a new insight, to achieve the perfection that's not yet explicit but is certainly implicit in all of creation. Really, if we slow down and look at a single leaf or blade of grass there is nothing but perfection. It's often in speeding through, or taking incomplete but large views that we get confused. So a lot of my music is, for me, to slow me down, to center me. Just the simple act of song, of singing, which requires deep breaths, controlled aspiration and articulation—that is, if anything, the best definition of prayer for me: breathing consciously and articulating a vision for myself and for those I love that surround me.
IF: What's your next project going to be?
SY: Another ADAMAH alumnus and former IF staff member, Eden "Eprhyme" Pearlstein and I collaborate through Darshan, our worldhop duo. We have another EP coming out soon that we're very excited about.
In terms of my solo work, I think my next album's gonna be called Az, another two-letter Hebrew word, meaning "then." It’s spelled aleph-zayin. In English this has a beautiful double play, A and Z being the alpha and the omega so to speak, the beginning and the end. While Zayin is not the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Az definitely points to the future. It means "then" and it often refers to the world that comes, a messianic vision of how it will be for all of us when all of the pieces come toether.
Zeh is an album of Friday night music, for Shabbat; and the Zayin of Zeh has a numerical equivalent of the number 7. So that connects it with Shabbat, the seventh day. The gematria, or the numeric value of Az, Aleph+Zayin is 8. So 8 is seen as the next octave. Eight is seen as the perfection of creation; whereas we live in a cycle of time that's mysteriously connected with the number 7, 8 is the next level, somehow new and somehow ancient.
IF: While we're enjoying your current project, we will look forward to your next one!
SY: Great. Me too.
Download Zeh and order the accompanying songbook. For more information about Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit, check out this recent Israel National Radio interview or visit www.shiryaakov.com.
Eden "Eprhyme" Pearlstein and Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit at a Darshan performance.