Israel rocked Avraham as he looked for some meaning


AVRAHAM Rosenblum’s music career has seen him befriend music legend Tom Petty, join a band with Sylvester Stallone’s brother and co-found an Orthodox Jewish rock band.

Now 67 and living in Baltimore, Maryland, Avraham was a member of the Israel-based Diaspora Yeshiva Band from 1975 until 1983.

All yeshiva bochrim, the band infused rock and bluegrass music with Jewish lyrics to create a style of music which was dubbed ‘chassidic rock’.

Avraham first gained an interest in music in his formative years — thanks to The Beatles.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, he was captivated when, in early 1964, The Fab Four made their seminal appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

“Right there and then, I was smitten and decided that was what I wanted to do,” Avraham said.

“I decided to learn the guitar, but, even before then, I was always in school shows, singing and acting — I loved it.”

Despite his appearance today, Avraham grew up in a secular Jewish home with brother Larry.

His parents, Edith and Boris, were both Holocaust survivors, from Vilnius, Lithuania.

Boris’ parents and sisters were murdered, and he became a partisan during the Holocaust.

Edith, together with her parents and sister, were in the Vilnius ghetto and only survived as a non-Jewish friend hid them in the basement of his home as the ghetto was being liquidated by the Nazis.

“We belonged to a Conservative congregation, but I was not a regular Shabbat-goer or anything like that,” Avraham added.

“I think that when you are the child of Holocaust survivors, you have a different outlook on life.

“I think you are tuned a little differently because you are living in the shadow of your parents’ horrible memories.

“Even if I did not know in detail what my parents went through, I always heard, ‘Hitler this’ and ‘the Germans that’.

“It was like growing up with a lot of demons and shadows which you don’t quite understand.”

Avraham formed a couple of bands in his teenage years, including one through friends he met at the local Jewish community centre.

But his career took off when he expanded his horizon by visiting downtown Philadelphia.

“That was where all the cool guys were, I guess,” Avraham laughed. “I was writing my own material by then.

“There was a guy at school called Frank Stallone — Sylvester’s brother. He was my arch nemesis in seventh grade, but we ran into each other in downtown.

“We were both carrying guitar cases, had grown our hair long and were wearing cowboy boots.”

The two formed a band called Valentine, who were popular in the Philadelphia area and later opened for acts such as Chicago, Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy.

Later incarnations of Valentine made it onto the soundtrack of hit film Rocky, written by — and starring — Sylvester Stallone.

Avraham later moved to New York, playing in various bands and living on a rock and roll commune.

But, one day, his life changed. He recalled: “I went through an existential crisis after waking up following a week of partying.

“Something was speaking to me from a place deep inside.”

Deciding to follow some kind of spiritual awakening, Avraham went to Israel, a place he had visited only once previously.

“I actually was due to send some demos to a record label which Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were setting up, but, once I was in Israel, things started to accelerate for me spiritually,” he recalled. “I was looking for meaningfulness.”

Hitch-hiking around Israel, he ended up at the Western Wall, where an Orthodox man asked him if he would like to put on tephillin.

“I had only done that once before, at my barmitzvah,” Avraham added. “When I put them on again and said the Shema, something changed. I decided that I needed to stay in Israel.”

He went to a kibbutz, where he studied Hebrew, and went to study at the Diaspora Yeshiva Toras Yisrael.

It was at the yeshiva — the first outreach yeshuva for baalei teshuva (returnees to Judaism) —that Avraham founded the Diaspora Yeshiva Band.

“There were a lot of guys at the yeshiva who could play fairly proficiently,” he said.

“Perhaps it was because the yeshiva was near David’s Tomb — maybe there was some kind of spiritual magnet!

“We had a Jewish message, but we could really rock, too.”

The band became well known for its weekly Saturday-night concerts held in a room adjacent to David’s Tomb, on Mount Zion.

The gigs attracted American, British and French secular Jews, as well as yeshiva bochrim and Israeli soldiers, making them extremely popular among all sections of the country’s society.

Their first, self-titled album was released in 1976, by which time Avraham had married Gracie, a native of Ontario, Canada.

They have six children and 15 grandchildren.

In 1977, the band was invited to compete in the televised Hasidic Song Festival, which they won, with their song Hu Yiftach Libeinu.

A year later, they won again, this time with Malchutcha.

The band embarked on its first North American concert tour in 1979, visiting 26 cities, and went on to tour Canada, Europe and South Africa, where they were especially popular on college campuses.

“We used our music to reach out to other Jews — that is what we wanted to do,” Avraham explained.

“The rock element came along on it own, but we just wanted to play good music and turn people on to Judaism. We just did our thing and people loved it.

“Each of us brought a different element and influence. Mine was the late 1960 and early 1970s, so music such as Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Band.”

The original Diaspora Yeshiva Band broke up in 1983.

“I had some other interests, while some of the other guys went to Breslov and others stayed in the yeshiva,” Avraham said.

“I needed to take a break from music and went into the restaurant business, which I never should have done, as it haemorrhaged money.”

Avraham, Gracie and their children left Israel in 1990, but, three years before that, he welcomed a very special guest, American music star Tom Petty, who was touring the country with his band, The Heartbreakers.

Avraham showed Petty, who died last month, and Roger McGuinn, of The Byrds, around the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount thanks to his friend, David Erlich.

“David was an associate producer for the MTV special on Bob Dylan,” Avraham recalled.

“He played our music to the production people, who liked it a lot, and it was incorporated into the show.

“Roger wasn’t initially supposed to be there, but, as he was a born-again Christian, when he heard Tom was going to be in Israel, he flew in.

“I guess he was after his own spiritual high.”

Avraham returned to America as his mother was ill and he wanted to be closer to her.

“I thought we would only be back in America for around five years, but it has been almost 28 and we are still here,” he laughed.

“Gracie and I talk about going back to Israel constantly and we would love to spend our retirement there.”

Two years after Avraham returned to America, the band reformed for a month-long reunion tour and again in 1996 with a show in New York City.

Looking back on the Diaspora Band, Avraham said: “We were pretty much the early pioneers who broke the mould.

“People thought Jewish music was the Hava Nagila music that was played at barmitzvahs and weddings.

“We were an authentic Jewish awakening, so we were not contrived in any way.

“Nowadays, there are hundreds of Jewish bands out there, which I really shlep nachas from.”

Avraham’s father died in May, aged 91. But a year earlier, he discovered something moving about his father when he went to visit him in his nursing home.

“As a child, he dreamed of becoming a world-famous violinist,” Avraham said.

“All that was interrupted, of course, by the Nazis. I came to realise that my father was living vicariously though my music .

“I remember dad coming to Israel to see me and the band.

“I wanted him to see it with his own eyes, as I had put him, and my mom, through so many different episodes thanks to my various lifestyle changes.”

In American, Avraham has concentrated on his solo career, teaming up with his drummer son, Moe.

The duo produced the album Jerusalem is Calling, The Diaspora Collection — a digitally-remastered double CD of Diaspora Yeshiva Band songs — and Kedem, which featured solo material by Avraham.

Three years ago, Avraham and former band members Simcha Abramson, Gedaliah Goldstein, Ruby Harris, and Menachem Herman performed at New York City’s Lincoln Center and at Congregation Shomrei Emunah, in Baltimore, where Avraham is a member.

Nowadays, he works in his home recording studio, but prefers to take things at a “leisurely pace”.

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph