Psalmist of the Secular

In his latest album, Kobi Oz, of Teapacks fame, attempts to reconcile rationality with dreams of redemption. His unusual take on Jewish themes has some of his fans more than a bit perplexed

"My late father of blessed memory would wander along this boulevard saying 'Paradise! Paradise!'" recalls Kobi Oz.

Sitting on a bench at night on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, he smiles as a car drives by blasting the Teapacks song "Rikudei amba" (Amba dancing ) and speaks nostalgically about the days when Teapacks was an unknown band. He notes the similarity between then and now. Today, once again, he is reinventing himself, this time with the "Mizmorey Nevochim" (Psalms for the Perplexed ) project, whose second album, "Mizmorim Nosafim" (Some More Psalms ) came out this month.

Kobi Oz
Ilya Melnikov

"Before Teapacks became known, we were hanging out in Tel Aviv for about four years and nobody wanted to sign us. Only the Goldstar bands got signed," he says, a reference to the Tel Aviv rock bands of the early 1990s. "My feeling at the time was that the entire world is stupid. How can it not see us, how can it not see me? The same went for women, by the way.

"Once, during that period of anonymity, they tried to push us onto Dudu Topaz's TV show, heaven help us. I found myself in an office building, hesitantly knocking on his door. He was eating Chinese food out of a cardboard container, didn't lift his eyes. He said, 'Make me laugh, tell me a joke.' I said, 'But I'm a singer.' He said, 'What difference does that make? Make me laugh. If you make me laugh you'll be on the show.' I told him some lame joke and he said, 'Not funny, thanks a lot.'

"That experience, I feel like I'm going through it again now in some respect. As though the audience were eating Chinese food from a box, not lifting its eyes and saying, 'Make me laugh. Hit me with a three-and-a-half-minute song.' And I say, 'No, I don't do that, I do something else.' I hope that even though I am doing something else, something a little more complex and thought-provoking, they'll still invite me to do a show.

About 10 years later, Topaz did invite them onto his show. "It was when we released the collection of Teapacks hits," recalls Oz. "And what did he do with me? He seated me next to the tallest girl in the country. Honestly, here we are, a band that's making a greatest-hits album, and still I find myself next to some girl who's 8 feet tall. All those albums, all those hits, they couldn't buy me another 8 inches? Like, what's up with that?"

Despite feeling angry and insulted, Oz played the game with Topaz. He's excellent at that. "I was the media kid," he explains. Until not long ago he still was. He participated in a reality show ("Once in a Lifetime" ) and hosted a morning program on Channel 2. But he eventually got fed up with the superficial prattle.

He recounts with embarrassment how he once interviewed the writer Tzur Shizaf without having read his book. "I read it later. A great book called 'The End of the Road.' It describes the very deep rot there is in the country, but without playing prosecutor. Judge for yourselves, friends. I really love books that don't have an inherent and annoying position. So I called him up, apologized for having interviewed him so superficially and invited him to a performance of 'Psalms for the Perplexed.'"

During that performance Shizaf may have heard the song "Al levavchemo shesamam" (On your deserted heart) a Bialik poem set to music by Oz, which appears on the new album. Its opening lines are: "In the ruins of your heart the mezuzah was invalidated / So there the devils shall dance wildly and make noise / And the lazy band of clowns / There shall wail and kick up a storm."

"Bialik wrote it against the religious establishment, but I read it as anti-Channel 2," Oz says. "You think that you're at some big party, laughs and entertainment and the like. But there is something defective and rotten at the core, and soon a broom will come along and sweep away the lot of you. That is what Bialik is saying to those people."

From a musical standpoint, he says, "this song fluctuates between several rhythms. The instruction to the musicians was that each plays a different rhythm. If one plays a 12-beat, another will play a 16-beat. It comes out lopsided. Upbeat but lopsided. A kind of off-kilter party. Constantly trying to calibrate but not managing to."

What's behind these contrasting beats? Why create lopsidedness?

"This is what it sounds like when each musician thinks that he knows best - a situation of individualism that could disintegrate into cacophony. After all, that's how it works in this country. Everyone thinks he knows what the beat is. This one plays 12, that one plays 16, and you never achieve harmony."

The maggot and the worm

When Oz's father strolled along the boulevards of central Tel Aviv and said "Paradise!" he didn't really believe that heaven existed. "He wasn't religiously observant," Oz says. "For him Shabbat was the day of the drill. Any shelf you could put up, that was the day. But a few years before he died he had an operation, and when he woke up from the anesthesia he saw my uncle David and said to him, 'Hey, you're here too?' Uncle David asked him, 'Where is here?' and my father said, 'In heaven.' And I suddenly realized that somewhere deep in his heart, despite his lack of religious observance, he somehow believed in the afterlife. It can't be that he thinks that rationally, but when a person wakes up from anesthesia he says something internal that is part of his operating system."

What about your operating system? Will you too talk about heaven when you wake up from anesthesia?

"An excellent question. I really don't know."

When the album "Psalms for the Perplexed" came out about a year ago, quite a few people asked Oz if he had become religious. "People didn't know what to make of this album," he says. "What is it - is it funny? Is it proselytizing? Is it kabbala?"

"Psalms for the Perplexed" is catalogued under liturgy, even though it appears quite out of place in the landscape of "Jewish genre" albums. In fact, it contains almost no liturgical poems. The vast majority of the songs came from Oz's colorful and sharp pen, and even when he did touch on a liturgical poem (for example, "Yedidei Dei," by Yehuda Halevi ), he approached it quite differently from his supposed colleagues in the genre - in a much lighter and humorous fashion.

If Oz had become Orthodox (and he hasn't: Several times in the course of this interview he begins sentences with the words "We secularists..."), "Psalms for the Perplexed" would have been an album containing more answers than questions. But instead, it is made up entirely of questions and doubts. On the final track, "Nikbat Hashiloach" (The Shiloach Aqueduct), Oz describes a visit to a Jerusalem water channel in which he returns to his Jewish past in the most tangible and physical manner. But instead of being whipped up into religious euphoria, he asks himself with brutal honesty: "How much of this is megalomania? How much of this is anthropology? How much of this is guilt? How much of this is because my world is dirty?"

"I went there to deal with my megalomania," Oz says. "I said to myself: If you take a dip in King Solomon's water and come out normal, you've got it made. Restrained megalomania is my fuel. I don't really release it. I try to keep it inside a metal dome of humility. But every once in a while it escapes."

Perhaps it is Oz's megalomania that has attracted him in recent years to what is seemingly its total opposite: man's absolute self-effacement before God.

"That is one of the biggest obstacles the liturgical poems pose for a secularist," he says. "The place of the maggot and the worm. Man prostrates himself at God's feet and completely vaporizes himself. That's a complicated situation for a secularist who is trying to be very realistic."

It's a situation that fascinates Oz. "I call it the magic zone," he says, as we sit on the bench on the boulevard (and unless the darkness and his eyeglass lenses have deceived me, I believe I see a sparkle in his eyes ).

What is the magic zone?

"It's the bizarre area of life, which somehow gets lost when man is fully rational; the possibility of looking at magic in life. The love for liturgical poems and the spiritual thing can come from a rational person realizing that he doesn't want to live without this magic. He becomes unhappy without it. It becomes too extreme - like the extremism of those who have seen the light, only the opposite. When you're in both of these radical situations you're set, you have no doubts. But I think that if you're a rational secular person, you sometimes have to invite irrationality, and if you've seen the light, you sometimes have to invite reason."

The liturgical poems that work their magic on Oz - though they represent a minority of the tracks on the new album - pose yet another obstacle for the secular listener. "We secularists, we don't tolerate dreams of redemption, and I think that we should develop such tolerance," he says. "It's not simple, I know. They're pretty annoying, dreams of redemption. Come the Messiah, we will strike Amalek. It starts to get complicated. But dreams of redemption come from the low place of exile. When a man is in the lowest place of despair, he fantasizes the most grandiose ending."

But we are no longer in exile. Why go back to that place? Why was it important to you to include on the new album songs that speak that language?

"We are not in exile, but we still feel like we're in the ghetto, surrounded by evil neighbors. We live the fear. And the way we conduct ourselves is supposedly resurrectionist but is actually super-diasporic. Ingratiating ourselves to the nations of the world, that is the way we conduct ourselves."

What happens when the dreams of redemption, which you ask secular people to understand, begin spilling over into the "We'll strike Amalek" existence? Don't you encounter a problem here?

"I do, but you know, when somebody touches a little cat then the cat makes that rrufff sound that cats make. You have to understand that this whole scream comes from a place of wretchedness and fear, and I think that fear must be contained first of all, and not necessarily rejected. When you contain it, you can direct it somewhere else."

But the "We'll strike Amalek" existence is growing increasingly entrenched, increasingly stronger. Don't you feel that? It's not the scared little cat you're talking about.

"I think there is a violent and hateful being in every one of us. It's like some concealed trash can, and when it's truly concealed, it's most dangerous. I prefer a racist who says to my face what he's thinking than a supposedly enlightened person who discriminates against Arabs or religious Jews at his workplace. I've seen how the hidden racism works. I lived for a few months in [the Israeli Arab town of] Barta'a when we were shooting 'Once in a Lifetime.' It's a village of 7,000 people, and next to it they built Harish and Katzir. There's a sign for Harish and Katzir but not for Barta'a. Do you know what they told the council head when he complained? That there wasn't any room on the pole.

"That characteristic of hatred, it can't be allowed to become too hidden. You have to air it out and fight it and enfold these people in a tight embrace. I can't tell you that I'm not angry about the Qassams and don't get angry when a Grad falls in Be'er Sheva. It blows my mind. It's a part of me. I won't vote out of hatred, but neither will I whitewash it and hide it and act like everything's alright and I'm a citizen of the world, enlightened and nice.

Not a puppet

"Psalms for the Perplexed" got its start two years ago with three shows that Oz performed at his house. He didn't know if the material was even suitable for performance in public venues. As time went by, the project gained some momentum, and today Oz regularly appears in small venues with 100 to 200 seats. He doesn't get to perform in larger auditoriums, and it's hard to know whether this frustrates him. One moment he says that it doesn't, then a while later he mutters, "We should have been in 500-seaters by now."

That doesn't look set to happen any time soon. If on the first album, "Psalms for the Perplexed," there was at least one song that easily made it onto radio playlists, the new album, "Some More Psalms" is having a rougher time. "We've had singles out for two months, and they barely get played," Oz laments. "We didn't make it onto any station's playlist. There is one station that plays us consistently: Galei Israel, a station that broadcasts in Judea and Samaria. Galgalatz [Army Radio's pop-music station] obviously doesn't play us, and all the other stations are waiting to see if we get onto Galgalatz. On Radio Lev Hamedina they didn't play anything from the previous album either. Teapacks they play all day long. I guess they're waiting for me to go back to being down-home folksy."

Oz has patience. He points out that Teapacks didn't bring him overnight success either. "People don't remember this, but we had to put out seven singles from 'Hachaim Shelcha Be'laffa' (Your Life in a Laffa) before that record caught on. It would never have worked nowadays. Who would let me put out seven singles today?"

Work on "Psalms for the Perplexed" and "Some More Psalms" had an underground feel to it, Oz says, "but I don't want to work in an underground and artistic manner, just as I didn't want to work in a commercial fashion during the Teapacks era. I'm a real fanatic without being a fanatic. Even though I'm anti-globalization, you'll see me at McDonald's once a year. A person has to go against his own direction occasionally, and even though the burden of the Teapacks hits became too heavy for me to bear, I'm running a show in which I sing them as well just to keep my head above water." (The past two years, it turns out, were "very complicated in terms of making a living," and Oz now has 2-month-old twin girls at home. "On a sanctity level, it feels as if Rabbi Nachman and the Dalai Lama have come to visit," he says of his daughters. )

Oz is an avid film lover and over the course of our conversation he mentions one of his great heroes, Woody Allen. It's no surprise to hear that he admires Allen, but it is somewhat surprising to learn that he likes the director's latest films even more than his earlier ones. "I know I'm in a minority," he says, "but it's amazing to me how he manages to break free of his Woody Allen-ness, to produce a voice that is without his eyeglasses and without his Jewishness and without the weird hair. He paid his dues to his Jewishness and his neuroticism and funniness, and reached a stage where he is able to produce a narrative that is almost stigma-free, to make something whole that doesn't have a precise identity. It's every artist's dream."

Do you feel that way about yourself, with all the changes that you've made in recent years?

"I'm far from that, but I very much want to get there. You all want to capture and catalogue us. There's a Mimouna - I get invited. There are short and bald guys - I get invited. If I continue with 'Psalms for the Perplexed,' I'll be invited every time there's something to do with liturgical poems. It's a disaster for an artist. You want to say, 'I'm not a puppet, I'm a boy.' It's convenient for the audience that the artist be a puppet, that he does what's expected of him, that he writes three-and-a-half-minute hits and then gets lost."

Sloppy playing

When I arrived for my first meeting with Oz, at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv, he was caught up in reading "The Pity of It All," Amos Elon's book about the rise of German-Jewish culture. It turns out that the book wound up in his possession through a barter trade. Oz wanted to sell a couch, posted an ad on the Internet, negotiated with a potential buyer until eventually the buyer said the price was too high - and they went their separate ways. When Oz realized that he would never sell the couch, he called the guy up and said he could come and take it gratis. The fellow brought Amos Elon's book as a gift for him.

The naive idealist in Oz, the one who dreams of promoting public broadcasting as a new member of the Israel Broadcasting Authority plenum, finds inspiration in this anti-capitalistic transaction. "Imagine there was some gathering place, a kind of synagogue, where we would go once a week, bring couches and books, hear who is sick, who is elderly, who has food, pray according to a version acceptable to all, lead a community life," he says. "The brand names would be less successful, and the economy would be booming less. The fact that individualism made us into good consumers and crappy people doesn't mean that we have to bow our heads and say Amen."

The performances of "Psalms for the Perplexed" are intended for that sort of modest community space, and the sound produced by his band - with the help of the violin, mandolin and accordion - is the musical equivalent of a barter trade being conducted in the street. The story of how Oz met his musicians also fits this style of being.

"I saw my pianist, Johnny Koren, at a concert in Haifa," he says. "My ex-wife's mother was a piano teacher and held recitals for her students. One of them was Johnny. He played Debussy and delivered a completely free interpretation. I said to myself, I'll play with him some day. And one day I bumped into him on Sheinkin Street. We've been playing together ever since."

The multi-instrumentalist Adam Madar played for years with Meir Ariel. "He was Meir Ariel's demon," Oz says. "I met him at an evening in Ariel's memory, and after we played there he would just call me all the time. It seemed strange to me. I'm not the 'maketh many friends' sort. But I understood that apparently we had work to do together. He has the soul of a hassid, I have no other way of putting it. He knows something. He's a kibbutznik from Kfar Hanassi, but when he holds the violin, or any other instrument, a whole shtetl comes out of him."

Oz's bass player is Eitan Gidron, who played in the 1970s band Tamouz. "No one plays bass anymore like Eitan does," Oz says. "A sound of yesteryear, relaxed transitions of yesteryear. I'm very happy that my albums have a deep and warm heart of the Israeli '70s. It puts the music where I want it to be. A lot of the new artists sound like a synthesizer demo. Everything in its place. Something inhuman. And the musicians I play with are very human, a sloppy sort of playing, but on purpose. I believe in sloppy playing."

Oz is a very alert listener. Even when his heart is captivated by ancient Hebrew liturgical poems, his ear knows how to hunt down the interesting things that are happening in global pop. At 42, he is no longer au courant with the latest twists in the London bass scene , but compared to his contemporaries in Israeli music, his horizons are broad and highly diverse. The musicians who have captured his attention in recent years include the super-creative Japanese artist Cornelius, Damon Albarn, the Algerian singer Rachid Taha and Alon Olearchik. What they all have in common, he says, is a clear-cut line, and yet, they are always surprising. There is also something laid-back and unengineered about their music, like his own. "When it makes too much sense it's not art, it's manufacturing wallpaper," he says. "Shirat Ha'asavim Sheli" (My Poem of the Grasses ), from the new album, addresses the tendency to over-engineer space in Israel.

"The thing that is scariest to us is a piece of land with nothing on it," Oz says. "If there's nothing, they immediately put up a building or parking lot. We're afraid of an area that has daisies, mustard flowers, olives, ordinary brambles. These get cleared and a boring lawn is put down, or dehydrating pansies, or concrete. I, like Rabbi Nachman, think that these commonplace plants are more beautiful than diamonds and breastplate gemstones."

Oz laments what he calls the tendency to sanctify form over content. "It troubles me greatly. There's the Talmud story about the wine. Rabbi Yehoshua, I think, better check that, was terribly ugly. And the king's daughter asked: How can it be that such an ugly vessel was made to contain so much Torah? So Rabbi Yehoshua went down into the king's cellar and said: Why do you put the wine in a clay vessel? Put it in fabulous gold containers. They poured the wine into gold containers, and naturally after three or four days the wine turned to vinegar, because wine has to breathe. So Rabbi Yehoshua said: Do you understand? Only the clay vessel allows the wine to breathe and be.

"The same goes for music. Music can't be in a gold vessel. It will sour. What will last are slightly shaky, home-made containers. To exile the humanity from music and make it like it's come out of a laser treatment, there is something about it that won't last. It's shiny and it glitters and it's nice as a ringtone, but another ringtone will come along within a week." Then Oz's phone rings and he adds with a grin: ". . . he said as he whipped out his Blackberry."