Make Some Oys: These Musicians Attempt to Fuse Punk and Judaism

Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
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Mickael Meresse.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

It’s 1998 and Israel is awash in a wave of patriotism during its 50th anniversary celebrations. Preparations for the key event, the Jubilee Bells Show in Jerusalem, featuring music, dance and other performances, are at their height. Away from the limelight, however, a punk band called Ausweis, insists on being party-poopers. Instead of singing praises about the homeland, the almost-unknown group, then performing at fringe clubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, had just released their song “Death,” which calls for the demise of everyone in the Israeli mainstream.

The band, most of whose members hailed from the Soviet Union –front man Anton Weiss, bassist Sergey Engle, drummer Michael Drums, guitarist Guy Katz, and Israeli-born musical producer Mickael Meresse – sang, “Death to Shlomo Artzi, death to Arik Einstein, death to Gidi Gov death to Aviv Geffen death to Dostoyevsky, Yehuda Barkan, McDonald’s and Nietzsche death to the Arabs, death to the Jews, death to God.”

Now, 17 years later, in an interview ahead of the launch of a new band, called 60 Reebo, two of whose members – Engle and Merese – met in the simpler times of Ausweis, Meresse recalls the breakthrough moment.

“‘Death’ was a provocation,” he says, “but underlying it was fierce criticism of what Weiss, Engle and others in the band experienced in Israel as new immigrants. They encountered a language of violence and racism here. In the 1990s, there was graffiti everywhere with the words ‘Death to,’ and that’s the atmosphere they were swept into. They decided to take a humorous approach, by calling for the death of mainstream culture.”

The mainstream apparently didn’t like what it heard. During the ensuing media tsunami, the band was interviewed on CNN and other networks, and invited to appear on the television show hosted by Dan Shilon, at the time the most popular program on the air.

Mickael MeresseCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Meresse: “I remember we got to the studio where Shilon’s program was taped, but at the last minute they got cold feet and told us to go home. They were afraid we would take advantage of the platform to make a scene.”

Nevertheless, “Death” became the song with which Ausweis ended all its gigs. It looked as though a new cult band had been born, but at the end of the decade, after just three years, the group disbanded and its members went their separate ways. Since then, Meresse and Engle have become religiously observant, part of the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community. Meresse, 36, a divorced father of two, lives in Tel Aviv. Engle, 38, is married, has three children and lives in Jerusalem, but did not want to be interviewed by Haaretz.

On Monday (August 17), the two of them, along with drummer Dale Rabad, will perform songs from 60 Reebo’s forthcoming debut album as part of the Frontline festival, billed as “five days of off-stream music,” in the framework of Jerusalem’s Season of Culture program. The show is described on the program’s website as “anarchy and visions from the Holy Ark of Judaism.”

“I was 17 or 18 when I started going to hear Ausweis, and I remember being bowled over by them,” recalls Meresse, who says he will perform “high-decibel vocals, muttering and some metal-inspired tunes” next week.

“The word Ausweis means ‘ID card’ in German, and their songs were about questions of identity and migration. They used symbols of the Communist Party and fascist regimes. They had a hypnotic stage presence ... I started to work as a producer with musical groups and set up gigs in clubs. I wanted to record their material, because I’d never heard anything like it. The result was an album on the Earsay label of Third Ear Records.”

There are moments that aren’t easy to listen to with 60 Reebo, too. Do you think music should generate discomfort?

Meresse: “In general, it’s impossible to foment revolutions or shock through pleasure alone. Revolutionary music – first jazz and afterward rock-’n-roll – is always grating on a first listening. If you want to stimulate people musically to activism and rebellion, you have to express yourself with a certain level of energy. If we draw a comparison to the Bible, the true prophets spoke the truth in a way that was not comfortable to listen to. Truth generates discomfort, a lie is generally pleasurable. Music can open doors to dark places or to hallucination, and we want to explore those moments.”

In “Death,” the band wished for the death of God, too. Do you regret that line now?

“I didn’t write that song. Even then I wasn’t completely happy with it or some of the other lyrics, but I believed it was an effective protest. The hyperbole of the last lines takes it to extreme places, which I was comfortable with as a young man. Today I wouldn’t say those things, even as a joke. My subversion is now channeled to more mature and interesting places.”

'Everything changed'

There’s something deceptive in the conversation with Meresse. We are sitting in the Meir Ariel Beit Midrash – a center opened to anyone interested in pursuing religious studies,named for the late Israeli singer-composer – located steps away from the Tel Aviv seashore. Against the backdrop of the Babylonian Talmud and a Star of David on the bare wall behind him, Meresse, 36, who looks like a yeshiva student, gets passionate when he talks about his deep-seated resistance to definitions and boundaries.

Two years ago, he wrote a manifesto for 60 Reebo that begins with the following words: “Let us breach the boundaries while preserving the limits, collect the far-flung segments of the personality, expose the infinite, accept that the ‘other’ is not me, return to being 60 Reebo.” It’s precisely from this place of belief and spirit, he maintains, that a new groundbreaking and provocative musical journey can be launched.

Meresse lost touch with Sergey Engle more than a decade ago. “It wasn’t until I became observant that I discovered that he too had become newly religious, which surprised me. I couldn’t square that with the person I’d known. But a few years ago, I sent him material that I wanted him to arrange, and we reconnected.

“Everything had changed in our lives, but the energy and the chemistry were the same. The band I put together with Sergey is actually part of a broader group of artists called 60 Reebo, which includes graphic artists who create comic books and fanzines.

“The name 60 Reebo has a special meaning for us,” Meresse explains. “Its literal meaning is the number 600,000, and it’s a biblical concept that refers to connecting all the communities and groups of Israel into one entity. It symbolizes the desire to burst boundaries and to talk to different audiences.”

In contrast to Ausweis, which sang in English, Hebrew and Russian, the texts of 60 Reebo are in Hebrew and Aramaic, and most are from the Gemara (the second part of the Talmud, which offers commentary on the first part, the Mishna).

Meresse: “Despite the textual changes between Ausweis’ lyrics and 60 Reebo’s, the arrangements come from the same musical sources. Even a Haredi from Mea She’arim can listen to the album we’re going to release, and he might connect with it more easily, because he has fewer musical prejudices. But someone who has never seen a page of Gemara can also connect to this fringe music.

“As a Tel Aviv kid, I grew up on alternative rock and metal. I liked Metallica, Prodigy and Aphex Twin. There are religious elements in all those groups, which we ignore. The members of The Doors, for example, experienced spiritual events. They are not heretics. In my view, the use of drugs is also a search for something that is bigger than the material reality we live in. Judaism changes the consciousness, too.”

Journey to religion

So becoming religious is a kind of trip?

“Religious return is a long, complex and highly subjective process. Just as I wouldn’t advise anyone to start smoking marijuana, I wouldn’t try to persuade anyone to become religious, because it’s a process with unforeseeable consequences. It’s a change of one’s whole perception and consciousness. It’s more meaningful and more powerful than any trip. You enter your ‘operating system’ and raise the most difficult, most existential questions.”

When did you start drawing close to religion?

“I’d always thought of Judaism as a New Age thing. In music, too, I looked for a type of extremism, a certain hard core. When I was 23, I had a friend who started to become religious. He took me to a synagogue, and there, of all places, someone who looked like ultra-Orthodox came over and told me he was a huge fan of Ausweis. That shattered a lot of prejudices for me. Like many secular people, I had a basic fear of Haredim, but a Gemara lesson I took interested me very much intellectually.

“Many new understandings came up during my studies; I started to attend lessons with different rabbis. The process was long, with ups and downs. Return is a gradual process, in which you discover a reality that you have to get used to. In the yeshiva, I wore a shtreimel [a traditional fur hat] on Shabbat and I was very meticulous about my appearance, but over the years, I came to realize that attire is not such a cardinal issue for me.”

You keep coming back to your need to breach boundaries, but how does that need mesh with a Haredi way of life?

“When you start to become religious, a split personality forms, and our music deals with that split. But the question is: What is personality? Return is a continuing journey of self-search and self-exploration. Wherever you go, there are definitions that people try to foist on you. You place yourself in categories you don’t feel comfortable in. We are so complex and our psyches are filled with contradictions, and definitions only burden us. In my case, the need to define myself brought much loneliness. I am not a Haredi and I am not secular; I don’t belong to any place. On the one hand, it’s difficult and creates unease, but on the other it allows me to belong to my own community.”

Meresse is now part of a very liberal Haredi community in Tel Aviv called Abir Yaakov, headed by Rabbi Mordechai Auerbach. “Even there, a place that is relatively open, I am considered an odd bird,” he says, adding that he feels free to engage in music and is inspired by the Gemara.

“We operate within the confines of halakha [religious law], but we want to breach the boundaries. There are things one is permitted to do, but Haredi people are afraid to ask questions. Just because we observe the precepts doesn’t mean we have to be cowards. I always thought independently, and still do, only now I am thinking according to the Torah.”

Meresse maintains that the distinctive fusion of metal music with Talmudic and religious content raises surprising halakhic questions. For example, 60 Reebo has no women members (because men are prohibited from hearing women’s singing voices, as a matter of modesty), but, he asks with a smile, “Is it permitted to listen to a woman whose voice has been distorted? I’d be interested to ask a rabbi about that. Am I allowed to make use of a woman’s voice in recordings if she is not present in the show? There are no simple answers to those questions.”

Apparently, it depends which rabbi you ask.

Aramaic lyrics

As a former secular individual, Meresse is especially sensitive to what he calls the delegitimization of the Haredi public. “If representatives of the Pride community want to hold an all-male party in Tel Aviv, they won’t have a problem. But if a Haredi person wants to rent a hall where there will be separation of the sexes – he will be taken to task. Every person has the right to create his own milieu without forcing his beliefs on others.

“That’s another reason for my affinity with the name 60 Reebo – it’s the number of Israelites in the Exodus from Egypt. When the Torah was given, 600,000 Israelites were spiritually like the first man, and therefore the whole nation is described in the Bible as one body; the verbs are singular, not plural. People think differently, but one can accept the differences and live in brotherhood.”

The lyrics of the band’s songs aim to introduce Talmudic issues to new audiences. One song is about animal sacrifice in the Temple; another, “Resh Lakish,” which Meresse sings in Aramaic, is about the rabbi of that name, who arrives at an empty religious study hall, and delves into himself to solve a problem on his own.

Your lyrics are of supreme importance, but the punk-style arrangements make it difficult to concentrate on the words.

“During all the years we weren’t in touch, Sergey preserved his musical interest in noise, and I was interested in connecting these texts to his musical style. It’s true that if we were calmer or acoustic, more people might get into it. It’s definitely challenging to listen to, but the arrangements – based on drums, guitar and vocals – are appropriate to the texts ... Most of the songs on the album sprang from my study of Gemara and my own singing in the synagogue.”

What do you mean?

“Gemara was always studied by means of melodies, passed orally from the teacher to his pupils. When the rabbi reads the Gemara, he is actually ‘singing.’ The melody is a way to remember the text by heart. In the Torah there are no vowels or cantillation notes, so one has to introduce melodies and soul by means of physical gestures. When we read Torah or works of kabbala, we are actually inserting our soul into the letters. So, while learning, each worshiper develops a kind of personal melody, composed of the rhythm of the prayer and body movements. Those influences are part of the music I create.”

At present, 60 Reebo rehearses in a small studio close to the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. According to Meresse, the goal is to create an alternative to the saccharine mainstream identified with much of Jewish art. Haredi art is usually identified with Judaica and kitschy Shabbat brochures, while the Bratslav movement is associated more with dance music. But there are no artistic or underground fringes.

“When we formed 60 Reebo, it was a kind of spaceship that could allow us to look for the fringes and move away from the center,” Meresse explains. “Every religiously observant person is engaged in an incessant battle against instincts, especially the evil instinct, but people are afraid to talk about that. Many newly religious undergo extremely complex and profound mental processes, but feel a need to censor themselves. For artists, censorship is the most dangerous weapon. It took me many years to reach a place that enables me to understand when to question the boundaries and the norms, and when to preserve them.”

Is it possible that you and Sergey are able to preserve your distinctive place as creative artists because you weren’t born or raised in the Haredi community?

“As newly religious, we have our role. We are now witnessing an interesting social phenomenon: Newly religious are starting to insist on making their own statement. God does not create people for no reason. If he caused someone to be born in Tel Aviv and that person wants to become religiously observant, that means he wants to expose that person to certain things. There are all kinds of things in the past that have to be connected to the present in order to achieve catharsis. Creative artists who become religious often deny their past and stop doing creative work, which is very sad. But I believe that God also favors those who create art, because it is a very powerful tool.”