“Like all good things, this album began with a conflict,” says Israeli singer Neomi Hashmonay, who this week issued her debut album, "Shmoneh Shurot" (Eight Lines). And Hashmonay has indeed experienced many conflicts in her life – mainly creative and spiritual ones.
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“The more profound my return to religion was, the more distant the music was at first,” she explains, describing the tension she senses between her religion and rock. “It was easier for me to switch to the intellectual dimension and to silence the music, because music is more 'exposed.' So I chained myself. I was like ‘Alice in Chains,’" she smiles.
"Shmoneh Shurot" fulfills the expectations people have had of the singer in recent months, during which she issued a series of successful singles, first and foremost the excellent song “Naval” (Miscreant). The new album is imbued with both passion and wisdom, with both an outcry and silent prayer.
Hashmonay, 31, married and a mother of three, grew up in an observant family in Haifa: “I’d been searching for God from a very young age, but I didn’t find him in the place where I grew up. Everything was automatic, without alternatives, without soul, without content. Something very technocratic. It finished me. I remember that at morning prayers there was always a teacher who stood at the side and supervised the girls as they prayed. That drove me crazy. In the end I requested an exemption from prayers.”
The exemption became more sweeping when Hashmonay became closer to the secular world, during her teenage years.
“Suddenly," she recalls, "I was exposed to languages I was unfamiliar with: art, poetry, music. I began an 'arms race': history, philosophy, music. Like a very hungry person who wants to taste everything. Bring on heavy metal, bring on jazz!"
Several years later she again became observant, and teaches Torah and Hasidism in parallel to her musical activity. In fact, she arrived at the interview with Haaretz after giving a lesson in Jewish studies to art students in Haifa, where she still lives. “We spoke about joy,” she says. “It’s funny that I’m talking about joy.”
A lesson on the writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was the first stop in her process of returning to religion. “There I encountered the depth that I didn’t find in the religious world from which I came or in the secular world. The language of Hasidim captivated me, it has a heart and a soul and excitement and content.”
For Hashmonay, the Hasidic world, as opposed to the more staid, "traditional" Orthodox world of her childhood, did not clash with the rough and dark experiences that attracted her to alternative rock songs.
“On the contrary, it gave me permission to discover those places. There’s a rabbinical proverb: ‘If they ask you where God is, say in the big city of Rome.’ Hasidism goes even further. God is revealed especially in places of impurity. He’s there more than in places that are suitable for holiness. That really spoke to me. Because I’m not only 'holy'; there’s a lot of chaos and complexity in me. In the ordinary religious world they don’t talk about the parts of a person that aren’t good. These are things that shouldn’t be discussed. Hasidism does this, and it helped me to live in peace even with those things.”
Making the album was a leap of faith into the not-entirely-known for Hashmonay, who has no formal musical education and plays a little piano and guitar. The person waiting to catch her was guitarist, musician and musical producer Amir Tzoref, who has had an outstanding influence in shaping Israeli music in the past 20 years.
Hashmonay’s hand trembled when she sent the first email to Tzoref, she says, and the trembling got worse when he asked to hear her songs. “I recited 'Tikkun Haklali' [10 Psalms recited in a special order, as per the teachings of Rabbi Nachman] before I sent off the sketches,” she laughs.
Tzoref liked Hashmonay’s ideas and they started working together. The next step was the recording studio. Tzoref, who lives in Berlin, came to Israel, “and a surprise awaited him,” Hashmonay says. “We sat at the piano in my house and I said to him, ‘Everything you heard no longer exists. There are new songs.’ He looked alarmed, but in a happy way.”
Three weeks before she posted one of her songs on Facebook, Hashmonay suffered a terrible attack of embarrassment. “I was alarmed at the fact that I was telling people my secrets. I had this feeling of ‘Stop the world, I want to get off.’”
She has similar feelings about her live performances, and is trying to decide about whether she should allow herself, despite issues with modesty, to appear before men; meanwhile, she performs only for women.
“These songs are not meant only for women. Something inside me knows that, but I’m all messed up with the entire issue. It’s complicated. The religious mainstream rejects it out of hand. On the other hand, there are rabbis who permit it, based on the Mizrahi tradition [of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa], which is more lenient,” the singer says.
She adds that she asked for advice on this subject from Jerusalem rabbi and paytan (composer of liturgical poems) David Menachem: “He explained to me that it’s permitted [to perform before men] but that wasn’t enough for me. My heart has to agree. I’m planning to examine it in a 'controlled' setting – in front of friends. We’ll see how I feel.”
So what are her favorites in the world of rock music? “I fell in love with Layne Staley (the soloist of Alice in Chains). In the war between him and Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam), he won hands down.”
Today, perhaps surprisingly, her unquestioned hero is David Eugene Edwards, soloist of Wovenhand.
“He’s a devout Christian, and all his songs are songs of praise to God,” says Hashmonay. “For me it’s Hasidic music as Hasidic music should sound.”