Hasidic Music With a Modern Message

In the current lame state of Israel's music market, it's hard to believe that a single by an Israeli pop star could sell tens of thousands of copies. And yet, a recording by Avraham Fried, among today's Hasidic singers, has already sold 30,000 copies.

In the current lame state of Israel's music market, it's hard to believe that a single by an Israeli pop star could sell tens of thousands of copies. And yet, a recording by Avraham Fried, among today's better-known Hasidic singers, has already sold 30,000 copies.

Every time "Aleh katan sheli" (My little leaf) - Fried's first song with Hebrew words not taken from Jewish texts - is played on ultra-Orthodox radio stations, listeners phone in to find out if there's been a terrorist attack. The song, with music and lyrics by Yishai Lapidot of Oif Simhas, is somewhat reminiscent of Arik Einstein's "Ouf Gozal" (Fly away, fledgling): An old tree counsels a young leaf to be careful of the storms ahead, and offers a traveler's blessing. Surprisingly, a clear religious Jewish message is hard to discern in this song. But Fried, with his Chabadnik perspective, claims that the song teaches us that the best way to deal with a storm is to hang onto the roots of one's Jewish faith.

The song's symbolic treatment of how to deal with hardships is what encouraged Fried to record and distribute it during the intifada, "to support our brothers in Israel." Eli Mandelbaum, a producer at the Gal-Paz production company, says that in the Hasidic song market, like the American market, singles are very popular and customarily marketed to stores (and not just to radio stations, as is the case with the Israeli secular music market). "Aleh katan sheli" is the second highly successful Hasidic single in recent years - the first was "Hebron" by the popular Hasidic singer Mordechai Ben David.

"Aleh katan sheli," which was released about six months ago, is played unceasingly on the religious radio stations, and has been adopted as a kind of anthem by the Etzion state religious school in Kfar Sava. "It was played at the memorial ceremony for a graduate of the school who was killed in action in Jenin," says Fried. "The bereaved mother was very moved, and since then, the children sing it every morning before classes start." The Moreshet Web site offers it as a cell phone ringtone download. In the religious radio hit parade standings, publicized on the same site, the song is in third place.

"Hasidic music generally isn't sung in Hebrew, unless it's a text from Jewish sources," explains Kobi Sela, settler radio staiton Arutz Sheva magazine's music critic. "Hasidic singers sneak one Hebrew song onto an album. Fried brought out an Israeli song with a very current meaning."

Yuval Stoppel, who did the musical arrangement for the song, claims that it has become a hit mainly because of the words, and less because of the music: "Usually, when people hear a Hasidic song, it connects them with `ai-yai-yai.' This time, we proved that Hasidic music isn't just `mashiach, mashiach'." Stoppel explains the indifference of secular stations to the single as a marketing error by producers. "In a certain sense, we have a fear of the unknown, as if there's something inferior about our music," he says. "We didn't hire a secular PR firm, and that was our mistake."

Fried was born Avraham Friedman to a Chabadnik family in New York. At the age of 8, he began singing with his school choir, which toured throughout the United States. At 13, his voice, as well as his professional direction, changed. "I thought I'd bring Jews closer to Judaism, that I'd become a Chabad emissary in some out-of-the-way place," he says. "I came to singing accidentally. At a gathering with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he spoke the famous sentence, `When the Messiah comes, no Jew will remain in exile,' and I thought to myself, `Wow, that's a good line for a song.' In the end, it became the name of my first ensemble."

But even after he finished recording, success was still far off. A career as a Hasidic singer was considered of dubious merit among the New York Chabad community in the early 1980s, so he refused to market the cassette. The producer made threats, and finally a creative solution was found: Friedman would become Fried, so he wouldn't have to worry about what they'd say at the yeshiva. He recorded songs in Hebrew from Jewish texts, along with original songs in English and Yiddish; the latter, he says, always carried a positive message to fend off "tsuris" (troubles) and melancholy.

During 23 years of work, Fried has recorded 22 albums and cassettes (the Israeli and American Haredi music consumer buys more cassettes than CDs). These days, he performs dozens of concerts a year for Jewish audience worldwide, and the El Al flight crews are quite familiar with him due to his frequent trips to Israel.

"The hard part is keeping to a high level of hits in every album," says Fried when talking about the secret of his enduring success. "I don't argue with success; I try to be true to my roots and not to change styles. I wouldn't touch dance music, because that represents the culture of secular clubs." He also doesn't worry about keeping up with what's going on in today's world music, and mainly listens to Sinatra and male sopranos.

"We, as religious people, are not supposed to idolize singing stars," says Sela about the admiration enjoyed by Fried. "But Fried's modesty appeals to a lot of people, and on the other hand, his experience and charisma on stage make him a real stage animal."

In Israel, Fried appears mainly at large concert halls, like Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium. The audience is mostly national-religious, not Haredi. Stoppel claims that 20 percent of those attending Fried's concerts are in the 40-50 age range and not religious but love Hasidic music. In fact, once during an El Al flight, says Fried, the pilot insisted on showing him around the cockpit in appreciation for getting his autograph.