The Jewish Monkeys: Whatever People Say They Are, That's What They're Not

At an age when most people retire, these guys are releasing their debut album – in English, Spanish, Esperanto and Yiddish.

When three middle-aged men perform with wild abandon on stage, it’s clear to anyone watching that they have to conduct a restrained family life for the rest of the year. This is not a supergroup composed of rock stars who first came to prominence in the 1970s, nor is it a choir project of the neighborhood community center. Despite the men’s ages, the Jewish Monkeys is a young band at heart, whose members prove that you’re never too old to start performing.

Since 2000, German-writing author Jossi Reich, 51, veterinarian Dr. Ron Boiko, 49, and psychotherapist Gael Zaidner, 48, have been members of the Jewish Monkeys. Until now, they have performed their contemporary Jewish music live once every two years, got together for three-hour rehearsal sessions twice a week, and sang in four of the seven languages they know.

This year, the band will release its first album (working title “Manic Regression”), produced by Ran Bagno. And Tuesday evening, at 11 P.M., it will perform in the Radio EPGB underground club (7 Shadal Street, Tel Aviv). So, is it a bourgeois hobby, potential wedding band, art project, or revolutionaries who took their time until making their voice heard?

“We started working together on a weekly basis back in 2003, but it was always a curiosity, a kind of hobby,” says Reich. “We didn’t believe in the band as a second profession.”

“The band was born as a result of a crisis, after a 14-year ‘pregnancy,’” adds Zaidner. “A year ago, we were invited to a festival, and it was there we discovered how unprepared we were. In conclusion, we harnessed the pain to produce insight: Instead of working with Boom Pam, [a rock trio] who were our session musicians – and with whom we recorded the album – we expanded the basic ensemble and added other players who would be committed to the process.

“Our musicians are professionals who work in music, but they’re wonderful, too,” he continues. “They’re moving it forward. There’s a division of labor, and now, when we’re part of a group, we have the ability to do bigger things. And you can feel it. Suddenly things started to fly. Now we perform regularly and there’s the album coming.”

“Now we’re a real band, with eight members,” adds Boiko. “[Producer] Bagno plays the accordion; the guitarist is Haim Vitali Coen; the bassist’s Yoli Baum; Arnon de Botton is on the trombone; and Henri Vered’s on drums. Except for Haim we’re all fathers. I have three sons, Jossi has three daughters, Gael has two children. We’re family men, but we grew into it. Over the years it’s taken shape and now there’s more motivation, because it’s getting better.”

At the performances, there’s a sense that you are these nondescript office workers who got some room to mess about – you jump, fool around, smile, do some sharp dance moves and sing with all your heart. Is that the objective of the band? A nighttime hobby? An outlet?

Zaidner: “It’s definitely an outlet for needs that aren’t met by the daily grind. Nevertheless, that’s not why we’re here. The objective is for it to be of value, to have something to say, and maybe even [provide] a livelihood – I hope so. My hope is that we won’t have time for other things. Why shouldn’t dreams come true in midlife? Even if it’s an art form that generally belongs to young people. Let’s see if we can succeed in it, even at a stage of life where we no longer have strong stomach muscles and hair down to our shoulders.”

Voluntary exile

Needless to say, there are only a few people who have actually seen the band perform on stage. According to the band, until now it hasn’t performed more than eight times. Some of the performances were at Jewish music festivals abroad, where audiences wondered about the name Jewish Monkeys, which was suggested by Reich.

The band’s songs sound like a mixture of languages, rhythms and shouts from deep inside the bourgeois belly. Some are based on classics by Harry Belafonte and others. The best songs, though, are the ones penned by Boiko, who writes tunes but denies that he has a musical ear.

Reich: “We aren’t so Israeli. Our humor is very Jewish, very Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, and it hasn’t undergone the sabra [native-born Israeli] polishing. We’re sons of Eastern-Europe parents, that’s where we grew up. Maybe that’s how Jewish music would sound if there hadn’t been a Holocaust. Had we stayed in Germany, we wouldn’t have made music like this. Only in Israel. We sing in English, Spanish, Esperanto and Yiddish.”

Boiko: “I feel that in Israel, Jewish music arouses disgust. The Nazis succeeded in some strange way to contaminate the Zionists with that. The Israeli mentality did not enable Ashkenazi-Jewish music to develop. Israelis can be enthusiastic about Balkan music, which is very similar to Ashkenazi-Jewish music. They can be enthusiastic about Mizrahi music, which is like Ashkenazi or Greek music. But the moment it’s defined as Jewish-Ashkenazi music, then they aren’t.

“But Ashkenazi-Jewish music is very oriental,” adds Boiko. “There are no contradictions here; everything fits together very nicely. We are creating a version of contemporary Jewish music, and combining elements of a Jewish sense of humor and Jewish music along with rock and a Balkan sound. But the influence of Ran Bagno in the arrangements removes the music from its Diaspora roots.”

Zaidner: “It begins with the language war against Yiddish in the 1920s, when it was forbidden to speak Yiddish. To this day, the Yiddish aspect is very hard for me, but each time I discover that, ultimately, I like it. The songs sound light, rhythmic, happy and energetic, and at the same time their lyrics contain heaviness, bitterness, sadness and tragedy. It’s exactly that Jewish place where suffering and joy meet.

“Compared to Europe, even Yiddish-Jewish music is oriental. This music teaches us to embrace our roots and our identity once again. We want to rehabilitate Yiddish and the Jew, which Zionism and Nazism cooperated to eliminate. Both sides wanted to create a new man, and along the way many things were thrown in the trash. Through our music, we want to revive a culture and to present Yiddish as something that can be masculine, sexy, angry, [the voice of] protest, young, and not merely something that embodies all the weaknesses and things we hate.”

What do you sing about?

Reich: “The song ‘So Nice’ deals with everything that is sick in the culture we have created in Western society.”

Boiko: “It’s about Lewis, a fart working in finance who eats too much and suffers a heart attack; Terry, whose father beat him and everyone laughed at him, so he became a terrorist; and Jezebel, whose father abuses her sexually. And the chorus ‘So Nice.’”

Zaidner: “There’s criticism here of the modern world. There’s also something within the atmosphere of the song – a bittersweet despair that the only way left to feel good about yourself is to compare yourself to those who are more unfortunate.”

Boiko: “The song ‘Meat, Heat, Beautiful Feet’ expresses our situation as three losers in midlife. It’s a song about someone who is barbecuing and singing about how tired he is of his friends, the grill, his wife, the neighbor’s daughter – the petit-bourgeois midlife crisis in the style of ‘Magnolia,’ ‘American Beauty’ or ‘Breaking Bad.’”

Are there any ego problems or quarrels among three male singers?

Zaidner: “Ego isn’t only found in terms of who is stronger; ego is sometimes when one person annoys another. There’s a relationship here and we’re mature – as opposed to a group of young rockers who are racing to be prima donnas, we conduct ourselves quite well. [Although] now our work together has become much more intensive, it requires more treatment.”

So are you the therapist?

Zaidner: “No, they don’t let me.”

Maybe the age of 50 is actually the perfect age to start a rock band?

Zaidner: “It’s possible. As a therapist, I meet a lot of people this age who dare to make a new choice of what’s important to them. The children are grown and they get their freedom back again; sometimes they divorce. Although each of us is at the height of a career, we have received freedom [with the music]. The advantage is that we’re mature. Today, I know that nothing that happens outside will shake me up and destroy me, as opposed to what happens when these things happen too early. The age of 50 can mark the beginning of freedom, but from a place with a much more defined center, which young people don’t have.”

Ilya Melnikov
Ilya Melnikov