NEW YORK — The stage was never supposed to be where Yoni Zigelboum felt at home. The Brooklyn-born Hasidic Jew still vividly remembers the terror he felt at 12-year-old when being asked to sing at his cousin’s wedding. “I bolted out of the place,” he recounts, sitting at a Starbucks in Manhattan’s Theater District. “I was terrified, shaking.”
And when, three years later, the head of his Crown Heights yeshiva told him his “personality is too big for the room” and that he should go out and “find himself,” Zigelboum definitely didn’t consider venturing near a stage. Sure, he liked music and had a nice voice. But being what he calls “the front man” was never seen as a possibility.
He tried different things: Some video editing; working at a museum; and, eventually, studying psychology at New York’s Touro College.
“I knew I wanted to do something to make people feel better,” the 27-year-old tells Haaretz. “And then I got an offer to sing at a wedding in Toronto.”
Despite initially turning it down, citing his crippling stage fright, Zigelboum eventually decided to take the leap — and it turned out to be a life-changing move.
“It clicked,” he says modestly, and soon after he found himself performing five nights a week at different celebrations, singing classic ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) songs.
“Maybe that thing I do at night, where I see people forgetting their worries, dancing, singing — maybe that’s the way I heal people, maybe this is my calling,” he reflects.
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Catchy and upbeat
Zigelboum is best known these days by the stage name Yoni Z. But even that seemingly showbizzy move was born of pragmatism: He adopted it at 17 when he saw that people struggled to pronounce his surname. He released his first album, “Yoni Z,” last summer, with the record featuring original pop songs sung in Hebrew and English, but all unmistakably Jewish.
Many of the songs on his eponymous debut are catchy and upbeat, mixing standard Western pop with Mizrahi music (the Israeli genre that mixes elements from Europe, North Africa and the Arab world). They are not what you might expect from the Jewish music scene, but that is exactly what Zigelboum wants to bring to the table. As if to emphasize this, each track is accompanied by a lavish music video that wouldn’t embarrass today’s biggest pop stars.
The pop star is probably not what most people expect a Hasidic Jew to look like, either: The only distinctive sign of his religion is the simple black yarmulke on his head. He grew up in the Chabad Lubavitch community — the Hasidic movement known for its outreach and inclusion of non-Hasidic and non-Orthodox Jews.
His father is an Ashkenazi Jew (and former cantor) and his mother Sephardi, which Zigelboum credits with playing a major role in shaping his personality and imbuing his love of culture.
The most recent single from his album, “Hallelukah,” is sung in biblical Hebrew and carries a message of unity that Zigelboum says he felt compelled to spread following the rise in anti-Semitism in his native Brooklyn and worldwide.
The song’s vibrant music video, shot in Ukraine, features people from all walks of life singing and dancing at a silent rave. It’s also the first Jewish music video to prominently feature women, the singer says.
“Other Jewish music videos have had women in them, but typically it’s not up-front and center,” Zigelboum says. “When I made a video about diversity, everyone got equal screen time — that’s how you send the message of unity and diversity.”
Zigelboum says he knew that some people in the Jewish world might not like the video initially, but that responses have been very positive overall: “Once they understood the message behind it, they said ‘Oh, OK, fine.’”
Although Zigelboum aims to modernize the Jewish music genre — he is much more “pop” than fellow Brooklynite singer Shulem Lemmer, the Belz Hasid who signed to Universal Music Group last year — he says he hasn’t faced much criticism from within his community. “Some of it, I’m sure, is connected to the fact that I’m a ‘Chabadnik,’” he explains. “It’s like they understand that I’m doing my own thing, because Chabad was always out of the box.
“I never tried to market myself as someone I am not,” he continues. “I never marketed myself as a very, very Hasidic religious singer, so nobody was shocked. People understand who I am, what I am about. If they love me, great. If they don’t, that’s great too.”
Despite such a humble approach, Zigelboum has set himself an ambitious goal: To bring Jewish music to the world. “I want to restore the respect for it,” he says. “It’s viewed as a sort of dying art, but my dream is that, one day, there will be a Jewish Music category at the Grammys. That’s why I’m building my portfolio the way I am building it now.” (At present, Jewish music competes in the World Music category, with an album of Jewish folk songs, “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II,” even nominated this year.)
Although he insists on sharing the credit with others, Zigelboum believes the bar is slowly being raised for the Jewish music scene. However, he cautions: “What’s missing today is a certain level of professionalism — because if you want to get to something like the Grammys, you can’t just produce a video of you singing in a park or on the beach. It’s art, so we have to produce art,” he says, adding, “To be an accepted music force in the world, it’s gotta be legit.”
The videos on his official YouTube channel are definitely “legit” and have reached a wide audience. For example, “UP!” — a 3-D animation featuring a yarmulke-wearing character and his peers in outer space — has been viewed nearly 700,000 times.
“You bring me up, you take me down / My heart’s awake and I see you now. And through the nights when I’m afraid / I close my eyes and I feel your grace,” the lyrics proclaim, reflecting Zigelboum’s constant focus on the relationship between man and God.
Fame and marriage
Over the past 11 years, Zigelboum has successfully established himself on the Jewish music scene and convinced his initially skeptical parents that he can make a living as a performer (not ones to worry about a stereotype, they had hoped he would go into the medical profession). The place that once terrified him, the stage, has become his second home and he has performed across the United States, Europe and Israel, drawing crowds of several thousand fans. “It’s so rewarding when you see people standing up and dancing and singing the lyrics with you,” he observes.
Fame has also, quite literally, entered the picture: People now recognize him on the street and ask for photos. However, when female fans approach him, often Zigelboum has to explain that his religious beliefs prevent him from shaking hands. “I just say the truth: That a woman’s physique is held in the Torah in higher esteem than a man’s, and therefore if you are not my woman and I am not your man, I am not allowed to enjoy any part of you.
“They see that it’s nothing personal,” he says. “It’s not meant to be offensive whatsoever.”
Beyond his burgeoning music career, Zigelboum admits that he wants to spend more time focusing on his personal life — specifically, getting married and having kids.
“Most people in our [Hasidic] community get married much earlier, but in Chabad it’s also not a big deal to be single at my age. It’s not the end of the world, but now is the time where I want to focus on dating and meeting someone,” he says. “It’s definitely my next big goal before putting out another album.”
Asked about his professional dreams, Zigelboum does not hesitate: Winning that Grammy for best Jewish artist once he gets the category established.
“By then, there will be enough competitors,” he smiles. “I’m challenging myself with my own challenge.”