(Photo: Yaniv Itzhak)
The Secrets of Yonatan Razel
An Interview with Avraham Binyamin
Yonatan Razel, the internationally beloved composer and singer of hit songs like Katonti and V’hi She’amda, opens up about how he performs concerts when he’s feeling down, what it was like to grow up in a musical family, and why he’s still learning in kollel as he goes about his musical career.
The Razels – Yonatan, Aaron, Rika, and Yehuda – are a musical family nearly as famous in Israel as the legendary Banais. Yonatan and Aaron were born in America. Their parents, Micha and Carol, met during their time at a university there, then returned to Israel and settled in Nachlaot, where the family embarked on a gradual process of returning to Judaism.
The children received intensive music lessons starting at a young age, learning to play the piano, recorder, contrabass, violin, and flute, and also to write music. In the late eighties, they performed together as a particularly talented family band, naturally called the Razel Band.
Tell us about your family. How did you all become so musical?
Music was a kind of family enterprise, something that we grew up on with a crazy amount of hard work. Aaron was once asked in an interview how all of us ended up choosing a Charedi or Charedi-Zionist (Chardal) direction. He said that we grew up in a home that was Charedi – Charedi about music!
We didn’t grow up as artists at all. There wasn’t the idea that Yonatan’s writing a song, or that Aaron or Rika or Yehuda is the artist. The way we grew up, we all played music and created and collaborated. We practiced together. We performed together. It’s very powerful. If you look at my life and my siblings’ lives, we don’t live our lives as soloists. I chalk up a lot of our success to that.
I’m not some kid who discovered at age 16 that he wanted to write songs. I grew up in a home where everyone played and everyone was an artist and collaborated and performed, and that created an atmosphere that was sometimes really rigid and hard in terms of the workload, but it also imbued us with a love of hard work and industriousness that I like to think we received from the education we were given.
I have a good friend who’s an only child. He told me there’s something special about never having needed to share his chocolate. But I’ll say the opposite: there’s something special about having always studied music and piano together with a brother or sister. It’s something that taught me from the beginning about working together, and that’s one of the good parts of it. Obviously when everyone grows up and has a career, that calls for extra sensitivity and understanding that everyone has his own world and his own boundaries and his own territory and the things he likes to do, but that togetherness is something we imbibed from a really early age.
At this stage of your lives, what kind of dynamic do the differences between you create?
Often someone will see me on the street, come over and hug me and say, “Look, I was overcome by your song. You changed my life.” I’ll nod and say thanks, and then he goes on, “and please send regards to Yonatan when you see him!” It happens all the time, and it helps me work on being humble, too.
I want to talk about how to find joy in life, and what tips you can offer as a musician. People often come to a concert without feeling happy inside, but there’s no choice – they’ve got to dance. Based on your experience, how do you stimulate joy? And how do you hold onto it?
Above all, when I perform, I want to touch people’s hearts, and when I’m not in touch with my own heart, I can’t touch someone else’s heart. It’s too far away. When you’re in a state of emotional transmission with the audience, you can’t have an emotional block. Over the years, I learned that I can’t avoid this connection with the audience, even if it’s complicated or very deep or hard. If I totally repress something that’s bothering me, I can’t give to others.
But forget about performances for a minute. I think this is one of the best pieces of advice for being happy, for living a healthy life. Let’s say someone’s in a tough situation; something is bothering him, but now he’s got to be happy. So for example, let’s say your child comes home from school with a whole story and really needs your attention. But at the very same time, you’re dealing with your own problem; there’s an issue at the bank, or something going on at work. Now your kid needs your attention, and you really can’t let your personal problem get mixed up with him right now. So first of all, you have to be in touch with that.
When I talk with my child, but there’s another child I’m holding in my other arm and she also needs my attention, I deal with both of them and I juggle. The same goes for where I am personally. Sometimes, I have to contain and hold the side that hurts: “I know it hurts, but now we’re on stage. You need to tone it down a bit, and we’ll talk afterward.”
When I was younger, I would repress things. It’s like when you have a kid who’s crying and you say, “Come on, it’s nothing, get over it”. But these days, I understand that taking that approach is not only a little bit cruel, but practically, it just doesn’t work. These days, the same way I tell a kid who needs me, “I’m with you”, “Come on, let’s dance”, “Let’s make some cookies”, when I’m in a place where it hurts, I do something in between. I try not to tell myself “Yonatan, be happy” or “don’t pay attention to the pain”. Instead, I try to position myself in a kind of communication, a sort of dialogue with myself, and this often gives me strength that I bring with me to the performance. I make some comment that’s truthful: “Guys, I’m dealing with something tough right now. Let’s find strength together with this next song.” I take it to a place where I can be saved.
Meaning, you keep your pain or sadness present with you at the concert?
Exactly. Sometimes you have to ignore it and put down some kind of barrier, but for the most part, particularly since I work in the emotional sphere, living with an emotional block doesn’t work. You can use this power of complexity and difficulty, and go from there to something really, really authentic and exciting. If I’m at a concert and I don’t feel good about myself, I don’t start off with wildly happy songs. I start with a melody of fervor and longing, and I move up from there.
Where have you had occasion to do this?
Not long ago, I went up to perform in a new hall that was actually being dedicated that night. Right before we started playing, the whole sound and lighting system completely failed – right when we were at the first song! I was standing there sort of bare and helpless in front of five hundred people. So I used this technique. I said, “Okay, this is where I am. It’s a disaster.” I could have made a fuss or gotten annoyed or said, “Sorry, guys, we’ll start the show in a few minutes”, but instead I took a guitar that was lying there on the side, I sat on the edge of the stage, and I said, “Come on, guys, I’ll tell you a story until things get worked out.”
I approached it a bit like surfing, and it was actually really funny and enjoyable in the end.
Rebbe Nachman has an insight about the words “They shall attain joy and happiness, and agony and groaning shall flee” (Yishayahu 35:10). He says that when you pull happiness into the circle, it’s only natural that the agony goes away.
Very true. My brother Aaron has a song he wrote about that.
Since you got married, you’ve spent most mornings learning Torah in kollel. What drives you to study? How has it changed your life?
Not everyone can do it, and I can’t do it all the time either, but when my morning is dedicated to learning, it has a huge effect on my life. It’s the most important part of the day, when everyone’s waking up and going out and starting to rush at life. By choosing instead to learn Torah, it’s a choice to go to a place where you turn off your phone and encounter Hashem. I really appreciate the inner beauty of studying Torah, the encounter with infinite wisdom and infinite beauty. Besides fulfilling the most important mitzvah in the Torah, there’s something about that decision that builds up the soul the right way.
A few years ago, I founded a kollel called Shirat HaLeviyim in Givat Ze’ev with a group of adult yeshiva students. I try to be there every day for morning studies. It’s a very interesting group, with a lot of people who work afternoons and evenings in a range of professions, from builders to business owners, and a lot of people who chose to become religious. The group has coalesced around a few chevrutot who start the morning with studying the daf yomi in depth, and after that I learn on my own and also teach.
I’m a guy who really, really, really likes to study Gemara. Gemara and aggadah and midrash. Since I didn’t grow up this religious, I still get a lot out of studying chumash with commentaries, studying Gemara in depth, and studying halacha. The meat and potatoes, as they say.
On the other hand, there’s been no time in my life when I only studied Torah all day. Even after I was discharged from the army, my day was split in two. I’d study, but I’d also go to write, compose, and perform.
Was there ever a time when you’d had enough of music and decided to go in a different direction? Shepherding? Psychology? What brought you there, and what put an end to the time-out and brought you back to music?
It’s pretty much history at this point, although even now I still have an inclination inside that looks elsewhere.
I had a period of deep inner searching, and I wasn’t comfortable with the music I’d published at the time. After many years of lots of pressure from my career and practicing, I felt that it was time to move on. I started studying at yeshivot. I went through all kinds of inner searches. I worked in all sorts of jobs, like you said. I couldn’t go on, just staying on the train, letting it speed ahead without looking out the window. I needed a different direction in life.
I always have that need to stop or make adjustments to myself. I’m a person who makes and lives music and lives a lot of other things at the same time. My life takes me to other places – in my relationships, in my studies and in my actions. I’m not a person who’s focused on his career. Maybe it’s something of a fault, but that’s not always my top priority, and there are ups and downs inside me, too.
I mean, there are periods when I’m really into recordings and intense musical activity, and there are periods when I take a step away. I need to be more grounded. When I was in basic training, I really enjoyed doing physical things, sweating. Those are other parts of me that I have inside.
We know you mainly through the way you’ve put verses and other people’s words to music, not so much through personal words of your own. Do you have a pile of songs waiting to get out of the drawer that we’ve got to know about?
I actually do have a few songs I wrote – whether it’s Ki MiTziyon Tetze Ahava, or Sach HaKol, and now I have songs called Mehager and Simu Lev El HaNeshama – but it’s true that I don’t really feel that I’m someone who expresses himself through music. I feel that I’m someone who works with music as wisdom, as beauty, as aesthetic.
I don’t see music so much as a tool for expressing myself. It’s more that I use it and see it as something with beauty and wisdom to enjoy. I’m not here to tell you my life story. I’m here to share the beauty of music with you, to arouse emotion, longing.
I’ve had a few conversations with people who said, “Look, where are you hiding yourself in your songs? We can’t find you there.” I told them, “I’m not a newspaper or diary. My private life isn’t the subject of my songs. I’m not a notice board.”
There’s something about the popular music we grew up with. The art is actually a window into the soul of the person who created it. What he’s been through. Sometimes it can even be highlighted in yellow – “I got divorced, I fell in love.” But my natural inclination is to use art as a kind of parable, containing something a bit more hidden. You don’t need to get personal to stir up emotion. This approach stands out more in classical music, like Mozart, or Beethoven and Bach, and without comparing them, the melodies created by the Chassidic greats. Their songs obviously came from inside them and where they were spiritually at the time, but they didn’t reveal their emotional world. When the Alter Rebbe composed a melody, it’s true that he breathed himself into that melody, but he’s not there to tell me exactly what he was experiencing at the moment he wrote the song.
In recent years, you’ve participated in the Tzama project, with unforgettable performances of old Chabad tunes. You’ve also participated in huge Tzama concerts at Binyanei HaUmah in Yerushalayim.
It’s hard to overstate the effects of Tzama and the hugely broad-based movement that’s come out of it – the concerts and albums and the multi-day Chassidut fair. It’s something very, very important and powerful in a lot of ways, with a lot of repercussions. It’s clear that these aren’t concerts where you come for an hour of fun and then you go home. When I look at the phenomenon or the movement from above, I see that it’s producing tremendous changes.
A lot of singers who call themselves “secular” took part in the Tzama initiative, and they achieved amazing things through it. They’ve created outstanding duets and executions there that are very exciting. It’s an extraordinarily electrifying concert, and it’s done with very pure motives.
The idea of bringing out the power of Chassidic melodies, and of including many artists who aren’t religious, who connect with the audience and themselves through niggunim, is a really important gift and a really important building block in the spiritual and social process that we’ve been undergoing here as a nation in recent decades.
Aside from playing music together, have you formed deeper connections with other artists, connecting through serving Hashem?
I’ve had the opportunity to connect with a wide and varied spectrum of artists, and some of those connections have developed into friendships of many years. Generally, artists in Israel are very deep people who are searching, and many Israeli musicians are on a very high spiritual level. Working together as artists leads naturally and immediately to questions, conversations and learning that’s a lot deeper. Some of these friendships have developed into chevrutot, and some became dear friends. It’s a wonderful gift.
● This interview was originally published in Hebrew in Karov Eilecha.