June 22, 2024
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June 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Day Job: Jewish Educator. Side Gig: Rocker

Is Jerry Garcia your rebbe?

The jam sessions started in 2016 or so, the year Eli Kohl, the new rabbi of Young Israel of Stamford, joined the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy faculty. There, the amateur keyboardist-guitarist encountered several fellow music-makers: Rabbi Tzvi Bernstein (drums), Rabbi Alex Ozar (guitar) and Peretz Cik (piano and vocals).

“Stamford is a small but tight-knit community,” Cik said, “so the musicians naturally just found each other pretty quickly.” The first performances were informal, enhancing Bi-Cultural events like Rosh Chodesh and school assemblies, then moved out into the community to Young Israel and Chabad of Stamford, and then word spread and the band started playing at birthday parties.

It was all about the music, Kohl said, and, for Cik, “I joined the band because it was just fun—and why not?”

That spirit of fun has defined Three Rabbis and a Cik ever since. Even the name is a romp: “We thought ‘Three Rabbis and a Cik’—pronounced chick—would be cute,” Kohl said.

Ozar left the band in summer 2018 when he was hired as rabbi of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale and was replaced by BCHA Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Avi Block.

Word spread in the Stamford community and in 2019, the band got a call from Glen Karow, manager and co-owner of Six Thirteen, who thought live music might draw a Saturday-night crowd to the restaurant. “We packed the house,” Kohl recalled. “It was a lot of fun.”

After more than a year away from Six Thirteen, the band just returned to that stage on June 12 in honor of Karow’s birthday, adding regular guest bass-player Nathan Janette to the lineup. “That night, I guess we were Three Rabbis, a Cik and a Computer Programmer,” Kohl quipped.

Kohl started playing piano as a kid. He wanted to go to music school, but life steered him to the rabbinate instead. “I played Zeppelin, The Doors, Grateful Dead, and then Jerry Garcia died and I got into Phish and followed them for 20 years on their summer tours and some winter concerts,” he said.

For Kohl the teen, this music provided “a big tikkun from the anger and angst and challenges of growing up,” he said. “Going into grunge and punk and then discovering Jerry Garcia really helped me change gears. Jerry is a real rebbe in many ways. There’s a lot of depth to the music, not only a great groove.”

Kohl pointed to the Dead’s poet-lyricist, the late Robert Hunter, as an example of musical inspiration. A Stamford High School graduate, Hunter wrote prose that added spiritual depth to the Dead’s music, returning again and again to a narrative of redemption through musings and prescriptions around the search for meaning and light. Hunter’s lyrics for the song, “Scarlet Begonias,” bears this out: “Once in a while you get shown the light / In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

For many, Phish’s performances, especially, can also be a meeting of the musical and the spiritual, said Kohl, drawing a lot of people who go to daven, dance and create community.

This concept is a particularly Jewish one, he said; just look at Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, zt”l, who taught that music has the transcendent power to bring people closer to God and to one another. “All Chasidic music is about the journey, celebrating with friends and being on the road,” Kohl said.

The rabbinical life, it turns out, offers plenty of creative opportunities for a rocker at heart. Three Rabbis and a Cik choose from a lot of what Kohl called “low-hanging fruit” that comprises their mishmash repertoire of styles: the classic jam bands like Grateful Dead and Phish, ’70s classic rock, ’90s alternative, folk.

At their triumphant Six Thirteen return, Three Rabbis and a Cik played some old-time rock for the first time, like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Which raises the question: Is there anything off-limits for a musical ensemble of observant Jews?

“I’ll play it all,” Kohl said, recalling the time he took flak for playing a Pink Floyd selection, given frontman Roger Waters’ anti-Israel rhetoric. “I’ll play anything that’s got a good groove, good lyrics. There’s no conflict with Judaism: You gotta rock and roll!”

The group plays a range of Jewish music as well, drawing from the likes of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band and Moshav Band.

“I like all styles of music, Jewish and secular,” said Cik. “I really enjoy picking apart the music theory behind music from different eras—chasidic, klezmer, folksy stuff, as well as mainstream Jewish music. On the secular side, whatever it is, I’ll play it: classic rock, ’90s alternative, reggae. My personal favorites are Yosef Karduner, Dave Matthews Band, Moshav Band and Simon and Garfunkel, to name just a few.”

Cik has been playing piano since age 6. The youngest of four children in a renowned musical family, he had the advantage of watching his older siblings play and learning from them.

“Making music gets me energized in a way nothing else can,” he said. “Then, when making music with other people and amplifying it so that hundreds of people are part of the experience, the energy gets multiplied many times over.”

Playing in a band affords a rich opportunity to keep growing as a musician, Cik said, a way to improve by transcending the self. “I really like playing with other people who have been exposed to different types of music because it forces me to learn songs I don’t know and step outside my comfort zone,” he said. “For most of my life, I played solo. When you play with other people, it will sound bad if everyone just does whatever they want. Playing with a band requires you to step back and contribute just the right amount so it adds to the whole and does not overwhelm.”

In July, Three Rabbis and a Cik will be down one rabbi, when bandmate Avi Block makes aliyah with his family, but the band and the name will endure. With plenty of musicians to choose from—“Rabbis are a dime a dozen in this biz,” Bernstein said—recruiting a new member shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

If you are interested in booking a gig, please contact Rabbi Eli Kohl at [email protected].

By Cynthia Mindell


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