May 19, 2024
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Distant Cousins’ Homecoming in Teaneck: Indie, Folk and Pop Idioms With a Dollop of Jewish Values

Remember those kids in high school who played music and managed to convince everyone that one day their classmates and teachers would boast that they knew them when? On Wednesday, February 27, those who remember Dov Rosenblatt and Ami Kozak from Torah Academy of Bergen County will have the chance to hear these talented musicians, whose fame is growing in venues ranging from recordings to commercials and movies, team up with Duvid Swirsky from Israel for a concert appropriately titled “Homecoming” at Teaneck’s Debonair Music Hall.

Now based in Los Angeles, Messrs. Rosenblatt, Kozak and Swirsky are known collectively as Distant Cousins. Their debut album, “Next of Kin,” was released in 2018, but as individuals they have been making their mark on the music world, both in and out of the Jewish community, for years.

Their appearance in Teaneck is part of the group’s East Coast tour that will take them to sites in New York, New Jersey, Boston and Delaware. It will include not only concerts, but also a project they call “Cousins in the Classroom,” which involves meeting with students, usually in Jewish schools, and guiding them to turn their stories into songs that the group can help them record.

Jewish Bands

Before Distant Cousins was formed in 2012, Mr. Rosenblatt, now 37, was the founder and lead singer of the Jewish rock band Blue Fringe, while Mr. Swirsky, 42, was a founding member of the Israeli folk-rock band Moshav.

In 2012, just before relocating to Los Angeles, Mr. Kozak, then 25, bumped into Mr. Rosenblatt’s mother in Teaneck. “She had been one of my teachers at TABC,” recalls Mr. Kozak, “and when she heard I was moving to LA, she insisted I look up Dov, who was already there.”

Jewish Networking

Mr. Rosenblatt, who grew up in Teaneck, spent a year and a half at Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) in Israel, and then earned his degree from Yeshiva University, and Mr. Kozak, who is from Englewood, knew each other quite well even before they both wound up on the West Coast. They had both been active in the music scene in and around New York and New Jersey.

A graduate of the Boston-based Berklee College of Music, Mr. Kozak was eager to pursue not only band work in California, but also commercial and marketing opportunities in advertising. In addition to singing, he plays bass guitar and composes music.

Once in Los Angeles, he did indeed meet up with his old friend from Bergen County, discovering that Mr. Rosenblatt, whose wife is from California, not only sings, but also plays drums and acoustic guitar.

Playing at JFK

Mr. Swirsky, who was raised in Israel at Moshav Mevo Modi’im, the music community founded by Shlomo Carlebach, was also in Los Angeles, singing and playing a slew of different stringed instruments in the Moshav band.

He had already been picked to be the singing voice of guitar-playing musician Eddie on ABC’s “A Million Little Things.”

He actually met Mr. Kozak three months before the latter relocated to the West Coast, mostly because Mr. Kozak’s then-girlfriend was an enthusiastic fan of Moshav. When Mr. Kozak knew she would be flying into New York from Australia, he hired Moshav to play at JFK Airport so he could propose to her while the band performed.

“He flew me and Moshav in to play a song for her as she landed,” Mr. Swirsky recalls.

“Not on the tarmac, but in the terminal,” Mr. Kozak laughs. “And then they came back, and we had a really nice l’chaim.”

Once Mr. Kozak actually made the move to California, it took Mr. Swirsky about three months before he realized the new, talented musician was the fellow who had hired him to play at JFK.

Forming the Band

The fateful meeting took place in 2012 while their respective bands were playing a show together. When Mr. Kozak heard a song Messrs. Swirsky and Rosenblatt had written, “When We Love,” he offered to produce it and, in short order, Distant Cousins was formed.

“We chose the name as a reference to our long-time familiarity with one another,” says Mr. Rosenblatt. “We’re not really related except in the sense that all Jews are basically cousins.”

Mr. Swirsky says he liked the name because “it evokes a familial vibe and that’s how we all met, through our other bands, and it really did feel like this large extended family.”

Movies and Television

They first used the name when writing a song for the 2013 film “Coffee Town” starring Josh Groban.

Since then, their music has been popping up all over. Their song, “Everybody Feels It,” was used in a commercial for the German soft drink Lift and on the NBC medical drama “Heartbeat.” “On My Way” was used in Macy’s commercials for the company’s “Denim Nation” campaign, and “Raise It Up” was heard on television’s “Graceland” for USA and “Criminal Minds” for CBS. “Fly Away” was used in the CW series “Reign,” and “Burnin’ Up” was featured in a trailer for the 2015 Will Ferrell comedy “Daddy’s Home.”

In 2014, their song “Are You Ready (On Your Own)” appeared as part of the soundtrack of the 2014 film “This Is Where I Leave You” and, just recently, in the trailer of the 2019 animated film “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.”

Dayenu

They especially enjoyed working on the film “This Is Where I Leave You,” a dysfunctional-family drama starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda and Adam Driver. In the film, the family patriarch dies and the family feels compelled to fulfill his final wish that they sit shiva for him without killing each other. Distant Cousins’ song plays in the movie’s final credits.

“Movie licensing has been a dayenu for us,” says Mr. Kozak. “If we would’ve just gotten a movie, that would have been enough, and if the movie were good, that would’ve been enough, but the funny thing is, of all the movies, ‘This Is Where I Leave You’ was such a heavily Jewish-themed film.”

Judaism still plays a key role in the lives of all three Distant Cousins. They are all married and members of the Orthodox Jewish community. Among them, there are now eight children, ranging in age from seven years to nine months. They regularly gather together as an extended family for Shabbat dinners or for coffee in the park on mornings after a gig.

They recently performed a concert at the Peppermint Club in West Hollywood to benefit the survivors of the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and, last fall, they released a single, “Lights On,” to celebrate Chanukah.

Jewish Overtones

But, they say, Judaism is not blatantly visible in most of their current music. “We all have Jewish-music backgrounds, and even if the music we’re writing and playing now is not overtly Jewish, there are still overtones. It’s ingrained in us,” says Mr. Kozak. “It’s because of who we are and because we try to make everything we do authentic,” adds Mr. Rosenblatt.

Jewish Values

Even though their music is attracting attention from the greater community, the Distant Cousins are convinced their Jewish audiences will hear the influences of their background.

“It can’t help but find its way in, even in the way we relate to each other as a band. In a very profound way, there is something about Jewish values and that commonality that helps us in the creative process to understand each other. When you’re co-writing songs and talking about deeper ideas and trying to get something meaningful across, it’s helpful to have that background to inform our opinions on all sorts of things,” says Mr. Kozak.

Mr. Swirsky says it’s also important to remember that the Jewish music scene itself has expanded and matured. “I’ve always wondered what Jewish music is. We’re just trying to do the best work we can. We want the songs to stand up by themselves without any support from any particular community, but the fact that we’re Jewish naturally seeps into everything because it’s who we are,” he says.

Striving for Excellence

Distant Cousins are hoping many of their friends, new and old, will come to the concert on February 27 at the Debonair Music Hall (formerly Mexicali Blues) in Teaneck. The doors open at 6, and the music will start at 8. Tickets can be purchased by calling 201-833-0011 or by going to DebonairMusicHall.com.

Those interested in learning more about “Cousins in the Classroom” or bringing members of Distant Cousins to their schools for a workshop should contact [email protected].

Through the workshops, Mr. Swirsky says the group endeavors to impart their working style to students, an effort he attributes to their Jewish values.

“In our tradition, you’re encouraged to debate and to challenge, and it’s not about ego. It’s about getting to the bottom of it, getting to the truth, trying to get the best song possible. So we keep each other in line and will say things to each other like, ‘That lyric is cheesy; we can do better.’ And hopefully we can all hold on to that as a band,” says Mr. Swirsky.

By Susan L. Rosenbluth,
TheJewishVoiceAndOpinion.com

 

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