July 23, 2024
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Yoni Stokar Releases Debut Album ‘Atzeres’

Yoni Stokar playing at the Grow Torah Harvest Festival in September 2022.
(Credit: Danny Landesman)

Yoni Stokar, a New Jersey-based musician and composer, just released his debut album, “Atzeres,” which started streaming this week. The album features ten original songs, a combination of nigunim and liturgical melodies that fans have described as “soul-stirring,” “directly from heaven,” or simply put, “the fire emoji.”

While Stokar drew from a variety of musical styles and sounds for “Atzeres,” the one thing they have in common is that they all pay tribute to the various communities that provided musical inspiration all throughout his life and played “key parts” in his Jewish journey. Stokar explained that the songs from this album were born of special moments that occurred at different stages up to now.

“One of those moments was when I was davening with one of my kids and we were humming a little diddly and started singing a line together.” There was also the time he was pulling into the parking lot for a tailgate at a concert with musical colleague and band co-owner Jeremy Litton.

Yoni playing a chosson’s tisch during a wedding in 2018.
(Credit: Eli Robinson)

“We were singing a part of an unfinished song that I had been singing with my son the day before and we ended up writing the second part together.” Another song came to him following the bris of his other son. “I was standing in the sukkah, wearing my son in the baby carrier, hanging out with my guitar, and this melody came into my head,” he recalled.

Motzei Shabbat in the Stokar home is a time for “musical havdalah” where he sits with his guitar to sing and reflect. “Yehei Ravah,” the third song on the album that features vocal and musical accompaniment by Mutty Shur, came from one of those moments

A professional musician for almost 20 years, Stokar also works as an occupational therapist. Stokar is a formally-trained drummer and a self-taught guitarist and has been playing with his band, Ta Shma Orchestra, entertaining crowds at simchas and events all over the United States and the world. Born in New Orleans, Stokar lived in Teaneck and the Upper West Side for many years and now lives in Fair Lawn with his wife, Chavie, and their two children. He is currently the chazzan at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, and has also been a chazzan in other parts of the country. Some of those experiences contributed to some of the material on the album.

Yoni playing at a Jewish memorial service in Tarnów, Poland in June 2018. (Credit: Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Tarnów)

In 2019, Stokar was hired by the New Orleans shul Anshe Sfard, where his great-grandparents attended, as a weekend musical guest, and to lead High Holiday davening. “I’ve always been taken with New Orleans-inspired music like jazz, funk, second-line music, and I returned from that series of trips on a high from being in that kind of environment.” The experience inspired a second-line version of L’cha Dodi, which became one of Stokar’s signature tracks on his album.

On the track titled, “Hachasidim,” renowned musician Andy Stadtman plays the mellifluous sounds of the mandolin. The song was originally called “The Cancellation Nigun,” following an abrupt cancellation by one of Stokar’s occupational therapy clients on Rosh Chodesh Adar a few years back. “Literally in the moment that I turned around after the client closed the door in my face, I started humming the hook of this melody.”

When Stokar told his rebbe, Rav Judah Mischel, about his idea to call it “The Cancellation Nigun” Rabbi Mischel suggested he change it to “Nigun Bittul.” One Shabbos morning in shul, Stokar’s wife started humming the melody during the recitation of “Av Ha’Rachamim” and realized that the words fit in perfectly with the nigun. At first, Stokar was resistant to the idea of renaming the song because he had grown quite attached to the story that went along with it. But he soon decided the song should not be about cancellation but rather about embracing Hashem. The concept of bitul, Stokar added, is a middah of Hashem who is constantly being mevatel all of our less than perfect actions.

Yoni playing at a Jewish memorial service in Tarnów, Poland in June 2018. (Credit: Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Tarnów)

The “Stollel Nigun’’ is a ballad that holds a special meaning for Stokar. About 15 years ago, he and a few friends started a makeshift kollel in his parent’s Teaneck basement during their college winter break. Sitting by the fireplace in the wee hours of the morning, the young men were singing a little bit when this melody struck him. “It’s special to me because that was such a special, formative time in my life, and for so many others.” He said that since then “The Stollel’ has evolved into a Neo-Chasidic grassroots movement.

Atzeres, the title track, is the ninth song on the album, and has a three-part melody. Each of the three melodies came to Stokar during one of the Shalosh Regalim, and he came up with the last part during Shavuot, which is referred to as Atzeres in the Torah. “The song really overwhelmed me in an amazing way, where multiple parts could come together like that with this connection to the Shalosh Regalim.” Because Atzeres can also translate to “assembly,” Stokar felt that this song was the perfect impetus to start working on the album. “I remember playing it for my wife and we were singing this one part and she said that I now have what I needed to complete the album.” Stokar added, “ I really have to give my wife the credit for giving me the boost to get this project off the ground.”

Yoni Stokar playing at the Grow Torah Harvest Festival in September 2023.
(Credit: Danny Landesman)

The cover art for Atzeres, drawn by his friend and New York-based artist Joel Golombeck, portrays a group of Jewish people of varying backgrounds en route to gather and ‘assemble’ somewhere. “I was telling Joel that what I envisioned is what the assembly is—a gathering of different types of people from different places and different walks of life coming together in a central Har Sinai-like setting because this whole album is rooted in tefilah.”

To contact Stokar, email [email protected], or find him on social media at @yonistokar. To access his album on Spotify, go to https://spotify.link/WMvYmGmrpDb

The album cover for Yoni Stokar’s debut album, “Atzeres.” Original art by Joel Golombeck.
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