Interview with Yehudah Katz

When did you first come to Israel?

I would like to say that my first journey to Israel was in 1967. On a conscious level I have no idea how I connected with Israel then. I had heard that a war had broken out in Israel and I knew I had to go there at that moment and help in some way. I didn’t know what I could do. I had never been there before; I didn’t even grow up in a Zionist community or youth group. My only two connections to Israel were that my father lived for two years on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv in 1937 and that every Shabbat he made a l’chaim, a toast, to peace in Israel. But since I was 16 years old I needed my parent’s permission, and they said “we are not sending you into a war.” So I didn’t go. I didn’t get to Israel until 1979.

Between that experience in 1967, and your first trip in ’79, did you maintain that feeling of connectedness to Israel?

In 1972 there was an Israeli shaliach that I met who was meeting kids talking about Israel. He was a veteran of the Six Day War, and I remember that I was very attracted to and very moved by everything that he said. That same year I met Shlomo Carelbach. It became clear to me during the next 23 years that I was blessed to be connected to Shlomo. One of the main themes that he spoke about and stressed over and over again was that Jerusalem was the holy city and the home of the Jewish people. At some point I said to myself – I can keep visiting, but that can’t go on forever; I gotta be there.

And in 1979 – what do you remember from that trip?

In 1979 I was working for the Jewish Federation of LA, doing outreach for unaffiliated Jewish teenagers, and they sent me on a trip to Israel. I remember vividly when the plane landed and my feet touched the ground, I said, this is it, I’m home. I had already done extensive traveling, been in over 50 US cities, and it became suddenly clear to me that Israel was the only place I could call home. I then developed a 10-year plan to make Aliyah – in fact it took me around 14 years.

During all that time in between, how did Israel figure into your life, even though you were in L.A.?

My feelings for Israel were very emotional and heartfelt. I played at weddings for 14 years in L.A and I can tell you that any time I sang a song with that mentioned the Beit Hamikdash or Jerusalem, I started to cry. I didn’t know why, but it seemed to happen very often. I remember that in 1989, when I had the opportunity to go the former Soviet Union with Reb Shlomo on what was the first officially government-sanctioned Jewish gathering in 70 years, I put together a band and I called it Promised Land. I thought it might convey the message to Soviet Jews that there was something beyond Russia and the Ukraine for them, that there was a promised land that was waiting for them – the land of Israel. For the next few years I traveled around with that band trying to convey this message that for the Jewish people there is a promised land. It was a concept that I heard Christians sing about, but I never heard Jews sing about it in the same way.

The Promised Land is not just about the physical land of Israel. To me, it speaks loudly about the connectedness among the Jewish people – our connection to Am Yisrael.

How do ahavat ha-aretz – love of the land, and ahavat Yisrael – love of Israel – relate to each other in Israel today?

In Israel, young people are brought up knowing that they are one part of a greater whole called “Am Yisrael.” That is what gives them the strength to go to the army and take a break from their personal lives and say, “for these years, what I am doing is only for Am Yisrael, not just for me.” This is something we need to convey to young Jewish people all over the world. There is more to my Jewish world than the community that I live in, the synagogue that I pray in, the school that I go to.

On a day-to-day level we need to be connected to this concept. They are me, I am you and you are we. This is one big body, and I need to be aware that I am part of it. That means that if something happens to a Jew somewhere else in the world, in Israel, Russia, Argentina I am also hurt, I also feel it. I need to feel it deeply.

Tell us a bit about how you got into Jewish music?

My earliest musical influences were my father singing niggunim (melody without words) at the Shabbat table. I remember wanting to sing with him, I also enjoyed sitting next to him in shul, listening to him sing with the chazzen. My father was a member of a choir when he first came to America, and as much as I really didn’t want to be there, his singing is what got me through those 2 to 3 hour sessions on Shabbat morning. It was sweet singing; I didn’t connect to it as prayer.

So you’ve been involved in Jewish music forever?

For various reasons I, I didn’t find my soul connection in the Synagogue and I drifted away from communal Jewish life. I did feel connected in the house and with my parents, but as a teenager growing up in the 60s, I soon found myself running away from Judaism.

I started playing guitar when I was 11. My earliest lessons were based on old American folk music. I also asked to be taught music of the Beatles, who had such a strong influence on my musically. I remember walking home from a guitar lesson and hearing that JFK had been assassinated. I only took lessons for 3 months; I guess I didn’t have the patience.

When was your first experience as part of a band?

I was part of a group with two of my classmates that we called “Music for All Occasions.” I remember our first gig was a Bat Mitzvah in 1963. We thought it was pretty cool. Our principal asked as if we would play at a wedding at the Yeshiva, I don’t think I knew more than four or five chords at the time. At the wedding a man came up to us and asked us “Can’t you play any normal music?” We were only playing Jewish music. So we told him that this was what the Rabbi had told us to play. Soon after the Rabbi told us we could go home because there wasn’t going to be any wedding. It turned out that the man had been the brother of the bride and he was so upset by the fact that there was only Jewish music that a fight broke out and the wedding was called off.

Sounds like a real ordeal.

I put my guitar away for some time after that. In hindsight there is a connection between that event and my stopping playing. I played basketball instead. All through college, I was very into rock and roll, it was a very big part of my life but I didn’t pick up a guitar to play.

So when did you pick that guitar up again?

In 1972 I was living in Florida and I began working in a drop in center for Jewish kids. I had to find someone who was willing to play the guitar for free, so I decided to do it. I suddenly had this regular gig playing every Saturday night in a coffee house. I played late night kumzitzes that were very emotional for me. I started putting the grooves I was used to from rock and roll together with Jewish music.

Did you say emotional?

I actually had some out of body experiences in those circles, maybe it was the music, the candles, the emotional experience, but I found myself floating above the circle, watching myself. It confirmed for me that there is a tremendous power in music. I didn’t know yet what it was, but I knew it was strong. I remember watching Jerry Garcia at a Grateful Dead concert and I saw a humble man expressing himself on the guitar. In those days guitar players used to strut around on stage, and here was a man just standing and playing and I saw an aura of light above him, shining on him. Music can move people, take you on a journey. The question is do you hold on to the moment or let it go by?

What would you say were the formative experiences that directed you to the kind of work you do today with AMI?

I think I’d trace it back to the time I mentioned, when I was working as a Jewish studies teacher in Florida in 1972 – that was when I met Shlomo Carlebach. I didn’t really know what his music was about.I was really into rock and roll at the time – I had been to see every pop rock band in the late 60s. I walked into the beit midrash at Temple Ner Tamid and there was this man sitting on a pillow in a circle of 21 people, with what looked like a giant Gemara (it was actually ‘Likutei Maharan’ by Rebbe Nahman of Breslov). I stayed for two and a half hours.

You’ve mentioned Shlomo Carlebach several times. What drew you to him?

I was so taken with the personal connection he had when he was teaching, and the joy that flowed from his heart when he was studying. So I started to go back to him for Shabbat and regular study sessions. I didn’t know that this is what I was searching for but I found it, and it was unbelievable.

How did the relationship develop after that?

I didn’t see Reb Shlomo much for a couple of years, because I was living in Texas and he didn’t come to Texas often. I do remember one time when he played in San Antonio and I got on stage with crutches and a cast and played guitar, because I just had to be near him.

When I moved to LA I saw him a lot. I started to bring my guitar wherever I went. I started to play more and music became a part of me and of my life. I went to every teaching that he offered.

I remember when he spoke; I would stare at his face with such intensity to make sure not to miss one word.

He would stay with friends in the neighborhood, who would invite us to come for breakfast the morning after a teaching. I would show up an hour early, sneak in the house, knock on his bedroom door, and ask if we could open a book together.

You refer to a change when you began going everywhere with your guitar. What happened, exactly?

Something intensified in the way I connected to music. I was playing in a wedding band in LA. I began incorporating much of Reb Shlomo’s music into our repertoire because it so spoke to my soul and I could easily and honestly share it with others.

Shlomo never sat down to write a song. He was just receiving gifts from G-d and giving them over to other people. He was a link in the channel. This is a dream for me, to be able to open my soul to receive gifts that I can give over and hopefully bring some joy to the world.

When did you actually come to Israel and could you say something about your perspective as an Israeli?

It was 1993 when my family and I had the honor of moving to Israel. My perspective on Israel is not much different than others, maybe just a bit more tolerant. Look at the way people in this country drive; more people are killed on the roads than in wars; they bring the battlefield to the highway. Somehow, through education, people have to learn that even though it is tense here and there has been an ongoing state of war for 60 years, for the betterment of yourself and society don’t take that war into your interaction with other people.

When I begin to be distracted by the tensions and conflicts that pervade Israel at so many levels, one thing that helps me to re-focus is the essence of kedushat ha-aretz – the sanctity of the land. I’ll give an example.

I remember after making Aliyah that I took a group of senior citizens from California to the Kotel on a Friday night and I told them to feel the vibe in their toes. There is no other place in the world where you are going to feel this feeling through your toes. You are standing on holy ground; you are like Moses. That particular feeling stuck with me for a long time but in a general sense it is always there, and it gives perspective – helps us distinguish between the static and what is really important.

What is your vision for the Jewish people?

I would like to see internal unity for Am Yisrael. Making peace with your neighbor is a giant step towards world peace. Too often, one Jew is ready to discount another Jew because he’s not the same as him. Even if he doesn’t believe in G-d, he’s still a Jew. Do you discount him? Do you suddenly say: ‘he’s not a member of the club anymore’?

We are living in a Jewish rejectionist society; Jews are rejecting other Jews. I believe that the only way to fix the negative is with positive, and we have a lot of fixing to do.

Many are saying that Israel is hurting and that our future is in jeopardy. How do you view this issue?

In Israel today we are lacking in leadership. Without leaders there is no nation. We are like a flock without a shepherd. One of the areas we are most hurting in is the lack of honest leadership.In the world it all comes down to what’s true and what’s false. It’s not as much about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s a matter of: can someone show me the truth, and help me connect to it in my day-to-day life. Show me a leader that we can all look up to as a model who is honest with himself and the people that he wants to lead. As human beings, we ate from the tree of knowledge and learned the differences between good and bad and right and wrong. “I’m good, you’re bad”; “I’m right, you’re wrong.” As a society we’re always so wrapped up in who’s right and who’s wrong that it often shields our eyes and our souls from seeing what the real truth is. We should be combating that by only being truthful.

In light of this, what should we be teaching our youth?

What we should be teaching young people is that if you start living a life of truth then you naturally put that into everything you do. We certainly have our differences, we have to be honest and admit them. But we also have to spend a lot more time remembering what we have in common. Be truthful to ourselves and truthful to each other. That’s what emunah – faith, is about. Of course life presents us with many challenges and obstacles to our faith. That’s when we really need to strengthen our faith, though sometimes it’s just going into my own room, turning on some music, and dancing until my heart is open enough to feel the pain or the joy of that moment. But once I make that deep, inner connection, I’m not only crying or laughing for myself – I’m expressing my emotions for all of Israel.

How does your ’emunah,’ your faith, factor into your hope for Israel?

During the war this summer, no matter where you lived in Israel, you had to feel that the daily events were so close to you.

Every Jew feels the pain that our brothers and sisters are experiencing when they are under attack, whether it be up north this summer, or in the western Negev right now. So many lives lost over the years, so many people feeling threatened. We feel the pain in a very real way. At the same time we thank G-d that we are so close to each other. We feel our emunah strengthened when we see miracles happening in front of our eyes. This summer we saw people coming together, like when a family from Ma’alot stayed with a family in Eilat that they did not even know. And it happened all over the place. That gives me a lot of faith.

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