By Shelley A. Sackett
Doni Zasloff has always felt like a “spiritual cowgirl.”
The songs she and her husband, Eric Lindberg, write and sing for Nefesh Mountain – the band they co-founded – draw from Jewish history, tradition, and religion, but they work in a musical idiom that wouldn’t seem at all Jewish – bluegrass.
It all started in 2010, when Zasloff met guitarist and banjo player Lindberg. Raised in Brooklyn, he attended Hebrew school and synagogue. He also spent summers with his father’s relatives in North Georgia, playing music with his uncles and learning their southern traditional styles, like Appalachian, bluegrass, and blues.
Jewish music was a big part of Zasloff’s traditional Jewish childhood in Philadelphia, where she attended synagogue, Jewish schools and camps. She joined all the theater productions from her Jewish youth groups and learned to chant from the Torah and lead services at a very young age.
In 2010, the two started playing music together and Lindberg opened Zasloff’s eyes and ears to the beauty and depth of old time Americana music. They see their music as the perfect expression of their love and identity as American Jews.
“For us, these are all fragments of who we are as Jewish Americans,” Zasloff said by phone from her Montclair, N.J., home during a break from the band’s busy tour schedule. “It’s our story of wanting to be authentic and honest while putting love out into the world.”
Since 2016, Nefesh Mountain has released four albums: “Nefesh Mountain” (2016); “Beneath The Open Sky” (2018); “Songs for the Sparrows” (2021), and “Live From Levon Helm Studios: A Hanukkah Holiday Concert” (2021).
On Nov. 29, they will illuminate the Shalin Liu Performance Center stage in Gloucester with the kickoff concert for their 2022 Hanukkah Tour.
The tour grew out of the couple’s desire to stay on top of their careers as musicians during the pandemic lockdown of late 2020. They wanted to live-stream an event into people’s homes, and Hanukkah seemed like a good time to do it.
“Hanukkah is a celebration, and we wanted to bring some light into a very dark year and dark time for everybody,” Lindberg explained by phone.
The band got together at the Levon Helm Studio in Woodstock, N.Y. After their live presentation, they had all the audio recordings. “We thought, ‘Let’s just get it out there,’ ” Lindberg said, and they imprinted a CD and started streaming it on Spotify and other social and music media. In 2021, they took the album on the road with their first Hanukkah Holiday Concert Tour, which also opened at the Rockport venue.
“Touring is harder now than even before the pandemic, but it’s the only way to make a sound living as a musician,” Lindberg said, referring to the financial impact of streaming on artists. The model, he says, hasn’t changed in 100 years. “You come up with an album, go out on the road and meet people, and it becomes part of your career.”
Their repertoire (and the album) includes “Donna, Donna” and several by American folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie – who penned the music to a “baker’s dozen” of Hanukkah songs. “We’re kind of an Americana folk band, and it’s fun to bring this music to life within the context of what we do,” Lindberg said.
Lindberg specifically recalls recalled one Hanukkah from his youth when his parents played Harry Belafonte’s 1959 Caribbean version of “Henei Ma Tov” right after they lit the Hanukkah candles. He remembers listening to this song, watching the candles and feeling “this otherworldly thing. Wherever music transports us to is a place I feel lucky to go,” he said. “Donna, Donna,” based on an Eastern European Yiddish folk tale, has that same spirit that, to Lindberg, “fits the vibe of Hanukkah.”
Their 2012 album, “Songs for the Sparrow,” also evolved out of the couple’s shared experiences and Jewish heritage. American Songwriter described it as “arguably some of the best bluegrass ever made.”
In 2018, Zasloff and Lindberg took a trip to Poland and Ukraine, visiting many of the cities and towns where their ancestors had lived and met violent deaths during the Holocaust.
At the cemetery where Lindberg’s great-grandfather was buried, a huge swarm of sparrows suddenly flew overhead. “There was something in that moment that we thought about until we got home. The song, ‘A Sparrow’s Song’ is for them – the lives that were lost, the voices silenced,” Zasloff said.
A few months after their they returned home, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people. The next morning, Lindberg, still shaken, woke early and started working on a melody. Zasloff joined him, and “Tree of Life,” a somber banjo song that ends with the words, “Oh sweet spirit hear my prayers/help these words heal someone out there,” poured out of them. The song also appears on the album.
“We’re not politicians. As musicians, this is what we do,” Zasloff said.
The Nefesh Mountain website, nefeshmountain.com, calls their music “the place where American bluegrass and old-time music meet with Jewish heritage and tradition.” Zasloff chafes at attempts by others to label their music as Jewish Bluegrass, “Jewgrass” or other mash-ups.
“There’s no kitsch in our music,” she said. “It’s our truth.” Θ