On Aug. 21, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation will host internationally acclaimed Jewish bluegrass musicians Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg of Nefesh Mountain in a special Shabbat at 6:15 p.m through Zoom.
“Normally an in-demand touring act, Doni and Eric helped so many of us through the early months of the lockdown by holding a series of live events called Concerts of Love and Healing, which were broadcast live from their own living room and they are now coming to yours,” Aviva Janus, director of congregational learning and programming, wrote in a statement.
Lindberg and his wife, Zasloff, met as young musicians on the artists’ scene in New York. They realized a common interest in songwriting and created the musical group, Nefesh Mountain.
“To describe the band, it’s a love story between us but also between bluegrass and Americana and Jewish tradition,” Lindberg said.
The two met their other band members in Brooklyn. Alan Grubner plays fiddle, David Goldenberg covers the mandolin and Max Johnson does bass.
Zasloff, a Jewish educator herself, said they have become like family. “Eric and I write all the music. We’re the mama and papa of the band. The music is our baby,” she said.
The songwriters will have a melody circling around an instrument, or sometimes it will pop in one of their heads while in the car and they’ll record it on a voice memo. Then they let their spirituality choose how to write Judaism into the song.
Lindberg said they refer to ancient texts for this part. “It connects us to our ancestors and our past.” He is also drawn to the idea that sharing these stories can connect them to other Jewish communities. “There are ways our grandparents taught us, and idiosyncratic ways Jews live together. There’s so much we try to unpack.” Their songs are a Jewish lens of folk music, he said.
“Bringing it to life with [the band members] and touring with them is like being a family,” Zasloff said. “You’re on the road, and we’re all unique in our way. It’s wonderful to bring this music to life with the instruments we love and the texts and the stories we love.
“Nefesh Mountain is truly an expression of who we are,” she continued. “We are American Jews. My mom was born in this country — and just like Jews in Easten Europe drew from music they lived with, klezmer that is — we are drawing from American folk music.”
The two try not to emphasize the uniqueness of their style because they don’t want it mistaken for a gimmick. That makes Lindberg cringe.
“It’s not a shtick. It’s the music we grew up on, and the feeling of being part of an authentic voice is an empowering, honest truth for us,” Zasloff said. The sincere pain, sorrow and joy that bluegrass expresses is the perfectly relatable way for her to share Jewish music.
The couple is proud to be able to share this spiritual and cultural music with Baltimore online, though the virtual experience is a new challenge for them. But the pair choose to focus on the positives of this change in lifestyle. For example, performing virtually allows them to cater to more audiences, especially those who couldn’t afford them before. Nefesh Mountain has also gotten creative with virtual workshops. Even when in-person concerts are safe again, they anticipate that they will continue some virtual projects.
“Obviously the Shabbat is on Zoom, but it is as interactive as we can be. It’s a soulful experience with our original melodies,” Zasloff said. “None of us can sing together. We can’t lead the congregation in the same moment. But people can sing along even if they’re muted, so I joke that you can be as loud as you can be since no one can hear you!”
She also appreciates that virtual concerts are somewhat more private. “We’re able to invite people into our homes and meet our dogs,” she said.
Nefesh Mountain has a new album coming out at the start of 2021. They will also continue to reschedule all 60 shows they had to cancel this year.
“As soon as the world comes back, we’ll be back. Until then, we’re grateful we can continue sharing in this new way,” Lindberg said.
The Shabbat performance will be available at harsinaiohebshalom.shulcloud.com/bluegrass-shabbat