Printer Friendly


The musical collaboration of multi-instrumentalist Eric Lindberg and vocalist Doni Zasloff embodies a love story with interpersonal and artistic dimensions. They began working together in the early 2010s to create material for Zasloff s vocal solo career (under her stage name Mama Doni), and as the love between them grew--they are now married--so did the love between their Jewish and American identities, which manifested as Jewish Americana music. As Zasloff explains, "when we sat down to write music together, it always came out in a bluegrass way. It just felt so spiritual. This other side of us starting pouring out" (Bochner 2018). Together as Nefesh Mountain, they create music that explores the intersection of Judaism and bluegrass, bridging the gap between the sacred and the secular--their music can (and does) exist both in synagogues and at bluegrass festivals. Indeed, with two full-length albums (Nefesh Mountain and Beneath the Open Sky), a full touring schedule at Jewish and secular venues, and press from such leading sources as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Bluegrass Today, Tablet Magazine, and The Times of Israel, Nefesh Mountain has experienced commercial success that crosses boundaries of religion and art.

Despite this growing recognition, Zasloff and Lindberg still encounter listeners who assume that they mean for their music to be humorous. In a 2017 interview with The Bluegrass Situation, Zasloff explains: "Whenever we're traveling in airports--this just happened, like, two days ago: Someone came up to me and saw a banjo and said, 'What do you do?' 'Oh, we play bluegrass.' 'What kind of bluegrass?' 'We play Jewish bluegrass.' And then there's a roar of laughter "(Nefesh Mountain and Kaia Kater 2016). Yet their music dispels perceptions of "Jewgrass" as a gimmick, novelty, or parody by demonstrating the myriad connections between Judaism and bluegrass. On the surface, bluegrass's longtime embrace of religion--its use of biblical texts and roots in Gospel music--makes for a natural union of Judaism and bluegrass, but the connections go deeper: both share love of family, respect for ancestral roots, an emphasis on oral tradition, and an ethos of joy mixed with sorrow. Both also maintain spiritual connections to mountains--bluegrass with the Appalachian Mountains and Judaism with Mount Sinai.

Finally and most significantly, bluegrass and Judaism both have created cultures around a longing for "return." Bluegrass came of age in small Appalachian towns, such as Bill Monroe's hometown of Rosine, Kentucky, that existed "at the boundary of prosperity and persistent poverty" (Miller 2012, 158). As bluegrass musicians migrated from their towns to burgeoning cities in the early to middle twentieth century, their music began to evolve--Rosenberg notes that "instead of dealing directly with the problems of urban life, bluegrass responds to them by offering contrasting themes and tunes from down home, this happier, simpler existence" (2005, 8). The music became rooted in the idea of the "urban hillbilly" who has moved to a major city but longs for his old life--as Smith notes, "country music in general and bluegrass in particular developed as a nostalgic home link for displaced southerners working in northern and midwestern factories" (1995, 91-92). Despite the city's challenges for early bluegrass performers, the music presented opportunities to leave the toil of working on the farm, an escape from the harsh realities of city life, and an opportunity to gain prestige. The appeal of these opportunities juxtaposed with the desire to return to a simpler existence parallels the diasporic Jewish experience--perpetually in tension between joy and sorrow, between the tropes of homecoming and exile, preserved textually and culturally--as Sidra Ezrahi writes: "Psalm 137 generates the poetic value of exile... 'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning, let my tongue cleave to my palate...' The malfunctioning writing hand and singing tongue are both the signs of and the punishment for amnesia. Singing becomes mnemonic compensation for absence" (2000, 9). Nefesh Mountain thus fits the diasporic paradigm, projecting an identity honest to their roots as the bearers of collective memory formed as a reaction to estrangement from physical home. Ezrahi continues:
But what is "remembered" is of course also imagined, as mimesis takes
on the authority and license of memory and memory becomes an article of
faith. In its most radical form, memory and imagination describe a
circularity that promotes an aesthetics of the whole. The postmodern
critique of romantic notions of homecoming invokes the culture of exile
as a response to the dangers of circularity and closure... writing the
exile thus becomes more than a response to displacement (and in its
generic form does not depend on physical dislocation at all); it
becomes in itself a form of repatriation, of alternative sovereignty.
(2000, 9-10)

By writing Jewish bluegrass, Zasloff and Lindberg join a long line of diasporic artists, writers, and thinkers who have repatriated themselves through faith placed in memory, utilizing their creation as a holy surrogate for physical space. They have swiftly fabricated a home for themselves in Jewish America and in America (without the qualifier) through honest expression of their dual identities, and the duo's growing renown has shifted audience perception of "Jewgrass" from parody to fascination and finally to deep appreciation. Ultimately, by exploring the intersection of Judaism and Americana, Zasloff and Lindberg seek to deepen understanding of their American Jewish experience, rooted in a brand of progressive Judaism unique to America.

They are certainly not the first musicians to juxtapose Judaism with Americana. As Bochner notes:
Banjoist Henry Sapoznik has recorded 35 albums of tunes combining both
Yiddish and American elements, while clarinetist Margot Leverett has
played with the Klezmer Mountain Boys and her own bluegrass band; Jerry
Wicentowski, an Orthodox Jewish bluegrass musician, is well-known and
highly lauded for his work on albums like "Shabbos in Nashville."
However, Nefesh Mountain are the first to stick to a purely Appalachian
sound, and thus may be the first Jewish band to gain real "street cred"
in the world of bluegrass. (2018)

The openness of the progressive Jewish community to Nefesh Mountain's ingenuity is rooted in the innovations of Jewish singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, who was probably the first and certainly the most successful composer to combine American musical sounds with Jewish texts and themes. She crafted her Jewish-American brand within the musical style of the American folk revival of the 1960s; concurrently but separately, bluegrass came to be associated with American folk music, further setting the stage for the emergence of Nefesh Mountain several decades later.


Jerry Kaye, former longtime director of the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI)--the original summer camp of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now known as the Union for Reform Judaism)--often recalls a story in which he played a recording of Sing Unto God, Friedman's first album, for a group of rabbis who were visiting the camp one summer during the 1970s. The album, in which Friedman set Jewish liturgical texts to melodies and instrumentation inspired by Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary, prompted the rabbis to proclaim that her music was very nice, but would never have a place in the synagogue. Nowadays, practically every Reform and progressive Jewish synagogue worldwide, as well as Conservative and even some Orthodox communities, utilizes her music and participatory style of worship. Friedman was certainly not the first composer to merge Jewish texts and themes with music from secular society, nor was she the only composer of her generation to merge Jewish texts with American folk music (her contemporaries Jeff Klepper and Michael Isaacson were also popular in her era). However, she was the first and certainly the most influential composer to draw inspiration from autochthonous American music--in her case, American folk music of the 1960s and 1970s.

Friedman's popularity grew immensely at OSRUI and other UAHC camps, as well as with the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY)--in particular, she "built a significant following at Union Institute through her late-night song sessions with the Chalutzim participants (boisterous one night and meditative another night), determined and serious teaching style, bursts of humor, and deep probing personal conversations" (Cohen 2017, 8). Had Friedman simply written Jewish music in the style of Joan Baez, she may not have had such a profound impact on liberal Jewish prayer--indeed, the folk revival influenced almost every American musician of her era. Instead, she vastly influenced Jewish worship by designing her music to be most useful for her camp sing-alongs. As Joshua Edelman notes, "[S]ongs would be used to get campers participating, having fun, and learning the basics of Jewish tradition. The music had to be fun to sing, quick to teach and easy to learn, and good for groups large and small" (Edelman 2013, 6-17). Thus, her music allowed campers to access spirituality in ways that were relevant and meaningful to their aesthetics. Perhaps most importantly, her style of music and worship aligned with her generation's anti-establishment mind-set, and nothing represented the establishment more than the synagogue's hierarchical style of worship and liturgical music rooted in the nineteenth century. Therefore, Friedman and her followers found summer camps and youth movements such as NFTY to be ideal settings to foster a deep sense of Jewish identity. As her popularity grew in these circles and later among college students and liberal clergy, she began to work at an increasing number of synagogues and universities throughout the progressive Jewish world.

The rabbis that Kaye spoke with that day did not consider that the youth generation which was so captivated by her music would become the leaders of the Reform movement in due time. As Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin notes:
Debbie created a revolution in Jewish music. She created an
authentically American Jewish nusach, an authentically American mode of
synagogue music. It was not to be the minor-key melodies of Eastern
Europe, and it was not to be the large organ sound of Central Europe.
Debbie Friedman took Reform Jewish music out of the choir lofts, and
she gave it back to the people, where it rightly belonged. She changed
the aesthetic of Reform Judaism, and with it, all American non-Orthodox
Jewish movements. (2018)

Friedman's profound influence opened the door to the notion of a holistic, identity-based merging of Judaism and American music, creating space for musicians such as Nefesh Mountain to explore their own brand of American-Jewish identity.


Bluegrass developed a relationship with both religion and the American folksong revival not long before Friedman did the same, although the forces that defined bluegrass as religious music and bluegrass as folk music were predominately unrelated. The Appalachian migrants in urban settings who fueled the growth of bluegrass in its early years rarely attended church due to feelings of inferiority in and distrust of urban churches. Therefore, gospel songs filled their unmet spiritual needs; accordingly, religious music (in the form of bluegrass gospel) comprises about 30 percent of the recorded and published output of the most influential and early bluegrass bands. (1) Christian sects from Appalachia share an informal and emotional approach to religion, marked by the feeling "that every person is his or her own preacher" (Rosenberg 2005, 232)--parallel to that of Friedman, who sought to create spiritual experiences outside of the realm of institutionalized religion. In short, bluegrass is ideally suited for people who do not attend church but seek a spiritual experience because the music "is a form of discourse about the sacred which occurs in a secular context" (231). This precedent set by the early bluegrass musicians has been wholly fulfilled by Nefesh Mountain in a Jewish context. As John Lawless wrote in Bluegrass Today: "[O]nly rarely have we heard a prominent Jewish counterpoint to the Gospel music that has been a part of bluegrass since Bill Monroes earliest recordings" (Lawless 2016).

The American folk music revival began to interact with bluegrass not long after Bill Monroe added Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to the Blue Grass Boys in 1945 (a lineup that brought early bluegrass to its full fruition). By the mid-1950s, the folk movement began to see itself in bluegrass, both through bluegrass's use of traditional repertoire and through the genres folk spirit. Bill Monroe once said, in line with the folk ethos, "I never wrote a tune in my life. All that music's in the air all the time. I was just the first one to reach up and pull it out" (quoted in Pareles 1996). The folk music revival found its home at folk festivals, which occurred predominately at college campuses starting around the late 1950s. Bluegrass entered these festivals informally through workshops and "picking sessions," which allowed the nascent genre to become a part of the intellectual conversation that drove interest in folk music. By the 1960s, bluegrass bands were a consistent presence at folk festivals. Nevertheless, bluegrass contains musical elements that more closely align the genre with country music than with American folk; indeed, bluegrass and country come from the same musical lineage. However, as Rosenberg explains, "At the beginning of the sixties Bill Monroe was... as a country music star, experiencing a decline in prosperity. By the middle of the decade his career had taken an upward turn, largely because of his 'discovery' by the revivalists" (2005, 166). Flatt and Scruggs would enjoy even greater prosperity within the revival. Interest in bluegrass among folk enthusiasts waned later in the decade as folk music entered the mainstream and merged with nascent rock music, although the genre would continue to maintain a niche following. Nevertheless, audience perception of blue-grass as folk has remained throughout its history, and because Friedman moved the progressive Jewish community to embrace the sounds and ethos of American folk music, the notion of a Jewish bluegrass band among Nefesh Mountain's Jewish audiences is not so far-fetched.

Despite these developments in the history of bluegrass, four decades would pass before artists began to marry Americana with Judaism, "perhaps for fear of inciting anti-Semitic tensions in the rural South... [yet] in our modern, more-interconnected world with its strong Christian embrace of Jews and their nation of Israel, those fears may seem less pointed, and more instances of Jewgrass... [are] coming to the forefront" (Lawless 2016). Indeed, the legacy of folk-based, religion-based Americana coupled with audiences' openness to innovation in exploring the juxtaposition of identities has led to a growing movement of artists (highlighted by Nefesh Mountain) merging bluegrass, blues, folk, and country with Judaism, Jewish spirituality, and Jewish texts, thereby symbolically linking the Jewish and American experiences to stake a new claim to belonging in American society.

One such artist exploring the connection of Judaism with Americana is Joe Buchanan. His music, rooted in his Texas upbringing, expresses the value of spiritual journey through the lens of both Judaism and country music. Buchanan's songs are reminiscent of James Taylor, "full of southern soul, country charm and a love for life" (Joe Buchanan to peform 2016). Another prominent artist in this realm is Saul Kaye, who is "seen by many as the 'king' of Jewish blues, having released four albums in the genre that range from twangy fingerpicking to more uptempo electric rock in the vein of B.B. King" (Friedman 2017). As Kaye explains, "our people have suffered forever, and blues is about suffering, blues comes out of the slavery experience. How come no one has put this together yet" (Quoted in Friedman 2017). Additional artists include: Brooklyn-based prayer leader and music teacher Joey Weisenberg, who has garnered praise for his bluesy, indie rockinspired takes on niggunim; Andy Statman, an Orthodox, Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist who plays bluegrass with his eponymous trio; Jeremiah Lockwood, leader of the band The Sway Machinery and known for his virtuosic blues guitar playing; and Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, who combine klezmer and bluegrass. Gabe Friedman notes:
In the end, American Jewish music and Americana music might actually be
two sides of the same coin. While Jewish musicians brought their
European influences with them when they immigrated to the US, they've
been forging their own American musical style for nearly half a
century, according to Mark Kligman, an ethnomusicologist at UCLA. "In
the '50s and '60s, most of American Judaism was leaning towards trying
to find its Americanness," he said. "[Jews] took European
elements--cantorial klezmer and other things--and started adapting
those. By the time you have an American-born generation in the 1970s,
around [the time of] Debbie Friedman... they wanted to have an
American-born tradition. (2017)

By forging new connections with Americana music and related genres, Nefesh Mountain and these other artists are honoring Friedman's legacy by exploring their own Jewish-American identities. Surely, Friedman (who died in 2011) would have never imagined that her legacy would include Jewish bluegrass, Jewish country, or Jewish blues. However, Zasloff and Lindberg's innovations and honesty clearly resonate with Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. An examination of musical and textual elements of their marriage of bluegrass with post-196os Jewish American religiosity will elucidate their ability to shift reception of their music from perception of humor to deep appreciation.


Nefesh Mountain's use of traditional bluegrass instrumentation and musical language allows them to be recognized by the bluegrass establishment, and their use of Jewish texts allows them to exist in Jewish spaces. On a deeper level, their uncovering of the interconnectedness of bluegrass and Judaism renders a sense of artistic honesty and integrity in both worlds. As Lindberg said in a recent interview:
This is real soulful honest true bluegrass mountain music... once they
hear us and understand this, they immediately understand we are doing
something very different and they feel our honesty. We want to make
sure that we are truly honoring scared Jewish texts and traditions as
we explore new ways to share them with the world. We are intent as well
on being honest and true with playing music in the American bluegrass
canon with its own language and instrumentation. (Klug 2016)

By exploring the honest expression of the intersection of Judaism and Americana, they seek to deepen understanding of the American Jewish experience, much as Friedman and all other Jewish-American musicians who explore the juxtaposition of their multiple identities have. A side-by-side comparison of selected Nefesh Mountain songs with traditional and popular bluegrass songs will explain this connection. (2)

Acknowledging their mutual self-interest in cultural preservation, Jewish thinkers and bluegrass musicians alike recognize "a lack of closure as the truest guarantee of continuity" (Ezrahi 2000, 10). Their shared love of family, respect for ancestral roots, emphasis on oral tradition, ethos of joy mixed with sorrow, spiritual connection to mountains, and culture of longing for "return" each map onto their complex relationships with the notions of home and dislocation from physical space. Nefesh Mountain is part of the American Jewish paradigm of existence in "neither redeemed nor purgatorial time, but simply the time of our lives; neither time fulfilled nor time suspended, but time spent; neither Zion nor Galut but Diaspora" (103). Both American Jews and the people of Appalachia are wandering, yet home; they are exiled from their mountains, yet culturally rich in their invented heritages. Certainly, the Appalachian migrants that gave rise to Americana culture would identify with the "persistent anxiety in Jewish self-definition" (235).

Nefesh Mountain's song "Brothers and Sisters (Hine Mah Tov)" from Nefesh Mountain exemplifies love of family. This song opens with a niggun--a Jewish melody sung without words, and a musical device instandy recognizable to Jewish listeners. As was typical compositional practice for Friedman, Zasloff and Lindberg intersperse the Hebrew biblical text with English verses that offer commentary on the scripture. The Hebrew text of "Brothers and Sisters," which comes from Psalm 133:1, translates as "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."' Zasloff and Lindberg expound this idea in their English verses, which speak to their love of family and of journeys, a common theme in bluegrass compositions:
We come from a tale told long ago/passed on by the waves and the wind
We've made it this far together you know/come brothers and sisters
let's sing!

Come gather 'round and hear the song/if you're the wandering kind
You can make it alone, but just so you know/we leave no one behind

Our mothers and fathers who've weathered the storms/grew strong in the
trials of their times

So we brothers and sisters, l'dor vador (4)/carry on with this song in
our minds

We'll sing out this song for years to come/in a story without an end
For how good it is to be among/our brothers and sisters and friends
(Nefesh Mountain 2016)

Similarly, "I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home"--a classic bluegrass song that bluegrass greats Mac Wiseman and Ralph Stanley recorded--speaks to a love of family and lineage. The song invokes love as a sense of loss and longing mixed with nostalgia, as if the lyricist is conjuring memories of home with a quiet smile. "I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home" is in a major key with a bright yet relaxed tempo, which supports the feeling of quiet, happy nostalgia rooted in love of home and family.

"On and On (L'dor Vador)" from Beneath the Open Sky exemplifies the theme of respect for ancestral roots. In this song, as in "Brothers and Sisters," Zasloff and Lindberg intersperse English verses between Hebrew text--in this case, the text "L'dor vador nagid godlecha," from the morning liturgy, which translates as "from generation to generation, we will tell of Your greatness." The prayer that this text comes from speaks to the sanctification of God across time, but Zasloff and Lindberg interpret this piece of text as an indication of the power of fathers, mothers, and our collective history, as in the first verse and chorus:
There is a past in every portrait, there is a truth in every tale
All the days that came before us are as the wind upon our sails
There is a forest in every father as he stands amidst the wild
There is a mountain in every mother, her sturdy force of heart and mind

Ldor vador nagid godlecha, the light in us shines on and on
L'dor vador nagid godlecha, the time may pass but it's never gone

The second verse links children to a generational chain through the duo's expressions of hope and roots in home:
There is no story without a sadness, and not a life without love
When we look back to the days that have passed us we hold on to the
lights above

There is a dream in every daughter, there is a song in every son
As all our tears are made of water, there is a home from which we come

Musically, the song is in a slow, lilting tempo, which lends a quiet, contemplative feeling. Although the 1950 Monroe song "Uncle Pen" is musically very distinct from "On And On," employing a fast tempo with a strong backbeat, the song also exemplifies respect for ancestral roots inherent in the value placed on the passing of generations. "Uncle Pen" tells the story of Monroe's uncle, the fiddler Pendleton Vandiver--a major musical influence in Monroe's life who was loved in the community for his playing. In the last verse of the song, Monroe expresses the sorrow he felt when Uncle Pen was no longer able to play his fiddle. Much like "I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home," "Uncle Pen" pairs a mournful story with an upbeat bluegrass feel. This juxtaposition suggests that although Monroe laments that his uncle could no longer play the fiddle, he revels in the value of his uncle in his life. Ultimately, the song demonstrates the complexity of emotions inherent to being a part of his uncle's lineage.

"River Song" from Nefesh Mountain exemplifies the value of oral tradition. In this song, Zasloff and Lindberg recount the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Noah's building of the ark, and the Jews' slavery and redemption in Egypt, linked thematically through the image of a river:
Long ago was a river bed runnin' through Eden when Adonai said:
"Don't touch the tree, don't touch the tree but the river in the
garden is your gift from me"

Just a bite and the waters crashed along the banks while the snake
Just a bite, just a bite and the river ran straight all through the

It sure gets hot working under the sun, but Noah's gotta build it
'fore the rivers come
Before they come, before they come gotta get in the boat before it's
all undone

Floating the earth all covered in blue the rain finally ceased for
this captain and crew
Two by two, two by two stomping their feet on a land renewed....

When times were tough around Egypt for miles, a mother had the river
to save her child
Carried the child, carried the child safely in the basket runnin' down
the Nile....

Years have passed and Moses heard the cries of his people and the
waters stirred
Let 'em go, let 'em go or the plagues will be upon you, Pharaoh

They fled the land and came upon the tide, the waters all around were
on their side
They walked on through, walked on through, safely passed as the waters
grew (2016)

In bringing out facets of these stories unique to their worldview, Zasloff and Lindberg offer their version of modern-day Torah commentary, thus demonstrating the value they place on oral tradition through their liberal Jewish lens. In the same vein, "River of Jordan," a bluegrass-gospel song released by Ricky Skaggs in 1982, tells of events in the Old and New Testaments traced thematically through the Jordan River. In the final verse, Skaggs laments that he may never see the Jordan River, but hopes that he will find a metaphorical Jordan river in his own life ("But I'll find myself an altar in an old-fashioned church/and my River of Jordan that will be"). As in "River Song," "River of Jordan" uses the image of the river to bring out themes that the composer wishes to emphasize--specifically, the "mighty power of God" and "cool waters"--thus, this song also exemplifies modern-day oral tradition rooted in biblical stories. As with Zasloff and Lindberg, Skaggs's use of river imagery offers listeners a personal presentation of biblical narratives--a sacred discourse in secular contexts that provides a spiritual gateway to listeners, many of whom do not attend churches.

"Russian Lullaby" from Beneath the Open Sky is in a minor key with a slow, mournful tone, yet expresses hope for future redemption--exemplifying the theme of joy mixed with sorrow:
Every you night you'll hear her croon a Russian lullaby
It's just a little plaintive tune when baby starts to cry
Rockabye my baby, someday there may be
A land that's free for you and me, and a Russian lullaby (2018)

Similarly, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys' 1946 song "Blue Moon of Kentucky" exemplifies the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow. Like "Russian Lullaby," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" is in a slow waltz tempo. The lyrics speak to Monroe's sorrow at losing someone he loved. Despite his sorrow, Monroe finds joy and positivity in moonlight. As is typical in bluegrass songs, he grounds his joy in nostalgia and love for his home, much like Zasloff in "Russian Lullaby."

Bluegrass has had both a physical and spiritual connection to mountains since its inception in Appalachia. Similarly, Judaism has had a physical and spiritual connection to mountains since the revelation at Mount Sinai. The tropes of exile and homecoming in Jewish culture are "expressions of a diasporic sensibility whose response to catastrophe is to build mimetic sites out of the ruins of original space" (Ezrahi 2000, 145). Thus, Nefesh Mountain's representation of mountains is their form of building spiritual sites on the collective memory of the loss of physical mountains. The Hebrew text of "Esa Einai" from Nefesh Mountain comes from Psalm 121, and Zasloff and Lindberg include English verses in the song that are a direct translation of verses 1-2:
I lift my eyes to the mountains/I lift my eyes to the mountains/I lift
my eyes to the mountains
Where does my help, where does my help, where does my help come

My help comes from Adonai/my help comes from Adonai/my help comes
from Adonai
That's where my help, that's where my help, that's where my help comes
from (2016)

By placing this psalm in a bluegrass context--where mountains are revered in a parallel loss of original space--Zasloff and Lindberg elucidate the congruity between mimesis as a building-block of cultural identity in both Judaism and blue-grass. The bluegrass canon contains myriad songs that use mountains as imagery or thematic material, but "Blue Ridge Cabin Home," released in 1957 by Flatt and Scruggs, particularly stands out for its connection of the Blue Ridge Mountains to feelings of nostalgia. By expressing a longing in this song for a permanent return to their home in the mountains and the eternal "peace" that their parents enjoy, Flatt and Scruggs demonstrate their deeply-held affinity for mountains as a source of comfort, memory, and spiritual connection. This desire parallels the diasporic trope of memory as faith and Sidra Ezrahi's argument that memory and imagination elevate a sense of wholeness--that writing (and singing) about exile represents repatriation and alternative sovereignty (for Zasloff, Lindberg, Flatt, and Scruggs, in all their cultural and religious identities).

"Bound for the Promised Land," from Beneath the Open Sky, represents a longing for "return," expressed as repatriation through memory. In Judaism, a longing for return to the promised land exists as a literal and metaphorical desire within the Diaspora, and Zasloff and Lindberg composed this song with that idea in mind:
On the edge of these stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye
For I see a fair and happy land and that's where my heart does lie
Where the orchards and fields that never fail and the olive and lemon
trees grow
Where the rocks and the streams the brooks and the vales and the milk
and the honey flow

I'm bound for the promised land my friends, I'm bound for the promised
O who will come and go with me?
I'm bound for the promised land (2018)

Although "Bound for the Promised Land" contains references to the biblical conception of Israel as a "land flowing with milk and honey," this song could just as easily be a secular bluegrass song about longing for a return home and embarking on a journey back to roots. That theme is also apparent in one of bluegrass's most famous songs, "Rocky Top." Written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and recorded by the Osborne Brothers in 1967 (and more than one hundred times by numerous artists since then), "Rocky Top" is musically very distinct from "Bound for the Promised Land"--the latter is in a minor key with a slow, lilting tempo while the former is in a major key and has a fast, frenzied tempo--but each song speaks to its composers' desire to return to their home. In the Bryants' case, "Rocky Top" expresses their love of the Tennessee mountains:
I wish that I was on old Rocky Top down in the Tennessee hills
Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top, ain't no telephone bills....

Rocky Top you'll always be home sweet home to me
Good old Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee, Rocky Top Tennessee....

I've had years of cramped up city life, trapped like a duck in a pen
All I know is it's a pity life can't be simple again (Bluegrass Lyrics)

In this song, the Bryants' longing for return connects with the desire for a simpler life, far away from the city. As with many bluegrass songs, including "Bound for the Promised Land," "Rocky Top" is rooted in feelings of nostalgia.

Finally, Nefesh Mountain's inclusion of several cover versions of classic blue-grass songs on their albums as an homage to the music's tradition further demonstrates the honesty in their bluegrass expression. For example, they include "Run Mountain" on Nefesh Mountain, a song recorded in 1949 by fiddler J. E. Mainer. They also include the Scottish folk song "Wild Mountain Thyme" on Beneath the Open Sky--a song that has been recorded by such diverse recording artists as The Doors, Joan Baez, and Ed Sheeran. In addition to those two songs, Zasloff and Lindberg have recorded cover songs in which they alter the lyrics to songs so as to offer both Jewish and personal perspectives. One such song is "I Want to Hear Somebody Pray" from Beneath the Open Sky--a traditional song from the Caribbean, documented by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (5) in 1962 on the island of Carriacou. The lyrics are simple:
I want to hear somebody pray
I want to hear somebody pray
Down in the valley and over yonder
I want to hear somebody pray (6)

In Nefesh Mountain's version of the song, they add original melodies as well as the following verses:
I want to hear somebody sing
I want to hear somebody sing
Down in the valley and over yonder
I want to hear somebody sing

I want to hear somebody's song
I want to hear somebody's song
Down in the valley and over yonder
I want to hear somebody's song (2018)

The use of the words "sing" and "song" in these verses is a nod to the Friedmanian tradition of prayer as singing. In addition, the practices of changing one key word in a verse to altet the meaning of a song and altering the melody of a song after the original melody has been sung through are both nods to the American folk tradition. Thus, the subtle changes from the original Lomax recording that Zasloff and Lindberg make in their version of "I Want to Hear Somebody Pray" allows the song to bridge the gap between the Jewish and bluegrass worlds.

Another example of their honest Jewish bluegrass expression, exemplified by a cover song with original lyrics, is "Singin' Jewish Girl" from Nefesh Mountain. Although early bluegrass was dominated by men--partially due to machismo attitudes, and partially because the genre was defined by the high male "lonesome" sound--women have made great strides into the world of bluegrass. Nefesh Mountain embraces this trend in their recording of this song:
Been all around the world baby mine
been all around the world baby mine
Been all around this world, I'm a singin' Jewish girl
been all around the world baby mine

I've been up and down this coast baby mine
I've been up and down this coast baby mine
I've been all up and down this coast with more ruach than most
I've been up and down this coast baby mine

I've been drivin' with my kids baby mine
I've been drivin' with my kids baby mine
I've been drivin' with my kiddies to all kinds of different cities
I've been drivin' with my kids baby mine (2016)

This song is a remake of the popular song "Banjo Pickin' Girl" which utilizes the same lyric construction. Zasloff's "Singin Jewish Girl" allows the musician to own her musical space by placing herself at the center of the story--a nod to the bluegrass world's burgeoning acceptance of women. The honesty of her portrayal of her experiences travelling the world performing as a mother coupled with the song's bluegrass musical language helps cement Nefesh Mountain's home in the bluegrass world, which values love of family and has long been defined by travel and migration.


There is no way to know what Friedman would have thought of this new wave of Jewish-Americana music, but her innovations undoubtedly made the innovations of today's American Jewish musicians possible. The emergence of these new artists in the last decade speaks to the uniqueness of the current era. With the softening of anti-Semitism in the rural south, Nefesh Mountain is one of many modern examples of artists who have brought disparate artistic and identity-rooted worlds together.

Despite the current eras unique openness to Nefesh Mountain, Zasloff and Lindberg are part of a centuries-long tradition of Jewish musicians taking inspiration from the culture in which they reside. As musicologist Edwin Seroussi explains:
The long path of exile... imposed on the Jews the need to accommodate
to the hosting non-Jewish societies. Therefore, each community engaged
in a musical dialogue with its non-Jewish surroundings, and through
time many different Jewish 'musics' emerged. Moreover, frequent
displacements and discontinuities affecting individual Jewish
communities exercised a major influence on the musical culture of each
group. (2001)

By engaging in intentional musical dialogue with Americana, Zasloff and Lindberg have forged their own model of Jewish music. This practice links them to countless Jewish composers who have forged Jewish "musics" in conversation with their surroundings--Salamone Rossi, who composed "Ha-shirim asher li-Shlomo" ("The Songs of Solomon"), a set of Jewish liturgical texts in the late-Renaissance/early-Baroque madrigal style in 1623; Louis Lewandowski, whose music for the synagogue from the 1800s incorporates the strict four-part harmony of church music; and Ernest Bloch, whose Avodath Hakodesh {Sacred Service) from 1930-1933 is a Hebrew setting of the Sabbath morning service for orchestra, choir, and baritone in the tradition of Richard Wagner--to name a few. For Zasloff, Lindberg, and each of these composers, musical hybridization represents a reclaiming of cultural space--a collective building of sovereignty in the absence of physical space, where exilic tropes of memory in lieu of Utopian resolution are their homecoming and the homecoming of the people whose identity they represent.

AARON KLAUS is an independent scholar based in the Detroit area. His research focuses on the interplay between Jewish music and Jewish identity from the mid-nineteenth century through the present. Mr. Klaus holds a Master of Music degree in Trumpet Performance from Towson University and is an experienced music educator and performer.


Permission to reprint lyrics included in this article were granted by the following rights holders: 'Brothers and Sisters (Hine Mah Tov),' 'On and On (L'dor Vador),' 'River Song,' 'Russian Lullaby,' 'Esa Einai,' 'Bound for the Promised Land,' 'I Want to Hear Somebody Pray,' and 'Singin' Jewish Girl,' Nefesh Mountain; 'Rocky Top,' House of Bryant Publications LLC; and 'I Want to Hear Somebody Pray,' Library of Congress courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.

The author wishes to thank Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff of Nefesh Mountain for their help and support in this project.

(1.) For further reading, see Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History, chapter 8.

(2.) The selection of traditional and popular bluegrass songs that serve as points of comparison throughout this section do not imply that Zasloff and Lindberg were directly inspired by those songs.

(3.) All translations in this section are by the author.

(4.) "L'dor vador" translates as "from generation to generation."

(5.) From the 1930s through the 1990s, Alan Lomax documented tens of thousands of traditional songs, pieces of music, dances, and body movements the Caribbean, England, France, Georgia (Republic), Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Spain, the United States, and Wales. The largest collection of Lomax archival materials is held in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. For the collection, see Alan Lomax collection (AFC 2004/004), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Many of his recordings from as far back as 1946 are available online at: "Sound Recordings," Cultural Equity, accessed Jul. 22, 2018, http://research.culturale-quity.otg/home-audio.jsp. For further reading, see: "Lomax Family at the American Folklife Center," Library of Congress, last modified Oct. 24, 2017,

(6.) From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.


"Bluegrass Lyrics." Bluegrass Lyrics accessed Jul. 23, 2018.

Bochner, Rea. 2018. "Nefesh Mountain Captures the Sound of Appalachia and the Soul of Judaism." Tablet Magazine (Jan. 22). tain-captures-the-sound-of-appalachia-and-the-soul-of-judaism.

Cohen, Judah M. 2017. "Higher Education: Debbie Friedman in Chicago." Journal of Jewish Identities 10, no. 1 (Jan.): 7-26.

"Different Strokes: Kaia Kater in Conversation with Nefesh Mountain." 2017. The Bluegrass Situation (Jul. 20).

Edelman, Joshua A. 2013. "The Debbie Friedman Problem: Performing Tradition, Memory, and Modernity in Progressive Jewish Liturgy." Liturgy 28(1): 6-17.

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. 2000. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Friedman, Gabe. 2017. '"Jewish Americana' music gets its moment in the spotlight." The Times of Israel (Jan. 17),

"Joe Buchanan to perform at Heritage Theater in Dewey." 2016. Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise (Bartlesville, OK), Jul. 20.

Klug, Lisa. 2016. "The hills are alive with the sound of Jewgrass." The Times of Israel (Mxy 20),

Lawless, John. 2016. "Esa Einai video from Nefesh Mountain." Bluegrass Today (Mar. 24).

Miller, Cynthia. 2012. "Rosine, Kentucky: Birthplace of Bill Monroe and American Blue-grass Music." In Born in the U.S.A.: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory, edited by Seth C. Bruggeman, 153-174. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Nefesh Mountain. 2018. Beneath the Open Sky. Compact disc and digital download.

-- 2016. Nefesh Mountain. Compact disc and digital download.

Pareles, Jon. 1996. "Bill Monroe Dies at 84; Fused Musical Roots Into Bluegrass." New York Times, Sep. 10.

Rosenberg, Neil V. 2001. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Salkin, Jeffrey. 2018. "Why Debbie Friedman still matters." The Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), Jan. 11.

Seroussi. Edwin. 2001. "Jewish music, [section]I: Introduction." In Grove Music Online. Accessed Feb. 18. Oxford Music Online.

Smith, Richard D. 1995. Bluegrass: An Informal Guide. Chicago: A Capella Books.


doi: 10.5325/studamerijewilite.38.2.0101
COPYRIGHT 2019 Pennsylvania State University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg
Author:Klaus, Aaron
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2019

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters