Meet the Jewish journalist who blends Latter-day Saint harmonies with Hebrew poetry
Yair Rosenberg is a journalist, not a trained musician, but that’s not stopping him from writing music
Fragments of melodies had been swirling in Yair Rosenberg’s head for years. They would arrive at a supermarket, in his home office or living room, sometimes in the middle of an international trip. Rosenberg, the grandson of a Hasidic composer and Holocaust refugee, didn’t know how to capture them — he’s a journalist, not a trained musician. So he’d sing the tunes into his phone, hoping to one day turn them into complete compositions.
Finally at the end of August, these songs that have been seven years in the making were released on Rosenberg’s first album — a collection of Jewish songs that take the listener on a musical journey through the experience of Shabbat, drawing on an eclectic set of influences from Latter-day Saint a cappella to Irish folk music. The album, called “Az Yashir” or “Now, We Sing” in Hebrew (also the first words of the Song of the Sea in Exodus), is an exploration of Rosenberg’s broader fascination with the enduring relevance of tradition and its contested place in the modern world.
The lyrics on the album, produced by Charles Newman of Mother West, come from ancient Hebrew scriptures and prayers, and eight of the 10 tracks are paired with Rosenberg’s own melodies, influenced by contemporary genres like EDM (electronic dance music). Auto-tuned vibrations, folksy violins and polyphonic harmonies infuse the tracks with diverse sounds that are still rooted in something familiar, yet entirely reinvented. Rosenberg even adapted the song “Evening Prayer” by the Latter-day Saint a cappella group Eclipse 6.
“The renewal of tradition, the creation of new traditions based on the old ones — that’s very much part of the Jewish heritage,” Rosenberg says. “That’s one of the ways that Judaism has survived. You can’t survive by doing the exact same thing all the time, because the world changes around you and people change.”
Learning from the past is also part of Rosenberg’s day job as the writer for The Atlantic’s newsletter Deep Shtetl, a pun on “deep state” but in the context of “shtetl,” a traditional Jewish village in Europe. He’s honed an eye for under-the-radar stories behind politics, religion and culture — the stories that the mainstream media often misses. Among them are narratives from minority religious communities, including Jews, Muslims and Latter-day Saints. “There are so many different stories you can dig into about how faith plays a role in the lives of so many people around the world and in America,” he says.
For Rosenberg, his music and writing go hand in hand as he draws on tradition to illuminate the present and make sense of it. “When you have people that have been around for thousands of years, over time you can’t help but learn some things,” he says. “And that sort of wisdom and instruction can benefit more than just Jewish people.”
Growing up in a family of Jewish educators in New York City, musicality ran in Rosenberg’s blood. His grandfather, a Hasidic composer and a Holocaust refugee, possessed a unique ability to commit any melody to memory after hearing it once. His grandfather wrote one of his most known compositions, “Song of the Redemption,” or “Shir Hageulah,” in Hebrew, while fleeing Poland for Shanghai during the Holocaust. He and his fellow refugees — a group of Jewish students — were buoyed up by a poetic letter of encouragement attributed to the grand rebbe of Lubavitch. Rosenberg’s grandfather put it to music so that people could remember it by singing. In one of his stories, Rosenberg explored how his grandfather reimagined the tragedy of the experience by adding the determined beat of a march to the devastating lyrics. “It became sort of an anthem of these orphans in Shanghai and they brought it with them back, in particular, to the United States, and they sing it everywhere,” Rosenberg says.
“You can’t survive by doing the exact same thing all the time, because the world changes around you and people change.”
As an undergrad at Harvard, Rosenberg sort of fell into journalism. He wrote about movies for The Harvard Crimson, but was increasingly drawn to other issues that were often missing in the mainstream media — often stories from minority religious communities, much like his own. Over the past decade, he’s written about a Muslim singer participating in an avatar singing competition, the translation of “Harry Potter” in Yiddish, Muslims and Jews in the comic books, and how “Glee” and “Pitch Perfect” paved the way for traditional Jewish music.
Latter-day Saints have also been one of Rosenberg’s lasting curiosities.
In fact, his very first long-form feature dove into conspiracy theories about Latter-day Saints’ purported ambitions to take over the United States government and the revival of these ideas with Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential candidacy campaign. “It was a community I found very, very fascinating and also very poorly covered in the media,” he said. He drew on parallels between the ways that Jews, Latter-day Saints and Muslims were stigmatized for their beliefs. A decade later, the story has maintained its relevance, he notes. In a polarizing political landscape, faith often becomes the target of mockery for individuals in the spotlight. “You see Muslims, Jews, Mormons attacked for their faith practices, and it’s not something we want to see in politics,” he says.
A few years later, Rosenberg wrote about the history behind the construction of the BYU Jerusalem Center for Tablet Magazine, where he worked before coming to The Atlantic. The little-known facts he resurfaced offered a tumultuous picture of the pushback the project encountered once the construction began. Ten thousand Jews protested the project in the streets. A pop song called “Jerusalem is Not For Sale” didn’t beat around the bush: “You better run for your life back to Utah overnight, before the mountain top opens wide and swallows you inside.”
“Because the LDS church is a missionizing religion, it wasn’t an unreasonable fear and Jews being a tiny population, especially in the post-Holocaust world, they are particularly sensitive to attempts to convert them when there are so few of us ... as it is,” Rosenberg said. The disagreement had been worked out with the commitment from the Church not to proselytize there. Rosenberg likes to say that it “was the only religious conflict in Jerusalem that was ever resolved amicably.”
Spending more time at the crossover of Latter-day Saints and Jewish faiths has inspired Rosenberg to experiment with blending two musical traditions. While researching faith-based a cappella groups for a story, he stumbled on Eclipse 6’s song “Evening Prayer.” “I thought this stuff was beautiful,” he said. He thought it may work as a melody for one of the Shabbat songs, so he tried singing it to a prayer in Hebrew. “Not only did they fit in terms of the rhythm, they fit in terms of the meaning,” he said. After getting permission from the group, he paired the melody with the prayer that Jews recite to welcome the Sabbath on Friday night.
“It’s actually very important that faith communities understand each other not through the lens of conflict, but through the lens of shared stories and even differences.”
This summer, Rosenberg shared the stage at Brigham Young University with other interfaith leaders as part of the university’s annual religious freedom conference. After years of reporting on the Latter-day Saint community and interviewing prominent Latter-day Saint politicians, Rosenberg had never been to Utah until this occasion. “As a Jewish person, I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to be a Gentile, so that was my chance,” Rosenberg said jokingly. Now he was in the room with people, who had firsthand experience with issues he’d written about from a distance — someone even shared with him a photo of the original letter signed by the mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek and Latter-day Saint leaders committing to no proselytizing. “When you meet people and actually talk about these stories, people come out of the woodwork who also know about three stories and you end up with a piece of information you didn’t have,” he said. In his remarks, he talked about the unforgiving nature of social media and the resources religion provides for people to grow and change culture. “I think religious traditions for a very long time have recognized that a society that can’t forgive can’t sustain itself,” he said.
As BYU students took Rosenberg around campus, he told them about the Shabbat songs he’d been working on, Latter-day Saint a cappella and musical religious tradition. Once the tracks were ready, he shared them with musically curious BYU friends. “Just as I enjoyed listening to the Latter-day Saint music, I hope that music that I make is not just for Jewish people — that it can speak to people of faith and those not of faith.” Although the songs are all in Hebrew, the emotions and the ideas behind them are universal, Rosenberg says. And thanks to the internet, his music can reach an audience wider than ever before. “Music no longer has to be siloed as it might have been if it came out 20 years ago, where only a certain group or a community might find out about it,” he said.
“It’s actually very important that faith communities understand each other not through the lens of conflict, but through the lens of shared stories and even differences,” Rosenberg says. He explains that in our hyperindividualistic society, communities often exist in silos. “They don’t hear each other, therefore they don’t understand each other,” he says. “And that can lead to conflict that didn’t have to happen.”
And music forges a path to enhance these relationships, sometimes even better than writing. “When I do journalism, I try to give a fair hearing to many different types of viewpoints, including the ones I disagree with,” he said. “But when it comes to culture, I’m able to reach people that I otherwise couldn’t with my writing,” he said. “Because music speaks to everyone. And I think as a society we might want to invest a little bit more in the things that can connect us rather than things that can divide us.”