You know one of the best things about New York? "But of course, the culture," you say. Yes, but I don't refer to the usual New York culture of Broadway. I'm talking Jewish culture.
At 79th St. and West End in Manhattan is the new age style Carlebach shul (synagogue). Yosef Karduner, an Israeli Breslov chasid, a serious musical talent, was scheduled to perform. I remember when he came on the scene years back with his gentle and melodious "Shir Hama'alos" Song of Ascents and "Simanim Baderech" Road Marks.
When I enter the shul the atmosphere Karduner creates is such that you leave your turmoil at the door. His sincere and spiritual way feels like an invitation to let go and get closer to G-d. Which, being a true Chassid, is indeed the whole point of the music for him.
More like an intimate kumsitz in a small crowded room than a flashy concert, Karduner sits bent over his guitar, fingers plucking the audible nylon and metal strings yielding his delicate melodies, both melancholy and joyous, all the while soulfully crooning with his eyes closed seemingly transported to another, higher, different place.
With his long dark payos (earlocks) and Chassidic garb, Karduner pauses between songs, providing interludes of simple heartfelt inspirations and wisdom, usually focusing on one simple verse from Psalms.
He explains the lyrics in his broken English or offers a touching insight from the founder of Breslov, his teacher, the famed Rebbe Nachman, who died more than 200 years ago.
A combination of humility, sincerity, vulnerability, naivete and earnest devotion come together in Karduner, providing an appeal for a different kind of spiritual musical experience.
In true Carlebach form, the rabbi of the congregation hosting the event got up to speak. He greeted everyone with "good yom tov" and "a gut yohr."
At first I thought he was confused, or just jesting, since it wasn't a yom tov (religious festival), but the super sincere and earnest look on his face brought a smile and chuckle of amusement to mine.
The rabbi went onto say something about how tonight, watching and listening to "Reb Yosef," is like sitting at the side of a window, a window open to Heaven as on yom tov.
The cantor of the Carlebach shul, Yehuda Green, a Breslov chasid himself, spontaneously performed a duet with Yosef Karduner, an old Breslov Shabbos melody. Then, to everyone's surprise, it was announced there was a special guest in the audience, reggae talent Matisyahu!
Again, spontaneously, unrehearsed, and this time for a good hour, Karduner and Matisyahu were grooving. Karduner with his delicate melodies and guitar acoustic, now fleshed out by Matisyahu's haunting wordless wails and beatbox improvisations.
An almost tangible respect prevailed between the two as they played and sang in sync, wordlessly coordinating their unrehearsed gig with eye contact and nods of the head. And, to Matisyahu's credit, respectfully keeping Karduner at center stage the whole time.
Matisyahu shared how, when he was discovering Judaism, the Carlebach shul was the first synagogue he ever prayed in and Karduner's music was the first Jewish musical talent he was drawn to how this evening was sort of a coming together for him. "I guess it was a good Rosh Hashanah."
Here was an unexpected, rare opportunity and treat to hear two serious Chassidic musical talents. Each so different, Karduner with his more mellow and gentle tempo, and Matisyahu, more of a rocking reggae artist.
Despite both artists being chasidic payos-clad musicians with a mike in front of them, their styles could not have been more different. In fact, their different styles were almost a study in contradictions.
Two approaches to Judaism, two approaches to music, unplanned, in sync, respectful and totally talented.
How's that for an unexpected night of culture and true inspiration in NYC?