A spiritual nomad explores a familiar home
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Billy Jonas has spent his share of time exploring faiths, from Buddhism and New Age Christianity to Lakota sweat lodge rituals and pagan traditions. His music, which can roughly be considered spiritual/new age folk, reflects the many stops on his spiritual journey.
His November release, “HaBayta,” a Hebrew term which he translates loosely as “Homeward,” reveals his recent exploration of Judaism.
“I like to erase the differences between people and other people, between people and the world, between people and God,” he told NJ Jewish News while en route in his Honda Odyssey to performances in Florida. “It’s not about anything I say in particular; the main thing is my presence as a spiritual seeker and as a vulnerable traveler through life.”
His overall message, whether in church, synagogue, or Wiccan coven, is “we’re all in this together.”
He will be bringing his music to Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit Jewish Community Center as artist-in-residence, Feb. 26-27.
Jonas, who grew up in Chicago attending Congregation Rodfei Zedek, described his early experiences with Judaism as “so boring,” although he said he was “captivated” by the cantor’s “beautiful operatic voice.” (Perhaps the cantorate is in his blood — his great-grandfather served a congregation in Alsbach, Germany, today known as Alsbach-Hahnlein.)
He has slowly developed an appreciation for Judaism over the last couple of decades, for example, incorporating the Modeh Ani prayer into his morning ritual, observing his own version of Shabbat, and finding ways to infuse other traditions into the Jewish calendar. But he still retains some of his alienation from more traditional denominations — he doesn’t feel that his continuing embrace of other faiths is accepted, particularly his interest in Wiccan traditions.
“It’s emblematic of the limitations of Jews of an older generation,” he said.
But he also regularly participates in services at Congregation Beth HaTephila in his hometown of Asheville, NC, as one of four soloists who perform alone as well as in harmony with one another.
Despite his professed enjoyment of the cantor growing up, he acknowledged that he prefers a worship service where people can sing along. “If we had singing along at Rodfei Zedek, I might have gone a lot more often!” he said.
A folk musician, Jonas knew early on that the rarified world of elite artistry was not for him. “I really wanted to explore an art form that would be accessible to mass audiences,” he said. “I wanted the potential to inspire others to make music out of joy and a sense of community.”
Jonas seeks and finds spirituality everywhere — and he sings about it in many of his songs, including “God is in.”
In a Jewish setting, he’ll sing from his new release, and use various songs as introductions to specific prayers — “One” introduces the Shema, for example. And a song might lead to a d’var Torah, a sermonette connecting its message to something in the weekly parsha.
He also turns found objects into musical instruments — a 35-gallon garbage into a bass drum, some corrugated drainage pipes into what he calls a “tuba-luba.” He turns a shoe (his own) and a frying pan into percussion by sticking a mallet into the former to bang on the latter.
“It comes from my interest in giving voice to all God’s creations. Everything has a voice, everything is holy,” he said of his recycled instruments. “When you take something mundane and give it a voice, you make it sacred and inspire others to see the wonder in it.”
The weekend at Congregation Ohr Shalom is sponsored by the Charles and Lillian G. Baraff Foundation, Judith and Matthew Sills, and Joan and Robert Rothberg.