People tend to chuckle when they hear that Nefesh Mountain is a Jewish bluegrass band.
“It’s like picturing a sun setting behind the mountains with a cowboy galloping on his horse. Jews don’t fit in,” Eric Lindberg of Montclair, a multi-instrumentalist who is half of the duo that leads the four-person band, told NJJN. “The message is, ‘You don’t belong’ … [but] we do belong. We’re as American as anyone else.”
In fact, Doni Zasloff, his wife and the other 50 percent of the duo, said, “I’ve always felt like a Jewish cowgirl.”
Their Jewish twist to a uniquely American style of music is reflected in the band’s name. They’ve joined the Hebrew word for soul, nefesh, with the English word mountain, common in the names of bluegrass bands, to reflect their sound.
“The fusion of Americana, bluegrass, Appalachian music with Jewish tradition feels like the most authentic way to express our spirituality and our musicality,” said Zasloff.
Listening to Nefesh Mountain tunes, you can’t help but wonder why this unlikely fusion didn’t happen sooner. Popular Jewish songs and prayers, like “Hinei Ma Tov,” “Esa Einai,” or Modeh Ani,” reimagined with the stringed instruments of bluegrass, form the backbone of their repertoire (and their two albums). But Lindberg and Zasloff also compose entirely new works that fit the same spiritual space — talking to God, asking for help, and offering praise and thanks.
The secular musical world has taken notice: Billboard magazine profiled Nefesh Mountain in March 2018 for the release of their second album, “Beneath the Open Sky”; in April, Rolling Stone listed their single, “Narrow Bridge” — based on the teaching of the 18th-century chasidic leader Reb Nachman of Breslov — among the magazine’s Ten Best Country & Americana Songs of the Week; and No Depression Magazine wrote that “Beneath the Open Sky” was “perfection,” and “one of the finest wholly bluegrass albums.”
Nefesh Mountain will be performing at three Garden State synagogues: the weekend of Feb. 8 they will be at Congregation Ohr Shalom: Summit JCC; at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro on the weekend of Feb. 22; and on Friday evening, March 29, they will be at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. (See box for details.)
Although the band’s foundation is firmly rooted in Jewish culture, they have been surprised that their reach goes well beyond the ethnic niche. “We’re playing on stages and at festivals where people have no idea what a Jew looks like or what a Jew is,” said Lindberg, who added that their music “says something universal through being Jewish.”
“It makes us feel proud of who we are, and reminds everyone that we’re all just people, in this together,” said Zasloff.
The sound of Nefesh Mountain emerged from a mutual desire to write what Lindberg called “more adult, deeper, more introspective music” than would be appropriate for their Jewish children’s band, Mama Doni, which Zasloff started in 2007 and Lindberg joined in 2010. At that time, Zasloff’s children were young, and her songs had names like “I Love Herring” and “Shabbat Shaboom.”
“They’ve grown up,” she said about her children, “and so has Mama Doni. We all change as artists.”
Nefesh Mountain’s 2016 self-titled debut album features one of Lindberg’s idols, Grammy Award-winning bluegrass musician Sam Bush. “That was the biggest thrill. It was surreal,” Lindberg said in a 2015 interview with NJJN. Songs included their take on “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” and “Mi Chamocha.” Bush and other musicians on the recording were so interested in the meaning of the songs that Zasloff found herself digging into her day school background to offer appropriate translations and explanations.
Bush returned for their second album, which included other prominent artists such as Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka, and David Grier.
“I’m a bluegrass geek,” said Lindberg, who primarily plays guitar and banjo, and in developing his own bluegrass skills, listened closely to Douglas. Tears streamed down Lindberg’s face when Douglas played “L’dor Vador,” a song written in memory of the duo’s grandparents. “There was a stillness in the air and everything felt complete,” he said.
Lindberg moved to South Orange from Brooklyn when he was a child. He attended Hebrew high school at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel and participated in activities of the Reform youth group. He studied at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he was immersed in secular music, studying jazz and guitar before moving on to bluegrass music. He learned to play the Dobro (a resonator guitar), mandolin, ukulele, and other instruments.
He was no stranger to the bluegrass genre. His father, a convert to Judaism, came from rural Georgia, and Lindberg remembers spending time in the south with his family, listening to his uncles play the guitar, hiking the Appalachian trail, and feeling “an enormous sense of American beauty,” a feeling he tries to recreate in the music of Nefesh Mountain.
Zasloff’s roots in the Jewish world run deep. She was “reading Torah at 9 years old, and I was wrapping tefillin in sixth grade,” she said.
She participated in Jewish youth groups and was “always the star” of the theater productions, which were performed in Hebrew.
“My theatrical side was always fused with Judaism,” she said. She studied theater at Brandeis University before transferring to New York University to major in theater education.
She has two children, ages 13 and 14, from a previous marriage, who tour with the couple when they can.
Nefesh Mountain continues to tour nationally, and their third album is in the works.
“It’s been a cool and crazy ride these last three years,” said Zasloff.
If you go
Nefesh Mountain is performing in three N.J. synagogues in February and March.