Toward the end of Safam’s recent concert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Joel Sussman, one of the four founding members of the venerable, Boston-based group, sang “Amnesty,” their 1983 tribute to Jews around the world who are forbidden from leaving their native lands. When he sang, “Get ’em out of Syria,” the closing line of the second chorus, a significant cheer arose from the crowd of 300 in attendance, presumably in opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policy.
No, it wasn’t the cast of Hamilton drawing a deafening roar from the audience in response to the lyrics “Immigrants, we get the job done.” (I saw the show and, with due respect, I have to disagree with our president on this one: It was not, in fact, overrated.) But the response to Safam’s lyric was a moment, a demonstration that our nation’s volatile political climate has even encroached on a lighthearted affair such as this, a band’s affectionate reunion with some of its most loyal fans.
“Let’s face it, this immigration issue became a big deal during the campaign,” said Dan Funk, one of the lead singers, who grew up in Highland Park and went to Rutgers. “One of the things we’ve tried to be careful about is to let these songs speak for themselves, and whatever messages are there are usually pretty clear.”
Like many entertainers and public figures on all levels, Funk said, Safam is hesitant to promote the band members’ personal views. But several of their songs deliver such messages, even though they were written long ago and in different contexts. I was surprised to learn that one of their best-known songs, “Leaving Mother Russia,” which became an anthem for the free Soviet Jewry movement in the late ’80s when the cause reached its apex, was actually written in 1978.
Regarding “Amnesty,” Funk said that the issue of refugees is not a new one for Jews, who, although they have been largely accepted in the United States, have a laundry list of times they were held captive in native lands that had become, shall we say, unfriendly to them, and unwelcome in others that might have provided a refuge.
“I don’t think we need to be overtly political in the words we say, but we think the songs will bear these things out,” said Funk. “We see our songs as more socially responsible. Raising people’s consciousness is more what we were aiming for than just making political statements.”
This shouldn’t give the impression that all of Safam’s songs are written to convey, even subtly, a political point of view.
“A handful of our songs have these messages, and then there are songs about Israel and our children and our parents…. The whole Jewish experience is what we talk about,” he said. “Nowadays everything is so political, so I can see how people would be aware. But the concert is supposed to be uplifting.”
The Rutgers event was a homecoming of sorts for the group. Safam performed in concerts sponsored by Rutgers Hillel for 30 straight years — from 1976 to 2006 — but not since. Also, not only is Funk an alumnus, but his father, Rabbi Julius Funk, was the founding director of Rutgers Hillel, serving from 1943 to 1982. During those 30 years, the group played in the university’s former Hillel house and other buildings on campus, but this concert was one of the inaugural events at the soon-to-be-opened Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House.
In the lobby of the spectacular 40,000-square-foot building — occupying a prominent spot on College Avenue in the center of campus — is the Funk Legacy Gallery, a display of photographs, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia commemorating the achievements of the longtime and much-loved Hillel director, who died in 2006.
Safam was formed in 1974, and other than the inherent Jewish themes, their music is not beholden to any particular genre, though if pushed I’d describe it as a hybrid of folk, rock, and cantorial. Over the years they’ve become one of the most recognizable Jewish bands. The number of attendees — including some from Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Long Island — who were willing to brave the cold on a Sunday night in early March more than 10 years since the band’s last Rutgers concert was a testament to their enduring popularity.
“It’s been quite a wonderful relationship we’ve had with Rutgers over the years,” said Funk. For many of the 30 performances, Rabbi Funk joined the group on stage for a father-son duet, and in later years the children of Safam also got in the act. The students and others who attended those shows “all knew us,” said Funk. “It was almost like a family relationship with the Rutgers audience. We treated Rutgers like a special concert.”
Their comfort in this setting was obvious from the get-go, and they spent much of the evening mocking their advanced age, at least relative to when the band was first formed. After an opening performance by Hillel’s Kol Halayla, the oldest co-ed a cappella group at Rutgers, Funk, Sussman, and the other band members — Robbie Solomon, Alan Nelson, Mark Snyder, and Bob Weiner — charged the stage. Funk immediately grabbed the microphone and quipped, “The best news of the night is that we can still come up to the stage without help.” Then they immediately broke into one of their classics, the crowd-pleasing “Just Another Foreigner,” about Jewish unity.
A stark reminder of the band’s longevity came during the introduction to Sons of Safam, their 1980 tribute album to the musicians’ collective five young offspring who had been born at the time (Ari, Josh, Aharon, Samuel, and another Aharon; as it happens, I played on the same little league team with Josh Funk), when they gave an update on their children, which included spouses and children of their own. Nelson joked that he has “dozens of grandchildren all over the world.”
Before closing with “Leaving Mother Russia,” they sang “After All These Years,” a song written in 1995 about the history of the band. The last line, “Ya better believe that in 20 more years, that we’ll still be here as Safam.” It’s been 22 years since then. Can we expect another two decades?
“As long as we’re healthy and still able to do what we can do and feel good about it, we’re going to keep on doing it,” said Funk. “We don’t do as many concerts as we used to, but that’s to be expected after 43 years. But how many performers are still going after 43 years?”