Avraham Fried interviewed by Daniel Schley for the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, September 14, 2011
Note: The following is a literal transcription of the audio file of the interview with Avraham Fried. The text follows the spoken audio faithfully, with few edits or contextual corrections of imperfect grammar, etc., so that the original intent and flow of the spoken interview is not compromised. We have embedded links in the text where it made sense. We have also included additional links of interest at the end of this page.
DS: Thank you again for being willing to speak with us. It’s really an honor and we’re so excited to be able to speak with you.
AF: You have a great thing going there. I mean kol haKavod to you. This is unbelievable.
DS: Yeah. It’s really a very wonderful collection that we have and we’re grateful to people like you who are able to help us build it.
AF: My pleasure. It’s a great service – to the world! I mean – so it’s amazing. So I’m here.
DS: Well, the first thing that I want to do is ask you about your background and your first foray into music – you began singing at a young age, right?
AF: Yes – very young age. There are recordings of several solos that I did on albums that were called ‘Eli Lipsker and the Choir’ - I think – Eli Lipsker signing Hasidic melodies. We’re talking early ‘70s – and there were several concerts that we appeared in across the US. That was ‘til I was 13, so I had some experience in the studio and on stage as a young boy. I was blessed with a very powerful high range sweet voice and I was singing. But then I reached 13, and the hormones kicked in and my voice changed and I thought “that was it” - the singing career is over. And when I hit 20, it had occurred to me: You know what, maybe it’s time to get back into singing because, as a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, living here in Crown Heights [Brooklyn], I heard such beautiful messages from the Rebbe that Judaism is so beautiful and so inspiring and so uplifting and what it means to do a mitzvah and what it means to have a soul and just such beautiful things that I would hear from the Rebbe on a weekly basis when he would speak to the Hasidim, and I decided: You know what? Maybe – because in those days, most of the albums – most of the Jewish music – was all about the Holocaust and all about the pain and the suffering and the bloodshed and it was all very depressing. But from the Rebbe I kept hearing these beautiful messages about how beautiful Judaism is and how inspiring. And so, I got my first line for a song from the Rebbe, who would constantly say at these gatherings that when Moshiach comes, no Jew will be left behind! It’s not possible that any Jewish soul is left behind because if one Jew is missing, then it’s not a complete redemption. So it’s got to be the whole package. And that was the first title of my first album – No Jew Will Be Left Behind – and here we are, thirty years later and I’m still practicing, still vocalizing.
DS: Did you have any other important rabbis who helped inspire you to do your music or was it mostly the Rebbe?
AF: Well, the Rebbe – I certainly turned to him for blessings. You know, once I started a singing career, I would update him on everything and every trip that I did – whatever I was working on. I kept him totally up to date on what I was doing, because I felt it was part of my mission so to speak to use music as a tool to inspire and uplift, and it’s humbling for me but as it turns out over these past 30 years – I’m not an entertainer. I would rather love to be called an “inspirer” if there’s such a word. Because that’s what I think Jewish music should do: it should inspire. It shouldn’t just be great licks and great hooks to do on a dance floor – which is good at a wedding, that’s true. But I think Jewish music should be music that touches the soul, makes you feel Jewish, and brings you a little closer to G-d, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
DS: Can you tell me who were your musical influences?
AF: As a young child, I remember listening to a true master of Jewish music. His name was Yom Tov Ehrlich, who released some 30 CDs in Yiddish with beautiful stories of the Sages, of the Rabbis, of the – just stories that mesmerized. He did it all in rhyming Yiddish, beautiful melodies, and that’s what I would sing when I was 5, 6 years old – I would sing his melodies. I heard a lot of Hazzanus in our home. A lot of cantorial music was played in our home, which is why I have the greatest love for Hazzanus to this day. I would walk a mile to hear a great hazzan and then later on, in my teenage years, when Hassidic music started to become a little more popular, there was David Werdyger, who released many beautiful albums of Hassidic music, and then there was Mordechai Ben David, who was a great inspiration to me.
DS: So as you came out in the early 80s with "No Jew Will Be Left Behind," how did the process of making that album come about? I read something about a rabbi encouraging you to send a recording of your music to a producer. Is that correct?
AF: I don’t recall who that rabbi was, but I do recall that I made some demos and I sent them around to some producers at the time who were involved in producing Jewish music, and they basically told me, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” And then one day I bumped into a producer whose name is Sheya Mendlowitz. He was producing some wedding music at the time and there was also a duo called Suki and Ding - they were also producing Jewish music. And there was a fellow who not so long ago passed way, Eli Teitelbaum, who was also involved in producing Jewish music – and Sheya Mendlowitz liked what he heard and he said, “You know what? Let’s do an album.” He’d heard me do a couple of songs on a wedding album here and there, a little guest appearance, and after hearing my demo he said, “I think you have some potential, let’s do an album.” And I guess he got the funds together, which is how "No Jew Left Behind" came about. So he gave me my first break and like I said, he we are. Thirty years later.
DS: Over these thirty years, how do you think your music has evolved?
AF: I think it’s evolved beautifully. Besides doing what I call basic standard Hasidic-style music, I’ve also branched out: I’ve done 4 CDs of Chabad’s music. I’ve done two CDs of Yiddish music, of the songs of Yom Tov Ehrlich, who inspired me as a child. I’m working now on an Israeli CD. I have a great response in the Holy Land. And I have some songs in Hebrew that I’ve recorded over the years, and people just told me it was time to do a complete Israeli album, songs in ivrit [Hebrew]. So I’m working on that but I’m working also on a Yiddish-English album, a combination of both. So thank G-d, I’ve still got a lot to sing about and I’m just getting started.
DS: You mentioned that you just started working on an Israeli album, which is great – I’m looking forward to hearing it. I wanted to ask you what was your first inspiration for doing these Israeli songs. It’s your first couple of songs in this Israeli style, so what encouraged you to do them?
AF: It actually began, I think, ten years ago when a very talented composer and performer, Yishai Lapidot, who lives in Israel, lent me a song called Aleh Katan sheli ‘My little leaf’. I heard this song and it made me cry, because it’s a beautiful song about the leaf that’s about to fall off the tree and go its own way and the tree says to the leaf: Life is going to be turbulent, you’re going to encounter ups and downs, and just remember your roots, remember from where you come, I’m with you at all times and you’ll be ok. Very, very special song. And to this day this particular song is not only still popular, but it keeps gaining momentum. I believe now that it is the anthem for those who go on the March of the Living. Israeli soldiers have taken it as their anthem. It keeps getting stronger and stronger, for some reason. I don’t know why it took 10 years – we didn’t take advantage of the success of this one particular Hebrew song and run with it. But about five years ago, as I was celebrating my 25th anniversary, my musical producer in Israel suggested that maybe we should take some old Israeli songs and re-do them, do a re-make. And he sends me two songs I had never heard before and I loved the songs very much and we gave it a fresh arrangement. It’s interesting, now in Israel they have two very popular shows – contests – somewhat like a version of American Idol and the Israeli Idol, and they had another show where they took several elder singers who were popular 20, 30 years ago and they had a contest amongst them. So those songs that won the contest were these two Israeli songs that I re-did, which no one was singing for the past 30 years. So I redid these songs and they’re very popular, and it’s just a no-brainer – I don’t know why it took so long, with the success of Aleh Katan, a given that it was time to do a full Israeli album. There’s a huge audience, a non-religious audience now, who is becoming familiar with my music. For me this is wonderful. A whole new beginning.
DS: When you came out with your first album, did you expect that your target audience would eventually include so many secular people?
AF: Absolutely not. I thought my crowd would be the Orthodox crowd, perhaps the Modern Orthodox crowd, nothing beyond that. But in Israel, because of the exposure that I have on Israeli TV, and just doing so many concerts in so many cities in Israel, people are being attracted to this music. And what’s most humbling to me, like I said before, is that I’ll meet these people and they’ll say to me, ‘We just heard your music, very recently, we’re just getting hooked onto your music.’ But they come away all saying the same thing: they felt it was an inspirational evening, they felt that their hearts and souls were stirred. That to me is the best compliment.
DS: Do you see part of your mission with this Israeli music as doing kiruv [religious outreach]?
AF: Absolutely. And like I said, I’m not just in the singing business. I’m hoping to use music as a tool, as a vehicle, to inspire. Which means, I have to find proper lyrics, I have to find the proper message, I have to find the proper feel. I’m very careful not to push the envelope too much with the style music as well. I am a Hasidic singer, so I sort of want to stay in the envelope, stay in the box of music that still has a Yiddish ta’am [taste] – a Jewish feel to it. Today, look, there are all kinds of styles. I have to have my boundaries – there’s certain music, certain feels, certain grooves that I won’t touch. So I’m pushing it a little bit but I think I’m safe. Safe for now.
DS: What types of obstacles have you faced as a performer? I know that recently there was some controversy over mixed/family seating at a concert. Have you ever had any difficulties with rabbis who say “Hey – your music isn’t frumenough” -- stuff like that?
AF: No, absolutely not. Never had such a problem. Like I said I have my boundaries – I’ve never recorded a non-Jewish song. Like, to take a non-Jewish medley composed by a non-Jew and put words from the Siddur or Psalms, set to that melody? I’ve never done that. I think that’s unnecessary. I think we should give Jewish people Jewish music and not to take it from non-Jewish sources. There were some comments about these Israeli songs that I recorded being composed by non-religious Jews, which to me is not a problem. These are fine Jewish people, so to me that was not a problem. But there was never any issue for me that my music might be too modern or my music was too far away from sounding Hasidic. On the contrary, I only got very positive feedback about that.
DS: You wrote a song commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I wanted to ask you about what inspired you to write :Let’s Change the World Today."
AF: There’s a very powerful message here: If 19 people or a handful of terrorists can get together and change the world in such a negative way – which impacted every one of us – then it’s a no-brainer that if good people get together and do good things for mankind, we can change the world for the better. It’s just a very simple equation. So I was inspired to write this song because when I wrote it people were still very, very down and depressed, and shocked and speechless, after that awful day. But the message is yes, they changed our lives, but hey if they can do that then we can change the world - a good deed, a kind word, a helping hand. It’s not the time to throw in the towel. On the contrary, it’s time to dig in and get together and just make the world a better place. The only way to fight the darkness is with more light. Not with throwing in the towel and throwing up your arms and saying, “What can we do?” That’s really what the song is all about.
DS: Can you tell me a little bit about your work with Yossi Green -- how you met him and your collaborations with him and how that’s worked.
AF: Yes, so Sheya Mendlowitz – again the man who gave me my first break – introduced me to Yossi Green, who was a budding composer at the time. I think he had written some songs before I met him, and what can I say? The greatest songs I’ve ever recorded are Yossi Green compositions. Our souls connected – he knew exactly what my soul wanted to sing and he came up with the most beautiful melodies set to the most beautiful words. I remember at the time that there was a whole back-and-forth whether the songs were almost like too cantorial, people wanted to hear a little more pop, and we said: ‘You know what, let’s just go with it.’ And he would write these beautiful melodies, not just an A Part and a B Part - a little cantorial opening, and then words from the Talmud. He was taking all kinds of chances, he was really pushing the envelope with a whole new production and kind of song and lyrics – he almost took us all through the Talmud! But that’s what Tanya was all about – probably my most famous song, Tanya – and it’s been an incredible shidduch between Yossi Green and myself. I think we’ve brought the Jewish world some beautiful compositions that are sung to this day in synagogue and around the Shabbos table, at weddings and simches, a very, very special connection.
DS: Can you tell me a little bit about your first involvements in the HASC concerts?
AF: Oh, that was 25 years ago when HASC did its first show, and that was very special. I think it was Mordechai Ben David and myself and Yoel Sharabi. I think we were the first three to do the first HASC show. And that’s become probably the most looked-to concert here in New York. I’m also fortunate to go sing at camp – camp HASC, very special kids. That doesn’t get so much attention but that’s the most gratifying part – no cameras, no stage lights, no big fans here, but to go up to the camp and sing to the special kids is a very humbling experience. And what can I say? From the HASC stage to some of the world’s most prestigious stages, Jewish music is alive and well.
DS: How do you think that your style of music has influenced other musicians and singers?
AF: Well, I think a lot of the singers coming out today are doing the same formula, the same idea. They’re going to the same arrangers and composers. Which to me is a little bit - how should I say it – disappointing. I would love to hear something fresh, something original but it seems that they’re saying: hey, if this works, why mess with it? If the formula works, let’s go with it. So a lot of it is has been done and is being redone, just a different name and a different voice but the style is the same. On the other hand, many other styles are now very popular, like Reggae and rap today is under the heading of Jewish music. There are many, many shades of color that weren’t around 30 years ago.
DS: And what do you think is the impact of your music on Orthodox life today? Not just music, but orthodox culture etc.?
AF: I think I could write a book about people’s reactions, how their lives were touched and inspired and how many even changed their lives drastically through hearing a certain song or a certain message. I’ve kept many of those reactions very close to my heart and that really gives me the energy and the feel to continue. I feel that it’s almost a responsibility. People are searching and are thirsty for inspiration today and some positive uplifting messages – and by the way, it’s not getting any easier to find these messages, it gets more difficult. I mean, I’ve been singing about Moshiach for 30 years – and I’m still trying to find an angle! I have to think about Moshiach again without being boring. But it’s not getting easier. I have to sing about Moshiach, sing about G-d, sing about ‘be strong’ and ‘keep faith alive’ and ‘keep climbing’. You know, it’s a challenge for a singer to keep finding his angles about the same subject. On the other hand, in the non-Jewish world they sing love songs and they’re doing just fine talking about love forever, you know? So some things just never go out of style.
DS: Mr. Fried, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
AF: you’re very welcome. I wish you guys continued success and keep up the good work.
DS: Thank you.
Additional Links of Interest
|Avraham Fried Wikipedia Page||DJSA Search - Eli Lipsker|
|DJSA Search - Yom Tov Ehrlich||DJSA Search - David Werdyger|
|DJSA Search - Mordechai Ben David||DJSA Search - Suki and Ding|
|DJSA Search - Yossi Green||DJSA Search - Yoel Sharabi|