The headliners for this year’s Desert Gathering Jewish Music Fest, Chava Mirel, Nefesh Mountain and Todd Herzog, all have their own musical styles, but they are deeply connected through the spiritual power of music.
Desert Gathering began in 2013 as a result of Todd Herzog’s Start Me Up! fellowship through Valley Beit Midrash with Rabbi Darren Kleinberg. The idea was to gather together Jewish entrepreneurs under the age of 45 to bring fresh ideas and new programming concepts to the Phoenix Jewish community. (Todd and the first Desert Gathering were Arizona Jewish Life’s November 2013 cover story.)
The vision for the festival was “to bring continuity to the experience of being Jewish and do it in a way that was fun and inclusive, and that broke down barriers to allow people to have that sense of community in a larger metropolitan kind of experience,” says Todd.
“The festival was my effort to create a piece locally, and try to make something young and hip and exciting to appeal to the younger Jews in their 20s and 30s, who are part of the ‘missing demographic’ in the community,” he explains. “A lot of young Jews take a break for 10 years – much like what I did.” In additional the nationally recognized artists, local school children, Israeli dancers and community cantors will perform.
The past four years, Desert Gathering has been held at Steele Indian School Park in downtown Phoenix. “In the beginning, it was important to me to have the festival outside of the familiar territory of the Scottsdale Jewish community – so there wouldn’t be an assumption of what the event was going to be,” explains Todd. “I wanted people to come in open – not really knowing what to expect. We did well achieving a great cross-section of the Jewish community. We had Chabad, Reform and unaffiliated Jews; I think for me that was one of the greatest successes of the festival – that it really crossed boundaries between different groups of people.”
Todd felt it was time to try something different and expand the festival even further by bringing it “home” to Scottsdale for its fifth year. The festival will be held at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus. “One goal I had by bringing it to the campus is to bring attention to the amazing resources we have in the community, with the JCC and Pardes Jewish Day School,” says Todd. “I wanted to put it somewhere that most folks are pretty familiar with and see if we can take the festival to the next stage of its evolution.”
Todd is the cantorial soloist at Temple Solel, and he has been singing since he can remember. He sang in the choir through elementary and high school, where he first played in a band called Noize, playing cover tunes and trying to imitate the singers as closely as possible.
When Todd arrived at Tufts University, he was thinking about starting another band until he got involved with the acapella group the Beelzebubs. He sang with that group all five years of college, leaving with a double bachelor’s degree – philosophy from Tufts and jazz voice from the New England Conservatory of Music.
After college, he worked with cover bands and started writing more of his own music. He was teaching voice lessons when he met a woman that he would date for the next four years. She had leukemia and throughout the years they dated, would have relapses, eventually passing in 1999. “I was creating my own music and soul searching during that time,” says Todd. “I starting finding my own musical and songwriting voice in an attempt to cope with that loss.”
The result was his first CD, “What I Wouldn’t Give.” For a long time after its release, Todd found it hard to go back to writing simple pop music after dealing with such difficult life and death issues.
Years went by, and he met Karen, his future wife. She was very involved in the Jewish community and through her connections, Todd began to teach music at the New Community Jewish High School in Los Angeles.
The head of school told him, “My mission is to capture their mind and intellect with literature and biology and your job, as the music guy, is to capture their hearts.” Todd thought he would teach the kids Klezmer music but soon realized that they were more interested in pop music. “The compromise we came to was to write some of our own music based on Jewish text or holidays,” explains Todd.
Todd also gave himself assignments in this new songwriting style. “I found the Jewish music let me address some of these deeper themes, and I could still do it in a very contemporary and accessible way,” says Todd. “That worked with the high school kids, so it became my mission to use music as a tool or engagement – it evolved organically over the years. It became more and more a natural and authentic part of who I am.”
Todd has six albums out with the latest being “Something to Believe in.” That album features a song that he wrote for his 6-year-old son, Sander, titled “On Your Side.” Todd explains the song, “is about unconditional love that you can never really experience until you’re a parent.” He continues, “I hope as I get older I have a little more perspective, a little more wisdom about life, and can hopefully make some connections between different ideas – better than I could when I was younger.”
Nefesh Mountain was born out of the combined love that musicians Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff have for each other, bluegrass music, American traditions and their Jewish heritage. “We came together playing music of all kinds including a kids and family group that we played together with,” Doni explains. “An organic and natural thing happened with us doing Nefesh Mountain. We were falling in love and writing this bluegrass music accidentally – it’s like a love story for us.” The two have been married a little more than two years and performed as Nefesh Mountain for three.
Their name is a combination of Nefesh, which means “soul” in Hebrew, and the symbolism of mountains in both the Jewish and bluegrass tradition. “From the Rocky Mountains to Masada to Mount Sinai, we are all in this world together. This music is our fusion of who we are as American Jews, with our Jewish and American roots and as an expression of truth for us,” says Doni. “If you are ever going to declare who you really are to the universe; I imagine declaring myself on the top of a mountain with my arms outstretched. This is me – this is who I am, so it’s a declaration of who we are.”
Based outside of New York in Montclair, NJ, the duo spends months on the road performing. They led High Holiday services in Atlanta, went to North Carolina for a bluegrass festival and then to Massachusetts for a Sukkot concert. They had talked to Todd about performing at Desert Gathering in the past and were able to make it happen this year.
“We have a self-titled album (‘Nefesh Mountain’) that came out last May,’” says Eric. “We also have an upcoming album, the release date has yet to be decided, called ‘Beneath the Open Sky.’” They have performed in Arizona before and are excited to return.
“Bluegrass music is very spiritual in nature, it feels very pure and honest. We are just coming at it from a Jewish perspective,” says Doni. “We are all the same, we are all people, we are all trying to find our way. In music like this, it is about appreciating nature – which is a big thing in bluegrass and a huge thing in Jewish tradition. It really feels like we are just marrying something that wanted to get married. We didn’t make it up, we are just putting it together and creating a chemistry for it.”
To complement that union further, Eric says that he and Doni challenge themselves to write their own truthful music. “Since the diaspora, Jews have been adapting to all the places they lived in,” he explains. “Whether it’s the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, who after years and years formed the art of Klezmer, or the Sephardic Jews of Spain – there are so so many different types of Jewish music when Jews put down their roots – it seems like a natural fit.”
The passion for their music and the love they have for each other is palpable. “The whole thing feels very spiritual to me,” says Eric. “Between the meeting of my wife and the music that we are fortunate to make together. If you’re open to possibilities of what can happen if you unrestrict yourself from the bounds of what stereotypes are in society, or what you are supposed to do in life, I think that magical things happen.” He continues, “Our music, I’m proud to say, is the result of us not subscribing to any cultural norms of what music is or what Jewish people should do or shouldn’t do – we are excited to keep going with it.”
Award-winning Jewish musician Chava Mirel will bring her world-fusion sound to the stage at Desert Gathering along with her musical partner Josh Niehaus.
Chava started performing in public before she was 2. “My dad’s a rabbi, so there was always something going on at the synagogue or community center,” Chava explains. “He would get me up to sing. That’s how it all started, doing community event stuff.”
She started playing the piano at age 6 and the guitar at 13, so she has been studying music for a long time. “I wrote my first song when I was 11 and sang it at the eighth-grade graduation.” says Chava “My mom is a singer too, so I felt like I had an edge.”
These days Chava has numerous outlets for her musical talents. “I have my solo career as an artist-in-residence, I go to synagogues and do community service, I work with the kids and do some teaching, I go to festivals, I’m in a reggae band with Clinton Fearon (the Gladiators), that I tour with, and I’m in a jazz fusion band, Duende Libre.” She also has recorded two full-length albums under her name, and writes and records in a duo project, Josh and Chava, with Josh Niehaus. When she has free time in her busy schedule, Chava enjoys life in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and son, who are both drummers.
She was invited to perform at Desert Gathering after Todd discovered her on Facebook. “There is this amazing thing that happened since the election called Harmony in Unison,” explains Chava. “It’s a Facebook group where every night there is a live concert from a different artist from around the country. It was meant to connect people and make them feel like they’re not alone and like there’s hope and to put some light into their lives.” Todd was going through the Harmony in Unison archives and came upon Chava’s performance with Josh. After seeing her perform, Todd reached out to her.
After she accepted the invitation to Desert Gathering, Chava learned that the Dunst Social Justice Music Project had selected one of her songs.. The ironic thing was that Todd had too. Only eight artists were selected out of 43 submissions from across the nation.. Chava and Todd were flown to Nashville to record their songs this summer. The project will benefit the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism. This eight-song collection is designed to provide new social justice music for public singing in congregations, summer camps, youth groups and community gatherings of all kinds. The release date is set for December 2017.
“I got to know Todd a little bit better in Nashville, and he has become like a mentor to me,” says Chava. “I am so grateful for him. He is so knowledgeable about singing and performing. I feel inspired and really lucky to be involved in Desert Gathering.”
5th Annual Desert Gathering Jewish Music Fest
When: Nov. 5, 4-8 pm
Where: Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, 12701 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Tickets: $5 general admission, $20 family 5-pack, $75 VIP experience
(includes designated prime parking, a catered Kosher dinner, swag bag with souvenirs, reserved seating with an excellent view of the stage, and the chance to mix and mingle with this year’s talent)