Jewish Songwriter Offers An Indie Take On Genesis


Jesse Rifkin is remembering his childhood in Annapolis, Md. He began writing songs when he was 4. At that age, he loved the Beatles. He was already thinking of himself as a career musician.

“Sometimes you just know,” he says firmly.

It all came true; he has recorded an EP and two CDs with his Wailing Wall band, with the latter recordings being released through JDub Records. He will be launching his new album, “The Low Hanging Fruit,” with a gig in New York on June 4.

It is 20 years after the dream began, and Rifkin is on his cell phone, talking about his music as he and his current collaborators drive to Montreal, musicians on tour.

“When I was 4, I had one tape, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’” he recalls. “I still know every note of that tape. I used to draw the Beatles album covers, but I’d add myself in as the fifth Beatle.”

Sometimes you just know.

His parents were “big music lovers, always listening to Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills and Nash,” Rifkin says. “My father is entirely not musical, but my mother in her youth saw herself as a folk singer. She taught me my first chords [on guitar].”

They also instilled in him a fascination with spirituality, both Jewish and eastern. His parents met in an ashram on the West Coast but remained sufficiently committed to Judaism to send Jesse to a Baltimore Orthodox day school for 11 years, an experience he looks back on with undisguised loathing. “I hated it, and they really hated me,” he says. “It was a great success all around.”

(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Ira Rifkin, Jesse’s father, a journalist who writes on Jewish issues, worked with this newspaper’s publisher and managing editor at the Baltimore Jewish Times and is an occasional contributor to Jewish Week.)

However, Jesse’s religious upbringing did more than give him a name for his band (his bar mitzvah took place at the Kotel).

“I’ve spent a lot of time reading Tanach,” he says. “In [Sarah Lawrence] I was a religion major and that’s where a lot of the songs came from. That was when I finally saw some value in reading [the Bible]. There’s also some New Testament, some Hindu literature. The language of religious writing, especially religious poetry from all traditions, is some of the most beautiful writing there is. It’s so impassioned; people are trying so hard to express in incredible metaphors things that are inherently beyond expression.

“Without sounding pretentious,” Rifkin continues, “a lot of things that are interesting enough to get me to write songs about them are a little difficult to comprehend — death, sex, spirituality. I end up being drawn to a lot of that language and trying to use similar language.”

The new album draws deeply and specifically on Genesis, particularly the story of Adam and Eve. Rifkin reimagines this very familiar story with great creativity, a response to current events and personal difficulties, he says.

“The whole story seems to me to be analogous to my own experience of graduating college just in time for the economy to collapse, which is what the record is really about, more than the Bible,” he says with a rueful chuckle. “The [messed]-up situation the world is in right now is a hard thing to express. The year I spent writing this record was a very difficult, stressful and painful year for me.”

But Rifkin has made sophisticated and witty art from the stress and pain. “The Low Hanging Fruit,” like its predecessor, is a fascinating blend of deeply felt, intelligent wordplay, and an eclectic but convincing amalgam of Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, updated to the lo-fi indie scene and flavored with echoes of Bjork, and Sufi Qawwali and Hindu Kirtan as well. The result never feels forced or contrived, and Rifkin says that he’s trying to achieve the same level of spontaneity as when he performs live.

What you have to understand is that, strictly speaking, there really is no such thing as a band called the Wailing Wall. The Wailing Wall is Jesse Rifkin with frequent contributions from a wide circle of musical friends and, although Rifkin plays several instruments in addition to guitar (piano, banjo and percussion), there is little overdubbing on his recordings. So a Wailing Wall concert may involve anything from a solo performance to a giddy grab-bag of young talent from the New York area indie scene.

Asked about the album-launch on June 4, he is a bit noncommittal. “We’re still figuring it out, but it’s going to be a sizeable band, at least six or seven people,” Rifkin says. “We’re celebrating the release of the record, so it’s important to me to have as many of my friends there as possible. But it will sound pretty different from the record.”

Looking back on his evolution as a musician, does he consider himself a Jewish artist?

“I’ve never made a deliberate decision to frame myself as a Jewish artist,” Rifkin says. “It was sheer coincidence that I signed with JDub. But I can only write from my own perspective. Leonard Cohen has a tremendous amount of Jewish content in his work, but you wouldn’t call him ‘Jewish songwriter Leonard Cohen.’ It’s where we come from. You can try and run from it, but you can’t really.”

Maybe sometimes you just know.

Jesse Rifkin/The Wailing Wall will be performing at the Mercury Lounge (217 East Houston St.) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 4, with Tim Fite (who produced the new album). For information, go to The Wailing Wall’s two full-length CDs, “Hospital Blossoms” and “The Low Hanging Fruit” are available on JDub Records.

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