(New York Jewish Week) — The 15,000 people who gathered in Madison Square Garden for Israeli pop star Ishay Ribo’s concert on Sunday night were treated to an unofficial kickoff of the High Holiday season, less than two weeks before Rosh Hashanah.
Ribo, an Orthodox musician who became the first Israeli to headline the New York City venue, delivered a show that was equal parts rock concert and religious revival.
He opened his set with lines from the Amidah, recited three times a day in Jewish prayer: “God, open my lips so that my mouth may declare Your praise.” Later, the Hasidic star Avraham Fried joined him onstage for a spontaneous joint rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu,” the plaintive poem sung on Yom Kippur.
Ribo’s chart-topping “Seder HaAvodah” had the crowd singing aloud the Yom Kippur liturgy that reenacts the ancient Temple rites. And the encore kicked off with Ribo leading a niggun, or wordless melody, in honor of the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the 17th-century founder of Hasidism. For that number, Ribo changed from black clothing into the white traditionally worn on the Day of Atonement.
The two-hour performance, with its lush light show and string of special guests, was a fitting encapsulation of Ribo’s particular brand of Jewish music. Ribo has become a megastar in Israel and a favorite in Orthodox communities around the world due to his blend of pop sensibilities and liturgical lyrics, a rarity in the Orthodox music scene.
“A lot of Jewish singers will try to not sound current for specific reasons,” said Reva, an Upper West Sider who attended with friends after her parents passed along their tickets because they were in Israel. (Like most of the attendees interviewed, she declined to share her full name out of privacy concerns.)
“It feels like this is actually good music,” she said about Ribo. “And it’s beautiful to be in the room singing along to songs about what it means to be a Jew.”
The concert showcased the ways in which Ribo has broken the mold at a time of increasing religious stringency in Orthodox communities. All of Ribo’s songs exalt God, with many featuring lyrics ripped straight from Jewish prayers, but the music is decidedly rock and roll; Ribo has cited Coldplay, a band he heard while riding the bus to his haredi yeshiva in Israel, as an inspiration.
In addition to Fried, his musical guests included another religious pop singer, Akiva Turgeman, and a secular Israeli musician, Amir Dadon. The audience was largely Orthodox, but unlike at other Orthodox mass prayer gatherings — such as the ceremony to mark the end of a cycle of studying Talmud, or rallies to warn of the dangers of internet use — men and women sat together.
Many attendees said they had seen Ribo live at least once before, including in Israel; in May 2022 when he played Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens; and two years ago when he played a similar High Holidays-themed show at Kings Theater in Brooklyn.
“It’s a great way to go into the new year,” said one Long Island woman who saw him perform at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem shortly before Rosh Hashanah last year. “He does a really good job of making you feel connected.”
Not everyone in attendance was Orthodox, or even Jewish. Ke Chen, a recent immigrant from China, said he had become a Ribo fan while getting a master’s degree in data analytics and visualization at Yeshiva University, the uptown Orthodox flagship, and had attended the Flushing show last year.
“I felt that this music was very good and amazing,” Chen said. “I thought if he comes back here this year, I will go again.”
Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva based in New York, spent the beginning of the evening trying to gather an egalitarian prayer service to rival the all-male prayer that took place in the hallways of the Garden, alongside robust lines at the venue’s multiple kosher vendors.
After the show, he wrote on Facebook that he had been moved by seeing about the same number of Jews gathered in the arena as would have fit within the ancient Temple, according to measurements sketched out in Jewish texts. The Midtown stadium — home of the Knicks and Rangers sports teams along with being an iconic concert venue — isn’t exactly the Temple, he wrote, but there were similarities to the experience.
“When Ribo was up on the stage, singing his song about the Temple service on Yom Kippur, and when 10,000-15,000 people screamed out [blessed is God’s royal name forever] as the religious chorus of his song, and they then ecstatically break out into chants of … fortunate is the people for whom this is their lot — it may not be as wildly different an experience as we might think,” Tucker wrote.
The concert, which Madison Square Garden touted as sold-out, was sponsored by Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement that aims to spur immigration to Israel. A video shown before the show promised an array of benefits special for anyone in the audience who makes the move in the coming year — including a private concert by Ribo.
Ribo also performed “Ani Shayach Le’am” (“I Belong To a Nation”), which he released in April in honor of Israel’s 75th birthday. The song borrows from Passover to ask “Mah Nishtana” – or what is different – between the people of Israel and other nations. (In a sign of religion’s evolving place in Israeli culture, Ribo is not the only Israeli pop star to quote the Haggadah in his tunes: Omer Adam, another Israeli chart-topper, also quotes “Mah Nishtana” in his recent song “Floor 58.”)
The song has drawn criticism since its premiere for seeming to suggest that Jews uniquely know God, while others worship false idols. For some in attendance, the song was a blemish on an otherwise uplifting night.
“In regular times this may not have stood out to me: There are a lot of Jewish texts that speak to why we love being Jewish,” Esther Sperber, a New York City architect who has been active in local protests against Israel’s current right-wing government, said by email on Monday. “However, given the current government’s racist and nationalistic rhetoric and the recent horrible violence of settlers against Palestinians, I am wearier of these expressions of Jewish supremacy and their effects on extremists.”
Still, Sperber said, referring to the Jewish month that precedes the High Holidays, “I was deeply moved by the spiritual, Elul atmosphere of the concert.”
Another concert attendee named Moshe, a follower of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who lives in Switzerland, came after his children invited him. He said he had hoped to bring Ribo to Zurich but had been priced out after Ribo’s star rose during the pandemic.
“He’s unique in that he crosses all borders. You can see here the right to the left, everyone is coming together,” he said.
So would Ribo make a good prime minister? Moshe’s answer at first was unequivocal: “No. A prime minister has to be a political animal. He is a heart person.” But a few minutes later, he reconsidered: “You know, we’ve already had a leader who was a musician — King David. So it can work!”
For his part, Ribo appeared to relish in his pathbreaking New York City performance. Almost all of his stage banter was in Hebrew, although Ribo, who moved to Israel as a child with his family from France, said he was working on learning English.
On Monday, he posted — in Hebrew — on Instagram that he still felt like he was floating after the experience. He wrote, “We got to laugh, rejoice, get excited, cry and dance together, and all in Madison Square Garden!”