At this year’s World of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh, one of the new groups I most enjoyed seeing live was New Jersey’s Nefesh Mountain. Fronted by the husband/wife team of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, the band serves as the Jewish counterpart to US Gospel bluegrass groups, drawing from the wealth of stories and lessons in the Hebrew scriptures, and the ritualistic music of Jewish ceremonies, as the basis for their songs.
Their show was spirited and uplifting, elevated by their sincerity and skill, not to mention Doni’s flair for performing and her obvious passion for sharing her faith. Eric plays guitar and banjo, with assistance from Alan Grubner on fiddle and Tim Kiah on bass. Zasloff sings the bulk of the lead vocals and carries the stage show.
Nefesh Mountain was well-received in Raleigh, and I got a chuckle seeing them play in the next room over from the Gospel Showcase in the Marriott Hotel. It was a real interfaith service going on that night downtown!
This year, when the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah intersects almost exactly with Christmas, the band has shared two live performance videos of songs they found in the writings of Woody Guthrie. For a time in the early 1940s, Guthrie lived in Coney Island, where he studied Judaism with Aliza Greenblatt, his mother-in-law, who was a recognized Yiddish poet.
From that time came his song, The Hanukkah Dance, and a poem, Hanukkah’s Flame, which Nefesh Mountain set to music. These were discovered long after Woody’s passing by his daughter, Nora, the same find that led to his posthumous collaboration with Del McCoury on the Del & Woody album earlier this year.
The videos capture the feel of their live shows, which should be of interest to lovers of bluegrass and old time music, followers of scripture Jew or gentile, and anyone who appreciates a lively performance of acoustic music.
First, here’s The Hanukkah Dance…
…followed by Hanukkah’s Flame.
Though you’re not likely to find them at a bluegrass festival, Nefesh Mountain tours aggressively all over the United States. Many of their shows are at synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, sharing their love of Appalachian music with audiences often unfamiliar with the tradition. Keep an eye on their schedule online for a chance to catch them where you live.
You can also check out their self-titled debut album online. A new recording project is in the works for 2017.