ISRAEL: A Toast to Life - Yaakov Shwekey
Jewish music that veers from sincere ballads to danceable pop songs, all the while revelling in its essential and unabashed yiddishkeit
Coming from a (more or less) Modern Orthodox Jewish background, the type of Jewish pop music that Israeli singer Shwekey performs is intimately well-known to me, having been played a lot at Jewish functions. It is a genre mostly performed by American Hassidic Jews, and they almost always take an existing Jewish text and rework it in a smooth, catchy pop style. The most famous of these is probably Mordechai Ben David, whose song Moshiach, a pop reworking of the renowned rabbi and Torah scholar Maimonides’s 13 principles of faith, is a genuine bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah classic. I don’t think I’ve ever attended one where the DJ or band hasn’t played it, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to. However, overall, while it is often slick and well made, with the honourable exception above taken into account, it is often unmemorable and rather generic. They have their audience and their niche and they stick with it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for astonishing listening (aside from Moshiach – it’s the greatest party song of all time). Yaakov Shwekey, however, is a bit of an exception. While he is firmly in that Orthodox Jewish pop music tradition, he has carved out a niche for himself by taking this very American Ashkenazi genre and adding a little Israeli spice. Born in Jerusalem, Shwekey himself is, like myself, of Egyptian and Syrian Jewish heritage on his father’s side, and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage on his mother’s side, and while he sings in a typically Ashkenazi style that I will delineate later, he is more inventive and interesting than many of his peers.
“I feel Shwekey’s version of the genre on this album is accessible to all, especially on the English-language tracks where the messages are intrinsically Jewish, but also universal.”
2021’s A Toast to Life is, in some ways, typical of the genre. Working alongside a variety of lyricists and composers, Shwekey once again takes inspiration from Jewish life and themes like on Bo Shabbos, as well as Jewish prayers. He also sings in a typically Ashkenazi style of Hebrew pronunciation despite his Mizrahi heritage, where the vowels of the Hebrew words are rounded and some ‘t’ sounds become ‘s’ sounds, (hence Shabbos, not Shabbat), and he even sings in Yiddish on Ah Yid. But where Shwekey manages to differentiate himself is that I find him to be more musically adventurous than many of his contemporaries. Shwekey found fame initially with the song Rachem (meaning ‘have pity’), a powerful and moving ballad that for some reason was played all the time on the bus during a tour of Israel I did at the age of 16. I had therefore come to this album assuming him to be a balladeer, but this album contains all sorts of songs in several different genres, all the while retaining its Jewish pop essence.
Lecha Atzmi and Bo Shabbos are both ballads, but Hinei Elokeinu and the title track are upbeat dance numbers, Yogati has more than a hint of funk, Lernin has an oompah beat that mixes in beautifully with the Klezmer clarinet, while Ah Yid is folk inspired, with some nifty guitar work reminiscent of James Taylor, before eventually incorporating synths and drum machines. Though most of the album is in Hebrew, there are sections in English, where perhaps Shwekey is at his most sincere on an emotional level. The Wonder of Life is maybe the best expression of this, an emotional song that speaks to finding the strength to continue even in the hardest of times, with Shwekey’s soaring voice once again well suited to ballads. However, it is the title track L’chaim a Toast to Life that remains my favourite. A catchy pop rock tune sung in Hebrew and English, it has a memorable chorus and an uplifting message that synthesises the best parts of Shwekey’s music, namely the sincerely emotional messages derived from Judaism as well as a catchy dance-pop musical sensibility. Hold On is another song in that vein, imploring the listeners to keep on going through the tough times and to count their blessings, all the while encased in an irresistible retro 80s pop instrumentation.
Shwekey’s music might have a more natural home amongst my fellow Jews, and that’s certainly where he has found his greatest successes, but I do think there’s fun to be had for all you many gentiles out there. You’ll miss out on some of the cultural specificity that comes with his work, and you may not understand the lyrics, but his music is, if not spectacular, certainly well made and fun to listen to, with a level of memorability many of his contemporaries fail to achieve. His overt and proud religiosity combined with his sincere messages are perhaps a rarity in the world of modern charts music, but that’s what makes it Orthodox Jewish pop music, and I feel Shwekey’s version of the genre on this album is accessible to all, especially on the English-language tracks where the messages are intrinsically Jewish, but also universal. L’chaim might be a Hebrew phrase, but its profound and beautiful sentiment rings out across all cultures.