Bluegrass ‘Etz Chaim’: A melodic mix for marriage?
By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
For songwriters Naomi Less and Matthew Check, their recent release of “Eitz Chaim” (also commonly spelled as Etz Chaim) is the result of an unusual collaboration that began seven years ago in Bethel, New York, a sleepy upstate town in the shadow of the fabled Woodstock Festival.
Less, a co-founder and associate director at New York City’s Lab/Shul has been on a religious and spiritual journey and Check, a longtime friend, has turned out to be a great songwriting partner.
“Eitz Chaim” was released to streaming services on May 11, prior to the Shavuot holiday, Less said, as “a celebration of Torah and wisdom and revelation.” But the release happened at the same time when Israel and Gaza were exchanging fire, so much of the hoopla surrounding the release was muted as a result.
But despite more attention not being paid to its release at that time, the song has since enjoyed exposure on Spotify and has been downloaded several hundred times. Transcontinental Music Publications, the oldest and largest publisher of Jewish music in the world is also now advertising the song in their 5783 Ruach song book.
Listeners of the song will notice their new version of the venerated Jewish hymn (which concludes the traditional Torah service) contains traditional bluegrass elements, but also includes a non-traditional drum part.
“That is a really good indicator of Matt and my styles coming together because I tend to be more rock and spiritual and Matt definitely has his Americana, folk style,” explained Less in an exclusive CCJN phone interview. “So, when you’re bringing two people together with different styles, you’re going to come up with a delicious alchemy of new genre-bending, breaking takes on Jewish liturgy.”
Check, a native of Newtown, Pennsylvania, moved to New York City originally to enroll at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But unlike Less, who is a ritual leader, he found himself moved more by his guitar and bluegrass banjo playing than poring over scriptures. Yet, he did feel compelled to add a Jewish spin to his music. He created an amalgam of the music form with Jewish elements into what he has affectionately called “Jewgrass.” An album titled “The Bluegrass Kabbalat Shabbat Experience” came out of his initial foray into the musical form.
“Eitz Chaim,” which translates into “a tree of life,” initially comes from a description in Genesis of a tree in the Garden of Eden, but it has come to reference Torah and Jewish study particularly with the translated Hebrew phrase “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.”
With her work at Lab/Shul, Less wanted to approach liturgy in new ways through music. “I was looking at places and spaces in the liturgy where I felt a fresh take would be welcomed and wasn’t necessarily overdone,” she added. Collaboration with Check seemed a natural fit for the two of them.
Check admires what Less and other religious leaders at Lab/Shul are doing with their welcoming approach to Judaism. “They really are ahead of their times as a Jewish community,” he quipped.
“The placement of the ‘Eitz Chaim’ at the end of the Torah service should signal something that suggests we have all been through something together,” Less continued. “(In) an ideal Torah service, shift happens,” she said. “Something changes, right? Hopefully, your experience is not static. You start in one place. You grapple with Torah. You listen to the stories. You make meaning in your own life and you talk about it as a community. Then, hopefully, by the end of that, some sort of transformation has happened. We wanted ‘Eitz Chaim’ to really be representative of the journey,” she emphasized.
In this manner, Less takes a celebratory musical approach to “Eitz Chaim,” which she regards as leading to the pathways to peace. In her work at Lab/Shul, she attempts to make the language more inclusive of everyone. “All the Hebrew liturgy goes almost untouched, but the translations are more poetic,” she muses. “We’re dancing in the lab of metaphor when we’re talking about (the) relationship with divine presence.”
Check will be dancing in a different way this fall when he marries his sweetheart Lauren in Cincinnati, where he will be moving permanently. He popped the question here in New Orleans at her sister’s home located near Bayou St. John on December 30, 2022.
He was assisted in his efforts with the help of the Big Fun Brass Band, who played background while Check got down on one knee in front of an iconic cornstalk fence. “The song was “Make Me Smile” from the first Chicago album,” he informed the CCJN. “It’s a song we listened to on vinyl together during our first date and the lyrics from the chorus will even be on our Ketubah!”
Click this link to see the actual Crescent City proposal: IMG_0267.
Less won’t miss out on the wedding. She is actually signed on as a co-officiant for the ceremony. And that’s the way it should be for musical partners.
“Eitz Chaim” is now available on all streaming services. For those that want to get more than a listen, here is a live performance before several hundred people of the hymn by Less and Check that features Elana Arian and Danny Freelander.