“This year, I want to talk about second chances, moving on, rising above adversity, getting back up… all of that stuff, it’s so important"
usic should be discussed in a place with a musical vibe, Shuey thought. In the old days, they would sit in the back room of the studio, empty pizza boxes and soda bottles all around them, creating and planning and dreaming.
Then they had moved their sessions over to that room in Shuey’s old house, sort of a closed-in porch with glass walls and plants all over and good energy. The crew would often still be there when the sun came up, the glass walls painted orange as new music came into the world.
It felt strange to welcome Raffi Katz, who had been part of those gatherings, to the study of a rented house, a lackluster room with a single dark seforim shelf, shaggy beige carpeting, and a needlepoint of the Kosel on the wall that looked like it was made by someone who had run out of steam halfway through. The room had no energy, but Raffi seemed eager to talk.
Raffi looked good. He had gone from a sound-equipment shlepper to a technician, then he’d opened the studios and had somehow become a broker, matching up singers and songs, musicians and gigs. Now he was a producer, and, in a magazine article that made Shuey wince, he had been called a “visionary.”
He had gotten married last year; at the chasunah, a series of singers had taken to the stage to bring joy to the chassan and kallah, but no one had asked Shuey if he wanted the chance. Thirteen singers had gone up, while Shuey Portman sat at table 37, which had more chairs than actual place settings, eating pickles in relative anonymity.
Marriage seemed to have done Raffi well. He was dressed normally, and his hair didn’t look like he had just come out of a cave.
Shuey wasn’t sure if they were heimish enough to go with the joke, but decided it was worth the shot. “I gotta say, marriage has done you well, you look almost normal,” he said. “Your hair is at manageable levels.”
Raffi looked at him absently and ran his fingers through his hair, as if checking that it was still there.
“Ha,” he said. “You good?”
“Baruch Hashem. Busy. Where are you living now?” Shuey asked.
Raffi had asked for the meeting and come to his house, but if Shuey would just look at him expectantly and not try for some small talk, then it would be painfully obvious that he was desperate to hear what Raffi wanted. It was smarter to make this a friendly get-together, touching base, let’s see if we can work together, that type of thing.
Raffi was living in Woodmere and life was good and he had an idea that was still sort of vague, but he wanted to try to tease it out together.
“Sure,” Shuey said. He was all for teasing it out.
“Basically, music is telling a story, right?” Raffi began. “The sound is just the words — compare it to scenery in a play, know what I mean? It’s like, a three-dimensional experience, right?” Raffi was leaning forward now, his eyes burning with intensity, and Shuey remembered what it was like to be around these people.
He had been told enough times that he was missing the fire, and as he looked at Raffi now, he knew that it was true, he had been missing it. Maybe he could still do teshuvah. If the door ever opened to him again, he would care. He would care very deeply.
“So lately, we’re using artists to tell stories,” Raffi continued. “I don’t know if you know what we did Chol Hamoed Succos, we had a crazy event called The Joy Inside You, it wasn’t just your usual be-happy set with artists jumping and the choir wearing Breslov yarmulkas and all that. It was a real build up, first the band played mood music, then we had Rabbi Jacobson speaking for a few minutes about creating simchah inside yourself, and then we had different artists, some more soulful, the lights brightening throughout and then… power. Like, real intense simchah, it was very special.”
“Wow, that’s amazing, I didn’t hear about it. In Brooklyn?” Shuey asked.
Raffi looked at him oddly. “No, we don’t do so much of that stuff anymore, this was in a very cool space in Long Island City, a rooftop. It wasn’t a super-public event — 600 guests, expensive tickets, cocktails and all. It’s how we do stuff now.”
“Mhmm-hmmm,” Shuey nodded, trying valiantly to appear as if he was following the industry trends.
“You know, it’s not just the business model that changes, the artists like this too, they feel like it’s much more real, more authentic. They get to express something.”
“I can imagine,” Shuey said, hoping he didn’t sound overeager.
“Yeah, anyhow.” Raffi seemed to remember the reason he’d come. “Let me share something with you, a certain vision.” He took a breath. “We’re planning a Pesach event that will be even more unique. We have a few high-end organizations that want to partner with us, it’s much easier when it’s associated with a tzedakah, people don’t balk about the price and all that, and this year, we’re taking it to Florida, I have a crazy outdoor-event space, it will be lit. And here’s the story I want to tell.”
Raffi paused, fumbled in his pocket, came up emptyhanded and grumbled that he had stopped smoking and hadn’t realized what he was giving in to.
“This year, I want to talk about second chances, moving on, rising above adversity, getting back up… all of that stuff, it’s so important. It’s what the people want now, more than ever. So I envision an opening set that celebrates the fall — a bit darker, the challenge itself. Maybe we’ll use an Israeli singer for that, one of those baalei teshuvah types who can convey that.”
Raffi stood up and started pacing in the small room. “Then I would get upbeat, shift the lighting and vibe, start by embracing the struggle and finding joy in your journey, maybe Joey would be good for that, he could nail it, I think, and by this point the crowd is dancing, they feel inspired.”
He paused for barely a second. “And here’s where you come in, Shuey.”
Raffi studied Shuey’s face carefully, as if gauging his readiness to hear.
“I would want you to come out then, just a single beam of light on the mic, a guitar strumming in the background, and talk about your early success,” he said. “You were the future, the hope of Jewish music, the rising star. You had it made. Then you talk a bit about how it slipped away, you don’t have to get into it, you know how it is, you can lose it in a second.”
Shuey wondered if Henny could hear the conversation and what she thinking.
“Then you talk about being out of the industry, the pain and hurt of being on the outside, watching it develop without you, bouncing around from job to job and feeling deprived of oxygen. You don’t have to overdo it, just a little bit, get the audience feeling it with you.
“Then, the full band is already set up, no one realizes that, and the lights go on and you explode with your new song, the music blasting, you’re on top of a chair, it’s electric. You’re back. Second chances, right?”
He exhaled. “Your move, Portman. I heard your single a few times. You still have it. You’re good enough that you can get the door to open for you again. You just don’t have much time to sit on this, too many moving parts, you know.”
Shuey’s head was spinning. He was being asked not to sing, but to play a role. The role of loser, it sounded like to him.
Raffi wasn’t done though. “And then, you’re hot again, know what I mean? The clips will be all over, everyone will see it. You can fall out suddenly, and you can climb in just as suddenly,” he said, and then repeated it again, like it was the chorus to a song.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 840)
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