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It Sounds Simple

Inside Joey Newcomb’s melodies lie deep messages that resonate with a new generation

 


Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab

Nothing says New York like an impromptu performance in an underground train station, as humanity in all its stripes and types rushes by. The 14th Street–Union Square station in Manhattan is so busker-friendly there are hooks for musicians to hang their banners on a wall near the stairs to the Q, N, and R trains. On this September morning, there’s a middle-aged black woman in jeans with a small speaker and mic, singing renditions of swing classics in a warm, pleasant alto.

Despite her enjoyable, if low-key, performance, few people pay attention. They have places to go, people to see — and the rumbling of trains one flight down often drowns out her voice anyway. But maybe she shouldn’t feel insulted. When violin superstar Joshua Bell played his three-and-a-half-million-dollar violin in a D.C. metro station as part of a stunt for the Washington Post, only seven people stopped to listen in 45 minutes (one was a three-year-old boy).

But now the swing singer is packing up, yielding her space graciously to three guys in yarmulkes and white shirts who just floated in. They’ve got considerably larger equipage: a singer, a keyboard, a flute, a guitar, a speaker. As they set up, clearly comfortable with each other and pumped about playing, they draw curious glances from bystanders hurrying to catch their next train.

And then their music bursts out — a glorious mix of niggunim, jazz, and Jewish pop songs, the sound rising and filling the cavernous space of the subway station. The musicians play with such obvious delight and high spirits that people start pausing to listen, taking out their cell phones to record. Joshua Bell’s multimillion-dollar violin may have gone ignored, but this is an undeniable curiosity: How often do you see those dour, insular religious Jews rocking it up in public (and doing it so well)?

WATCH JOEY’S IMPROMPTU SHOW!

Meet Joey Newcomb and his musician friends, rising lights of Jewish music (Yaakov Zeines does the keyboard, and Meyer Rosenbaum plays flute). A 29-year-old rebbi by day, Joey’s guitar and singing hobby has turned into a blossoming sideline. “If you told me when I got married I’d end up performing music, I would never have believed it,” he says. He thought he’d learn, and maybe turn his talents to kiruv or teaching, something in klei kodesh.

After a few songs, Joey stops to address the crowd. “Hi, everyone!” he shouts over the noise. “I’m Joey Newcomb from Kew Gardens Hills, and we’re here to spread a message of love and happiness!” He starts strumming again, and the band launches into his song “Thank You Hashem.” Feet are tapping, people are smiling. A Muslim woman in a hijab is filming him, a big smile improbably plastered on her face. So is a Chinese woman and a tall guy in a black Stetson and cowboy boots. An older couple, with the slightly glassy-eyed look of tourists, stops for a few minutes to take in yet another exotic New York experience.

With his double-breasted black jacket, beard, and long trailing peyos, you might take Joey for a Breslover. But Joey says he grew up very mainstream in Queens, attending Talmud Torah Siach Yitzchok and Yeshiva Shaarei Arazim in Monsey for mesivta. His peyos actually predate his recent fascination with chassidic texts. “My father, who’s a baal teshuvah, discovered that our family had been Belzer chassidim a few generations back,” he explains. “So he chose to grow long peyos even though we’re not officially Belz, and I grew them too.” The peyos weren’t a problem when he was a kid in Siach Yitzchok, which he describes as a “heimish” school, but as he got into high school they got shorter and shorter, till they almost disappeared. “They came back slowly,” he says with a grin. “I’ve had the long peyos and beketshe since I got married, and fortunately my wife is totally on board with it.”

The family connection to Belz always remained in the blood: When Joey was learning in Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem, he used to go to the Belzer shul on Shabbos to daven. “I was putting in 13-hour days in the Mir, and it was the best experience in my life. But that chassidic connection would give me energy to do it all over again the following week,” he says. During that period, he also spent time frequenting the famed tzaddik Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg, known for his seforim, brachos, and moving Seudah Shlishis conducted in the dark amid emotional singing and discourse.

Those hallowed scenes are a long way from the grimy subway, but Joey manages to tap the same spiritual energy here at Union Square. A group of about ten young men passes by — tourists, maybe? I notice one of them has a backpack with a Magen David logo. They stop for an instant appreciatively, and suddenly they’re in a circle dancing with producer/director Meir Kay to “Anachnu Ma’aminim Bnei Ma’aminim” and “Hava Nagila,” singing along with gusto — they know the words! Even Joey puts down his guitar to join their circle briefly. “Where are you from?” I shout to one of them over the noise. “Israel!” he shouts back, and then just as suddenly, they break away and file down the stairs to the train.

Joey has always maintained that music should serve a higher purpose: It should connect people to Hashem. He’s received quite a few messages from people telling him his music inspired them, or helped them through a rough spot. (His song “It’s Never Too Late” has led to innumerable, sometimes tearfully grateful texts.) Right now, as he sings “Thank You Hashem,” I marvel to see the way a person can bring holiness into a gritty subway station.

A tall man with cropped white hair and piercing blue eyes arrives and stands next to me, listening approvingly. With his grass-green pants and polo shirt, he looks like a retired WASP from Scarsdale. Then he speaks, and what comes out is pure Eastern Europe. “This music, it is like a combination of klezmer and rock,” he pronounces.

“Are you a musician?” I ask.

“I play accordion and guitar,” he says. “I am Jewish, from Munkacs! In Munkacs all the Jewish boys had to learn an instrument.” He listens for a long moment, then waves and walks off to catch his train.

Joey’s music follows him toward the staircase, giving a certain lift to his shoulders. Sometimes it’s the simple things that pierce through all those layers to reach the heart.

 

Face to Face

The Joey who sits down to talk the following day is much more soft-spoken and circumspect than the Joey who got the crowd rocking in Union Square. It’s not that he isn’t forthcoming — he answers my questions readily — but he’s too unassuming to elaborate in detail unless prompted. The resulting impression is deceptive, because underneath the simplicity is a very thought-out, spiritual person, and once he knows you better he has plenty to say.

I have to speak to Rabbi Mordechai Yehudah Groner, who hired Joey as a rebbi at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway, to learn that Joey is actually a tremendous talmid chacham. “He knows how to learn, and he understands the heart of Yiddishkeit,” Rabbi Groner says. “His heart, his neshamah are very Torah oriented; he can sit and learn for hours. The boys are attracted to him like a magnet, because they sense that he’s emes…. When he teaches them, he gives over the material with clarity and passion.”

Of course, Joey will be the first to tell you he was less than a tzaddik as a child. Today a tall man, he was always a big kid, a ringleader, the active kid who got into scrapes. He ended up in hospitals six times for broken bones, including the time a marble countertop in a store fell on his foot and crushed it. “I was about six years old, and I remember waking up in the hospital and seeing my dad saying Tehillim,” he says. “Years later, on Purim, my father told me — maybe he’d had a little bit to drink — that the doctors had told him they’d have to amputate my foot. He spent the entire night saying Tehillim, and while I still have a toe I can’t bend, I still have my foot! Imagine — I wouldn’t have been able to jump around with my guitar if I’d lost it.”

In junior high and high school, Joey was the loud kid, the kid who’d get into crazy obsessions and follow them to the end. In eighth grade, for example, he decided he and his friends would be able to communicate test answers to each other if they learned to say them in Chinese. He started learning numbers in Chinese, but then got inspired to learn more.

“I bought a Barron’s book that came with four cassettes and went through the whole thing,” he relates. “I started listening to Chinese radio and would go to Chinatown and try to speak to people. I almost got fluent! I guess it was kind of an attention-getting thing.”

After that he dabbled in Russian and Spanish, but ultimately let them drop. Then his father bought a guitar, hoping to learn to play. He didn’t find the time, but 13-year-old Joey did.

He attacked learning guitar with the same energy he’d put into Chinese. He read some how-to books he found around the house, including books on music theory. He connected with other guys who played guitar, and they’d exchange information and tips. He listened to a lot of guitar music, including a lot of heavy metal. One of his rebbis, having noted his guitar obsession (“I brought it everywhere in those days”), began calling him “Joey” as a joke. It stuck, despite the fact that Joey had been named Yosef Yisrael Meir at his bris and on his birth certificate.

“In ninth grade, my rebbeim weren’t so happy about my interest in guitar,” he says. “Later, I came to appreciate that the secular stuff I was listening to could be dangerous for my neshamah. I didn’t listen to my rebbis about playing my guitar, but during that time I did develop skills that I use in my avodah today.”

Musically, he’d grown up on rather gentler fare. His parents always had music playing in the home, mostly Shlomo Carlebach and Abie Rotenberg CDs. “For me, those Carlebach and Journeys albums were really meaningful Jewish music.” He grins. “I can still listen to the Marvelous Midos Machine for hours.”

Today, he enjoys singers like Beri Weber, Yosef Karduner, Yehuda Green, Eitan Katz, and Zusha. He also enjoys upbeat chassidic music, like Vizhnitz niggunim: “The words are so powerful and deep,” he says.

 

Can You Play for Us?

Joey wasn’t the most inspired guy in high school, but as he approached beis medrash, he got serious about Yiddishkeit, and his music became more spiritual as well. With his resonant voice, his skill on the guitar, and the natural aura of leadership that often clings to big guys, Joey was soon leading kumzitzes in yeshivah, and often asked to be the baal tefillah.

“The kumzitzes on Thursday nights helped turn me around,” he says.

As he developed his serious side, he dropped all the secular music and turned to playing Jewish music whenever asked. “People enjoyed it,” he recalls. “I was once the baal tefillah in the Mir for 1,000 people. I also did some kumzitzes for Rabbi Fruchter, a kiruv rabbi, when I was in Israel. Later, when I was in kollel, I’d play for siyums and the Chanukah mesibah.”

During his beis medrash years, he became close to Rabbi Avrohom Neuburger, while still retaining his connections to his rebbeim from Merkaz in Eretz Yisrael (Rabbi Yosef Katz and Rabbi Eli Dunner). When he’s in Jerusalem, he’ll go back to Rav Tzvi Meir and spend time near chassidic rebbes.

After marrying Chana Gittel (née Ackerman) seven years ago, he continued learning in Rabbi Binyamin Forst’s kollel in Queens while she worked in her father’s accounting office. Chana Gittel, he says, is behind him in all his musical and spiritual endeavors, keeping the home front happy and well-managed while he learns and performs. She and their three children are big fans of his music — it’s usually blasting in their car.

Joey’s first professional break came a few years ago when a friend told him, “My father-in-law is making sheva brachos. Can you come play some music?”

Joey took his guitar and what he describes as a small, “heimish” speaker, and performed. It was such a hit that over the next few years he began getting requests, largely through word of mouth, to sing at small local events. Friends and rebbeim began to encourage him to seek a wider audience: “You could inspire people,” they said. Singer Eitan Katz started passing gigs his way.

A few years ago, it occurred to him that he was only playing other people’s songs, and he tried his hand at a song of his own. When he saw that people liked it, he was inspired to write more, and he hasn’t stopped since. “It made me wonder how many other people have untapped kochos, and just need a little encouragement to blossom,” he says. “How many bochurim sit in yeshivah with their kochos in prison, and would do so much better if we could give them some encouragement or a means of self-expression?”

Just over a year ago, Joey released his first album. “Baruch Hashem, I really haven’t had to do much hishtadlus to become known,” he says. In fact, it’s only recently that he hired an agent to take care of all his booking calls and the financial end: “I need someone else to hondel for me on the phone,” he says. “But I’m not in this to make a fortune or show off my voice. What I want is for people to walk away on a spiritual high.”

In fact, he’s bothered when people ask if the fame has gone to his head. He finds it preposterous. “Don’t they realize a Jew has to learn mussar every day?” he says. “We have a concept of bittul! I’m always surprised people feel they can be my coach — I don’t think they’d ask the same thing of someone who succeeded in business.”

By last year, he was doing so much singing that by the time Pesach was over, his throat was constantly scratchy. He went to a well-known ENT, Dr. Peak Woo, who told him he’d developed polyps.

Polyps are a very scary prospect for a singer. They often have to be surgically removed, and recovery means not being allowed to talk or sing for six to twelve months. But thankfully, Dr. Woo determined the polyps were small enough that they might go away on their own if he was careful.

“Just don’t irritate them,” he said. “Get vocal training so you don’t make the problem worse.”

Joey listened. He sought out a vocal coach used by many top singers in the Jewish world. Since beginning the training, his throat is totally healed and only getting better, but he’ll still sometimes rest his voice for 24 hours before or after a long concert.

“That setback was a lesson for me,” he says. “You may think you have a talent, but it’s a gift from Hashem. You can’t take credit for it, and He can take it back at any moment. But while you’re in possession of it, you have to do your hishtadlus to take care of it and develop it properly.”

 

The Day Job

Joey doesn’t need to rely on gigs for his living expenses, because he already has two jobs. For the last year, he’s been the official chazzan at the White Shul in Far Rockaway. (He shares the job of baal tefillah for the Yamim Noraim with Eitan Katz.)

During the week, he’s a rebbi in Ateres Shimon, a yeshivah founded by Rabbi Mordechai Yehuda Groner for young men who are working or otherwise not in traditional yeshivah settings. Ateres Shimon started out as a minyan in the basement of a house; boys would come for some tefillah and to schmooze with Rabbi Groner and a few other avreichim, Joey included. It grew to the point where it made sense to turn it into something more structured.

“Rabbi Groner approached each boy with love and warmth,” Joey says. “He hired someone to help spend time with them, then hired me too, as a kind of madrich. The idea was to daven with them, eat breakfast, and give over a story or some learning. He thought I could contribute a nice Hallel with my guitar.”

Before long, it became clear the guys were ready for a more formal seder. Joey was hired to lead sedorim in the morning and the evenings (when his musical schedule allows). The yeshivah has grown to include 200 young men in total, with four rebbeim. Ateres Shimon even organizes some amazing trips, like a ten-day tour of Eastern Europe.

Joey himself was marked by that trip, feeling awe at the kever of the Baal Shem Tov and uplifted in Uman. He’s been inspired to start learning chassidic texts and finds them deeply compelling. “It’s known that the Baal Shem Tov predicted that in the time before Mashiach there will be a hunger for chassidus,” he says, “and a desire to attach to tzaddikim and rebbes the way Jews once could attach to neviim and the Beis Hamikdash. It’s known as the ‘fourth dimension’ of the world.”

His talmidim, too, are looking for deeper ways to connect. “They’re a new generation,” Joey says. “I’m 29, and I’m still a different generation than they are, because I remember life before cell phones and 9/11. These kids can’t sit still, they can waste hours scrolling through their phones — but you have to work with who they are, not who you think they should be.”

Underneath that slick veneer, he says, they’re searching for depth, for penimius. They want to do mitzvos not out of fear, but out of love, out of a personal sense of meaning and responsibility. And that’s where his music comes in. Joey sees music as a means of reaching the neshamah in a way that’s more direct than speeches or a mussar shmuess. “It grabs the boys powerfully, on an emotional level, especially if it conveys a message that fits the music,” he says. “Think of the Rosh Hashanah tefillah — we have such nostalgia, such emotion for the nusach because of the way it’s sung, in a way we wouldn’t if those words had simply been spoken.”

Joey has been able to inspire a wide swath of Jewish kids beyond his own bochurim through his music. This past summer was a whirlwind of touring through a multitude of boys’ summer camps. He was out four or five nights a week, rarely getting home before 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. Yaakov Zeines, the talented keyboard player who accompanies Joey and did the summer gigs with him, comments, “I play a lot of weddings, and sometimes when I finish I feel like, ‘Thank G-d it’s over.’ But with Joey it’s always fun and uplifting.”

 

Mach a Niggun

Where does a new song come from? “For some people, writing songs can be a chochmah, a science,” Joey says. “But I always think of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, who would sit on a stage with no papers and say, ‘I’m feeling a song.’ Most of my songs were composed in a three-minute time span, based on a feeling or an inspiration.”

He compares composing to painting a picture. An artist needs to fit his ideas onto a canvas, to find the right paints and composition, to figure out his technique. But no one can tell him what or how to paint; the inspiration has to come from his own experiences. Joey will work on a song to flesh out how it should be played, but the kernel of the idea comes in a flash.

Take Joey’s song “Bnei Hamelech,” which is about the different types of Jews who comprise our world. That inspiration struck in the middle of Minchah in the Kesser Torah shul in Queens. “I looked around me, and I saw a litvish guy, a Breslov guy, a Sephardi guy, and I thought, Wow, we’re all here together. We became separated, and developed differences, but we’re all Jews.

“I walked out and I had the song in my head. Of course I went home and perfected it, but it mostly came to me in a few moments.”

His song “Me’ayin” came out of a session learning the Noam Elimelech. He learned that in the pasuk “mei’ayin yavo ezri” (Tehillim 121:1), the word “mei’ayin” can be interpreted to mean not just “from where will my help come,” but “from nothing will my help come.” In other words, when a person feels like he’s nothing, that’s when Hashem steps in to help. It’s when a person feels the most obliterated that he’s open and ready to connect to the Borei Olam. When Joey walked out of the beis medrash, the song came to him.

The song “Thank You Hashem” wasn’t exactly Joey’s own composition, but he made it his own. It came out of the vachnacht of a friend who had just had a son after waiting many years. The new father and his brothers were sitting around singing, and in their gratitude began improvising on the words “Thank You, Hashem.”

“When I heard it, I told them, ‘That is so my type of song!’ ” Joey says. “They told me, ‘Take it! Run with it!’ ”

Joey’s been running with his songs ever since — and a new generation of seeking young Jews are joining him for the ride.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 781)

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