| Magazine Feature |

Until We Crown You King

While his concerts attract capacity crowds from the entire spectrum of Israeli society and his albums have gone gold, he still only wants to sing about the Borei Olam

Photos  Amir Levi, Shlomi Pinto, Chaim Tuito

There is a narrative ingrained in the public psyche by an often contentious media: that Israeli society consists of three disparate, hostile groups — chareidim, chilonim, and the national-religious somewhere in between — each with separate agendas, each fiercely holding down their line with no interest in reconciliation. If those lines really exist, then superstar Israeli singer Ishay Ribo, the new beloved voice of emunah and hope, has figured out how to cross them. But maybe instead, he’s proven that the battle lines aren’t really there at all.

Perhaps nothing reflects this more than a clip of a heartbreaking visit by Ribo to the shivah of 21-year-old soldier Amit Ben Yigal, killed in an overnight anti-terrorist raid in a village outside Jenin in May 2020. Ishay didn’t know the family, but one thing he did know: This is the broad swath of Israeli society that’s under the radar — people who believe, have faith, and want to connect, even if they are unlearned and not strictly observant.

Ribo sat in a circle with them and sang “Halev Sheli,” his mega-popular song about how only Hashem can heal a broken heart, bringing Amir’s parents to tears as they and other non-religious visitors joined him in singing the words of hope and healing that they all knew. Baruch Ben Yigal told Ishay that Amir, who was his only child, had selected “Halev Sheli” as the ringtone on his phone.

Ishay Ribo, 33, never set out to be a national ambassador of faith when he began writing songs as a teenager, but still, he was careful only to write songs of kedushah, of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, emunah, hope, and redemption. And today, his mix of spiritual lyrics culled from Tanach and midrashim, packaged in powerful, inspirational melodies, has managed to break down sectarian barriers. His prominent black yarmulke and long tzitzis notwithstanding, his concerts attract capacity crowds from the entire spectrum of Israeli society, he has won prestigious national music awards, his four albums have gone gold and platinum — and he still only wants to sing about the Borei Olam.

“Music is a great connector, from a higher place,” he says, explaining that every concert is like a mission to open hearts, because he really believes that he can get a message across to a public Hashem hasn’t given up on. “Not-yet-religious people come and feel their souls stirred. People have told me, ‘I’m not religious, but I won’t listen to your songs on Shabbat.’ The truth is, when I started out, I never dreamed that, with the types of songs I sing, secular people would come to my concerts. But so many people have told me, ‘Ishay, you’re the only connection we have to spirituality.’”

And maybe that can also help answer the mystery question of how Ishay Ribo has found his voice abroad. Israeli singers generally have a hard time breaking into the American market, and not just because of language — there are barriers of culture and style as well. So how was he able to fill 3,200 seats in the Kings Theater in Brooklyn last summer, and sell out thousands of tickets for an upcoming whirlwind US-European tour, when his music is a bit complex and his lyrics profound and often cryptic, in a language much of the audience doesn’t even understand?

How is it that, even without fully comprehending the lyrics, everyone — from the non-affiliated to the frum; Europeans, Americans, and Israelis; from chiloni to chareidi and everyone in between — is able to find what they’re seeking in his music? What’s the magic?

“Ishay Ribo has this universal appeal, although I don’t think it can be attributed to any one thing,” says Yaakov Brown, a music trends and history expert living in Jerusalem and creator of the Jewish Musical Notes chat, whose members include a large number of music personalities and industry insiders. “The success and popularity of any artist, especially within the medium of music, specifically among an audience of such nuanced and diverse tastes, relies on many different variables, the greatest of which is a healthy dose of siyata d’Shmaya.

“For starters,” says Yaakov, “Ishay has been blessed with an abundance of mazal, a fact that he himself declares often. He has remarked many times that he feels that Hashem has given him a special ability to infuse his music with its unifying and influential allure. And then there’s what we call koach haniggun, the ability of the music to skip the brain entirely and travel straight to the heart. It can help express the anguish of the soul as well as the faith that burns deep within us all. Ishay masterfully wields his ability to speak to the pintele Yid inside every Jew through his melody and poetry, and it’s especially powerful because his songs reflect his own real emotion — he’s extremely genuine.”

“Every song is its own Divine gift.” Ribo seizes inspiration wherever he finds it – a lyrical phrase, a line in the week’s haftarah – but the final product carries the imprint of some Higher force

Just a Regular Guy

Ishay Ribo is the kind of guy you could easily pass on the street and not even notice, understated and inconspicuous in his black yarmulke, sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. (“I think my songs are more popular than my face,” he says of his ability to navigate the streets of Jerusalem without garnering unwanted attention.) He lives with his wife Yael and four children (three boys and a baby daughter) in a third-floor apartment off a tree-lined sidewalk in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, sends his sons to Talmud Torah Har Nof, and spends his mornings learning in the kollel of Midreshet Ziv.

He’s settled, confident, happy, and grateful for all the blessings in his life, has performed his dream duets with the gamut of Israeli pop stars — from secular legend Shlomo Artzi to Vizhnitzer chassid Motty Steinmetz — and is even financially stable at his relatively young age, averring that with hard work, hustle, and prudent management, singers today can actually make good parnassah instead of just lamenting how there’s no money because everyone downloads their product for free.

But this, he admits, is the new Ribo. A few years ago, when his star was rising at a meteoric rate, he was so focused on his dreams and so stunned by his success that it was hard to stay balanced. It took the brakes of Covid to pull him back inward.

Many fans are familiar with the story of his life, as he tells it often: He was born in Marseille, France, to parents who immigrated from North Africa, and he was eight years old when his family made aliyah. They were always religious, he says, but once they moved to Israel, they became stronger in their observance. They started out in Kfar Adumim, a mixed religious-traditional yishuv where he originally went to school; as his family shifted into the chareidi world, he began attending cheder in Jerusalem, and his parents eventually moved to the outlying community of Tel Tzion, while he continued yeshivah, first in Kiryat Sefer and then in a yeshivah for French immigrants in the Gilo neighborhood.

And although he didn’t even play an instrument, he discovered, when he was around 12 years old, that he could write songs.

“I would sit at the table, bang away with my hands, and record myself,” he remembers. “But the problem with that was that everything pretty much sounded the same.”

He’s embarrassed to share those first faltering compositions (think lyrics like “I love You, Hashem,” or “I’m waiting for Mashiach”) but even then, he resolved only to create songs of holiness, connection, and yearning, expressing the pain of galus and the hope for Geulah.

By the time he was around 17, though, he’d created an impressive repertoire — about 100 songs, and they weren’t bad either.

Around that time, he learned to play the guitar, and then his composing really took off. And, he admits, because he wasn’t so studious, he and his friends would often go into town and listen to the street musicians, which gave him an opening into the world of composition beyond the chassidic music genre of Fried and MBD, his boyhood favorites (which he still loves as well).

Then a bus ride changed his life. He was sitting behind the driver when he heard a song by right-wing religious Sephardi singer Amir Benayoun, “Smachot Ketanot,” blasting from the driver’s radio. It shook him up, because it was great music with powerful, original lyrics, all written by the singer and not a composite package put together by several others. He realized there might be a place for his music after all. (Over a decade later, Ribo, who is known for his performances together with other artists, came full circle with his original inspiration as he sang alongside Benayoun at a concert in Sultan’s Pool outside Jerusalem’s Old City.)

The great connector. Ishay Ribo’s every concert is a mission to open hearts

Give It a Chance

Ishay was a 22-year-old yeshivah bochur and head of a ragtag band called “Tachlis” when he married Yael, daughter of chassidic scholar Rav Avner Tunik, who heads a yeshivah and community in Moshav Tifrach made up of chassidic-inclined spiritual seekers.

He was then drafted for a truncated military service, serving in the Technology and Maintenance Corps, which allowed him to sleep home at nights. He also sang in the IDF rabbinical choir. He was still in the army when he decided he needed to take his music to a new level and record a few of his dozens and dozens of songs professionally.

But he had a problem. “I had no idea how this would happen. I had no connections, not enough musical knowledge, and had never even studied music — I wasn’t part of the industry at all.”

It was a winding path, but Ishay says he felt bountiful siyata d’Shmaya all along the way.

And he had another problem: Ishay was making about 5,000 shekels a month from his army stipend, which would soon end, and Yael was working in a bank. That was enough for a young couple to live on, but where does a young husband and new father get the money to fund an album? The year before, in order to fund an initial studio project, he worked the night shift at Berman’s Bakery. But with a young family, that was no option — and besides, how much could he save from a minimum-wage job?

“I told my wife, ‘Look, we have 100,000 shekels in savings from our wedding money. It’s not enough for a down payment on an apartment, and I’m not cut out to go to school. Plus, I have so much music ready. Maybe we use it to fund an album?’ Yael was so supportive, she had so much faith in me, she said, ‘Okay, let’s do it. This way we know we tried.’ It was literally sinking our savings into a blind item, but we both believed it could be good.”

Ishay had met a few people in the industry, and although he got some promises of help — after all, he did have some really nice songs — no one wanted to invest in an unknown who hadn’t even released a single and had no airplay whatsoever.

He didn’t have an audience yet, but he did have ambition. And he did have someone who played piano and keyboard with him from the time he was 17 until today.

“David Ichilevitch is still with me at all my performances,” Ishay says. “Hashem sent him to me then, and he’s still making all the songs shine.”

Ishay knew he’d have to work hard. He’d get on a bus and drop off his baby (now ten-year-old Yonatan) at day care, take another bus to his shift at the army base, and then head off to the Tel Aviv studio to work on the album.

That album was Tocho Ratzuf Ahavah, named for the title track — a haunting, allegorical composition with allusions from Mishlei, Yeshayahu, Shir Hashirim, and midrashim about Hashem’s boundless, all-encompassing love for His people.

Even after the release of his single “Tocho Ratzuf Ahavah” off the album, the future remained uncertain. The song wasn’t an instant hit — it didn’t get the airplay he’d hoped for, and it would take time before he was “discovered.” Ishay then released another single off the album, “Kol Dodi,” but that was even less successful, and his money was running out.

But then there was a tiny crack. And it opened through longtime Kol Chai radio host Menachem Toker.

“One day I’m on the radio, and Israeli singer Gad Elbaz sends me a song,” Toker says. “He told me some yeshivish guy from Yerushalayim named Ribo has some nice songs and that I’m going to be hearing about him. A couple weeks later, Ribo himself calls and says he has a new song, so I brought him to the studio.”

That song was “Kol Dodi” — a user-friendly version about the unfolding of the Redemption, inspired by the words in Shir Hashirim — and although Toker is proud that he was the first to give Ishay Ribo a platform to play his music, he says he’s “the world’s biggest loser” for not immediately recognizing Ribo’s star quality and appeal.

While Ishay was weighing the wisdom and feasibility of releasing yet another song, he received a call from secular Israeli singer and songwriter Idan Raichel. “Idan had heard ‘Tocho Ratzuf Ahavah’ and was inviting me to sing on his album, The Idan Raichel Project. This was exactly the opportunity I needed,” Ishay says. “But I had made a kabbalah to sing only songs connected to emunah, bitachon, and the Borei Olam.”

Ribo told Raichel about his condition and added, “Don’t even bother sending me a song if it’s not appropriate. I don’t want to be tempted.”

Raichel wasn’t fazed. “Good that you’re telling me. I have a spiritual song, perfect for you. I’m sending it.”

The song, entitled “Or Kazeh,” gave Ishay the strength to continue along his career path. “Not because it was a hit — but because the entire incident gave me hope. Here I was at my low point, and suddenly I’d been given a stage.”

And suddenly, his music started being heard. For his debut single “Tocho Ratzuf Ahavah,” he was named Singer of the Year by Radio Galei Israel and Maariv newspaper. And “Kol Dodi” became Song of the Year on Radio Kol Chai.

“Tocho Ratzuf Ahavah” became Ishay’s calling card, but it was the song that almost wasn’t.

“We were preparing to record my first album, and I started out with the list of 20 of my favorite songs, which we would narrow down to 12,” he remembers. “Then, right under the wire, I wrote a new song. I brought it along to the studio, saying to my producer, ‘I wrote this yesterday. Do you think we can use it?’ That song was ‘Tocho Ratzuf Ahavah.’ For me, this was a practical lesson in emunah. Hashem was guiding me through a process. I didn’t really have the experience or connections, but He sent me that song at the last minute.”

The outsider who found a way in. Ishay Ribo was 12 years old when he discovered his talent for composing songs, but it took years for him to find the courage, connections, and funding to actually record them professionally.

Who’s Listening?

Ribo’s songs are so deep, so poetic and profound, with words culled from the esoteric holy texts. How did a 23-year-old, admittedly not the most diligent student in yeshivah, the guy in the hoodie, write a song like “Tocho Ratzuf Ahavah”?

“Every song is its own Divine gift, and there really isn’t another explanation,” he says. “The proof is that sometimes I’ll go for a long stretch — months — and nothing comes up.”

But there is a certain practical method as well. “I have a good memory, and sometimes phrases and ideas just stick in my head. Take, for example, the words ‘Tocho ratzuf ahavah / Beito tsafuf lirvachah (His whole essence radiates love / His house ever full, yet roomy)’ — I heard the phrase ‘tzafuf lirvachah’ from my father-in-law that year when we were in his large but very crowded succah. He was referring to his succah, picking up the phrase describing one of the ten miracles of the Beis Hamikdash, that even during the crush of aliyah l’regel, ‘hayu omdim tzefufim, umishtachavim revachim — when they were standing, it was crowded, but when they were bowing, there was room.’ That phrase stuck with me, and I knew I’d have to use it. It was my opening to create this song.”

Sometimes songs come to him during Shabbos — words that jump out from the Torah reading, from tefillah, from the haftarah of the Navi. “Kol Dodi” came to him after reading Shir Hashirim on Friday evening — it was playing in his head all Shabbos.

However the songs come to him, Ishay says they generally aren’t personal (exception: “Mekasheh Achat Zahav/A Solid Piece of Gold,” from his second album, Pachad Gevahim, which he wrote in honor of the birth of his second son, David). He’s not about wearing his heart on his sleeve, he says. He’s about expressing the ideas that every Jewish soul feels, be it longing, despair, hope, yearning for closeness, pining for redemption and light.

Ishay admits that he doesn’t speak the way he writes. “I’m a simple guy, not an academic, not an intellectual, but I’ve definitely been enriched by the things I’ve learned. During the times I’m learning more Torah, I also feel much fuller, and the ideas that come out are much more powerful.

“And I believe Hashem has gifted me these songs because of the resolution I made many years ago, that I would only write about holy things. That was the path, and I never considered veering off. But you know, when I first got into the studio, it was tempting. People started asking me, ‘What is this? It’s not chassidic music, and it’s not modern Israeli music. Look, it’s really great stuff, very interesting and special, but who’s going to listen to it? Chareidim listen to chassidish music, and chilonim, what kesher do they have to songs about Hashem?’ I also wondered, but deep down, I told myself, it doesn’t matter, I’m forging on. I felt that there is still a place for this.”

Also, he sensed a change happening in the industry, in what the public was thirsting for. Secular radio was beginning to play songs of spirituality, songs of baalei teshuvah — there were Aharon and Yonatan Razel, and there were also people like Eviatar Banai and Shuli Rand, the branzha of Israeli culture, who sang of their new ideals and passions. Ishay sensed a transition happening. “That’s true,” many industry advisors told him, “but those singers were once chilonim and they already had a loyal following. But you? You’re just a yeshivah bochur.”

Within the discerning, often unforgiving chareidi world of music consumers, Ishay Ribo is a bit of an anomaly. He’s a religious singer, full of tochein and Torah, and although he plays in non-religious venues, for some reason he hasn’t been shunned. Maybe it’s because they know he’s not a wedding singer, but that he’s bringing something else to the table. And maybe they, too, want to have a small part of this movement, where secular Israelis, often completely unfamiliar with the texts he uses in his song, become more exposed and connected.

But was that his initial target when he started out?

My target was whoever wanted to listen to me and be inspired,” he says. “I admit, I really didn’t think about it. I really didn’t have a target audience. I myself grew up in chareidi society, but as you see, I’m a little different. I never wanted to be Avraham Fried or Motty Steinmetz, even though I’m ever grateful that I’ve had the privilege of performing together with both of them. They are amazing artists, but that’s not me, and that was never the goal.”

Avraham Fried, for his part, isn’t offended in the least. “Ishay is magic,” Fried says enthusiastically of the young singer who grew up on him, then became his contemporary. “Every once in a while someone comes along who simply stands out in the crowd. In Israeli music, Ishay stands out. For starters, his voice. So soft. So effortless. So soothing. You know it’s Ishay with your eyes closed. And as is the case with outstanding talent, Hashem is very generous in other areas as well. Ishay is a very talented songwriter. He has brilliant way of using lyrics to bring home his messages. And, he’s the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet. So if you’ve never heard Ishay live in concert, take it from me: Go — and you’ll thank me later.”

Fried was more than a chassidic role model for a young Ribo. He actually set the precedent for performing with secular artists, singing together with Chanan Yovel and Aviv Geffen, and recorded several message-oriented singles for the general public.

Ishay says that on a certain level, the fact that his audience is so diverse didn’t really surprise him. “I always had this feeling that something was going to shift,” he says. “That there would come a time when the secular world will actually appreciate a frum singer singing songs of emunah. But even I never imagined they’d want to sing about the avodah of the Kohein Gadol and how it mirrors their personal gratitude.

“And there’s a shift in chutz l’Aretz as well. When I was considering my first tour, people told me, ‘Ishay, there’s no chance. They just go for chassidic music, they don’t understand the language, or the culture you’re bringing them, or even the Ivrit.’ But somehow they’re also drawn to it.”

Singer Eitan Katz, an avowed Ribo fan, says he believes Ishay’s success in the broader world comes from the fact that he takes a non-apologetic approach to basically only singing about Hashem and his connection to His people.

“When singing to thousands who aren’t religious, he believes in his heart the truth that every Yid, no matter their connection to Hashem, has antennas of Yiddishkeit — and he speaks right to that,” Katz relates. “His absolutely beautiful and gentle voice right away opens the heart, and then when one actually starts listening to the words he’s singing — as someone like myself who is fluent in Hebrew can attest — his lyrics are all based on Chazal and pesukim. He speaks about the deep yearning for connecting in a world where it’s so hard to connect. And now, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands throughout the world have words of connecting to Hashem on their lips.”

When the World Stopped

“Lashuv Habayta” — 44 million views; “Seder Avodah” — 8 million views; “Halev Sheli” — 31 million views. Ishay Ribo was conquering the Israeli music scene, and he was proactive about it as well, doing up to 20 or more performances a month.

“I was focused on my dreams,” he admits. “Yad Eliyahu. Caesarea. Sultan’s Pool. I was a little shell-shocked by so much success in such a short time. But I was in such a fast lane, I was pretty close to going over the cliff. I was losing control, and I was getting lost.

“And then came Covid, and the whole world stopped. This was my turning point. I starting turning inward instead of chasing my fame and ego. Hashem gave me the opportunity to re-center myself.”

Ishay Ribo was also holed up at home. He had bookings for months in advance, but suddenly everything went quiet. And then, from his quickly built home studio, Ishay Ribo became the voice of Covid, the voice of hope and anxiety and longing for human contact and better, healthier days. When he produced a new song that went through the weeks and months that had passed, ticking off the parshiyos and the holidays, the nation was singing and counting along with him:

“U’mah Atah rotzeh shenavin mizeh / Eich mitrachakim umitkarvim beke’ev hazeh / Rotzeh lichiyot Otcha v’lo lihiyot levad… U’mah Atah rotzeh shenilmad mizeh / V’eich neida l’hitached b’peirud hazeh / Ad shenitein Lecha Keter Meluchah…

“…What do you want us to learn from this / How will we know to unify amid this chasm / Until we give You the Crown of Kingship…”

While the last line is also a play on words of “corona,” which literally means a crown, Ishay was the country’s shaliach in expressing a greater truth: how an entire nation awaits the real, final coronation. His song became the anthem of coronavirus, capturing what everyone felt — another holiday, another parshah, and we’re still in this mess.

“This entire period caused me to stop and take stock,” says Ishay. “I think everyone experienced that, actually. It was so clear that we were in the middle of something way beyond us. I really felt like Mashiach was at our doorstep, as we were preparing for Pesach and reading about how right before the Geulah, every family was locked alone in their homes.”

A Path of Unity

But the world did reopen, and Ishay Ribo is still waiting for Geulah. And while he’s waiting, he knows that staying in the center of the industry means staying relevant, although there’s been a shift. Mostly, it’s been felt on social media, the place where you connect to your audience, publicize your songs, and keep your name in lights.

“But not only,” he says. “The platforms have become so much more aggressive, competitive, filled with private and personal issues that I have no desire to be part of. That pressure to constantly post creates a certain unhealthy desperation to keep coming up with new material, new things to say and share. And so I’ve over the last period decreased my presence, cut out some of that social media activity. Today I’m so much more liberated, not so frantically caught up in what’s going on in that world. I took a step back, but it’s not easy because I’m obviously still entrenched in this industry, although I’m working hard to move past my ego. Today, I’m focused on being grateful for what I have, which is honestly a ton more than what I ever imagined. I try always to be in a state of gratitude, otherwise it’s a sure path to misery.”

And what he’s most grateful about is that he can still bring a vision of unity to a fractured world.

“Here in Israel, the media has created a false narrative regarding the religious and the secular, making it seem as if we’re not the same nation chas v’shalom. There are extreme forces out there, a vocal battle against Torah, against Shabbat — but music is a path to the opposite, datiim and chilonim all singing praise to Hashem together as one cohesive body. I’m grateful that I can be on the side of openness and willingness and humility in connecting music to that higher frequency.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 911)

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