Of 761 things to do in Denver last Friday night, Josephine and the Mousepeople's live show at the Lion’s Lair was the Editor’s Choice on Metromix. But long before this electro-pop duo was creating a buzz on the Denver music scene, they were two kids finding their voices in the Chicago Orthodox community. Back then on Friday nights, Avi Sherbill and Danny Shyman were not performing She Needs Fire – they were chanting the kiddush.
Avi and Danny became friends as fifth graders at Hillel Torah in the 90s, but drifted apart in their teens and didn’t come together musically until a few years ago. At different points along the way, Danny could have been the 13 year old in the bunk next to yours at Camp Ramah, picking up a guitar for the first time. Avi, the youngest son of a rabbi, could have been the kid in the corner studying Torah up to 12 hours a day. Did anyone predict that one day they’d be jammin’ in a land of “Levi’s jeans and cowboys” where kosher restaurants and kippah sightings are few and far between?
While Colorado may be short on Jews, it’s long on Bluegrass, which was reason enough for Danny to move out there. The Josephine and the Mousepeople (J&MP) flame was lit when Danny came home for a visit and ended up spending the week in the bathroom with his old childhood friend, recording music. And the rest is history.
They’ve still got day jobs. They still do their own laundry. They still chuckle when asked what they’d want to be if they weren’t musicians. But during their debut year, J&MP landed high on lists like Top 25 Denver Recordings of 2008 and 10 Denver Acts on the Rise. Music critics and fans alike are talking about their “gorgeous and slightly unorthodox” music, their “emotionally raw” vocals, their “powerfully energetic” performances. And they’ve inspired more than a few people to go back and read the Kafka short story whose name they bear.
At just 23, Avi and Danny are breaking the mold, religiously and musically. Not in a chest-pounding, lapel-ripping, rule-snubbing way. But in a way that has absorbed the beauty and compassion and rhythms of the worlds in which they have walked, while remaining true to themselves.
Oy: So how would you describe your music to someone like me who had to look up “ep” on Wikipedia to get excited about the fact that you will be releasing one this year?
J&MP: We can’t apply a specific genre since we’re in the process of creating a sound, but it’s music for people who are yearning. In the same way that a Beatles song displays the heart of a person, electronic music displays the heart of a building or a city street or a lamppost. We are trying to connect those two things together, we are trying to create a sonical landscape, we are trying to talk about things that haven’t been talked about and it is taking a minute.
Oy: How have your Chicago Jewish roots influenced your music?
Danny: More than Judaism, my parents influenced my music. They showed me the kind of love that I did nothing to deserve. I relate to them now through this, even though at times it was hard to see as a kid. They never said, “Okay, we gave him what was necessary for him to survive, now we are done.” They let me breathe as an individual. I use that as my gold standard in terms of what is possible between people. And while I don't approach music as a religion, it helps me constantly search for something I can't just hold in my hand. I think that, similar to Judaism, with music I can never be content or stagnate. I'm just looking to keep making progress through growth.
Avi: It’s important to be firm with who you are as a response to what you were. I wouldn’t be anything without my mom and dad and how I grew up. Both Judaism and music are all-embracing forms. It’s not like on the weekend I’m a Jew, or on the weekend, I do music. They are both there all the time – my soul is Jewish. Both Judaism and music are very much about attention to detail. Within a regimented routine, you can have bursts of inspiration. People like me who chase whatever is energizing need something to hone in on. And in Chasidic music, there is such an attention to the spirit of the music rather than the sound – I don’t understand music as much sonically as I do spiritually.
Oy: I see themes of polarity and balance in your music and your lives. Can you speak to that?
Avi: With music, you start at a very isolated point and then present it to a community of people. With Judaism, it’s the inverse; you experience everything communally – including prayer – and it influences your personal life. My teachers taught me to choose wisely what you bring to the table and choose to speak about. It’s the opposite in American music, where pain is a starting point and it’s cool to talk about, I’m a little guy from Nebraska and I don’t have much of a thing going. Other cultures don’t have time to be sad when they’re doing their music, it’s one of the few times they can let loose the spirit. I feel both the pain of American life and the exuberance of the art of existing. If you’re cold, do you choose to put on a coat or light a fire in a stove? With music, I feel this ability to not only warm myself up, but to warm others up as well. And on another level, Danny is my balance. I’ll go out there and he’ll bring me back, especially musically. He’s a phenomenal producer, with a grasp of what is approachable. I try to go after ideas that I feel in my body or things I hear on the street. Sometimes it takes a minute to happen musically but Danny has a very concrete way of getting that done. And he gives me room to breathe.
Danny: Avi has a draw about his personality, especially when he sings, that’s hard to wrap your head around. We write a lot together, but it is beyond that his creativity inspires me. If he comes up with something really moving and impressive, I feel like I need to match him – there are healthy undertones of competition.
Keep up with Josephine & the Mousepeople on MySpace at www.myspace.com/josephineandthemousepeople .
8 Questions for Brad Rubin, Eleven City Diner guy, old school deli lover, and cross-country motorcycle traveler
Brad Rubin grew up on Jewish delis and diners. In his lifetime, Rubin has traveled by car and motorcycle across America — all 50 states — always stopping for a bite at diners and delis along the way. Rubin, originally from Chicago’s northern suburbs and now a South Loop resident, worked at 24 restaurants in 23 years, including Chicago hotspots MK, SushiSamba Rio and Bin 36. Recently, he broke out of fine dining to return to his culinary roots. In 2006, he opened Eleven City Diner, a deli/diner hybrid named for the street the restaurant sits on in the South Loop. The diner is Rubin’s way of tipping his hat to the old school diners that are disappearing from Chicago’s street corners.
Eleven City Diner serves up a huge menu of favorites, including Chicago-centric dishes like “The “Springer,” a corned beef and pastrami sandwich and Jeff Garlin’s Veggie Cob. Rubin’s business is a family affair — his parents, beloved by Eleven City regulars, help out at the diner on weekends and holidays. Patrons dub his mother “The Lollipop Lady,” because she’s famous for handing out multi-colored lollipops to the restaurant’s youngest diners. And Rubin’s father is the resident soda jerk, who awards members of the “clean plate club” with gold stars.
So whether you’re nostalgic for the diners of yesterday, are impressed by nice Jewish boys who call their mothers, or you just really love a big pastrami sandwich, Brad Rubin is a Jew you should know!
1. What is your favorite blog or website?
Favorite? Tough one. I, of course, love Heeb.com (Heeb named Rubin in its top “Heeb 100” in the food category.) I also like this cat named David Sax from www.savethedeli.com, a site devoted to the preservation of the Jewish delicatessen. I love his ideas and why he is doing what he is doing. Plus, he is so damn funny.
2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
I would buy a time machine and travel back in time…
3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Philip Seymour Hoffman or Natalie Portman.
4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be? Where would you eat or what would you serve?
a) With the Poet Rumi and the woman I love.
b) In front of the large second story bay windows in this beautifully strange guesthouse in Fez, Morocco.
c) Whatever they were cooking up that day.
5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
In this order: Waking up early with the sun, a hard workout, a quick shfitz, exploring and disappearing in a chaotic Asian fish market somewhere far away, eating something green and light, a power nap, a good steam, a great piece of fish for dinner at the perfect joint, a nice walk to walk it off, a brilliant film, a stop off at the Fudge Pot for dessert, a late night piano bar for no more than two tunes…sleep.
6. What do you love about what you do?
I’m Jewish—I love to entertain, I love to eat, I love to feed people, and…oh yeah… I love to make shekels. I do realize how fortunate I am to be in love with what I do.
7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I have had no fewer than 42 different jobs in my young 39 years. I hope I keep evolving and reinventing myself. What next? This one has some legs on it still…
8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? In other words, how do you Jew?
Let’s see. I go to Manny’s on Jefferson on a Saturday afternoon or hit Chinatown and a movie on Christmas. I love to go to the Spertus for a lecture and then over to see Clara at Russian Tea Time. And of course, I call my mother. I work seven days a week and have little time outside my work to enjoy many things. Being Jewish, for me, is so deeply and strongly attached to the culture itself. I’m in a Jewish diner/delicatessen everyday. I see the grandparents taking in their grandchildren for a lunch of matzoh balls and egg salad sandwiches and a lollipop before heading out the door. I have heard stories from Holocaust survivors while standing by the coffee makers, I see families meet to get their nosh on for breaking the fast, birthdays, Rosh Hashanah and even Christmas (when there is nowhere else to go). I get to see the old school machers and snow birds slowly shuffle in with big smiles and stories to tell every day. I am honored they come here. The feeling I get from “hosting” all this everyday is wonderful. I love the “Jewish-ness” of it all. The culture so many of us grew up with is a big part of my heart. I guess you could say I “Jew” everyday.
In October 2007, Joel Stein was sitting in the parking lot in Old Orchard, waiting. Alone in the car, he started to laugh — the word sadorachmonesism had popped into his head. Using the root word rachmones (pity, sympathy) he created a new noun:
Defined as: the act of your mother telling you that you look “a little thick” in your new dress, then handing you her credit card to go buy something “more flattering.”
He thought the word would make a funny t-shirt and mentioned it to his friend Linda Cassidy, a designer who works for his family’s office furniture business — where he spends his workdays. “Linda said she thought I could come up with a whole book and these ideas just stated pouring out of me,” says Stein. Working on nights and weekends, and running ideas by his wife, Adele, and his friends, Stein came up with enough new words for a dictionary and returned to Cassidy for illustrations.
Stein’s interest in Yiddish comes from growing up on the North Shore with a father from Rogers Park. He says there was always little Yiddish being used at family gatherings. “My mom, who converted when she married my father, really picked it up. Yiddish is such a nuanced language and while I’m by no means a scholar, I appreciate that it’s very clever and conveys a very funny side of our culture,” Stein says.
Thinking in Yiddish
“Since I began writing the book, almost every Yiddish word is in my head. It’s funniest to me when non-Jews use Yiddish. It was the most influential language in the 20th century to American English — Spanish might be taking over now. People don’t always recognize that some expressions like, “Joe schmo,” are Yiddish.”
Stein himself had a funny moment with his non-Jewish sister-in-law and the phrase Bissell blower, n., root, bissell: a little, which Stein defines as: “a woman who tells the world of your lackluster performance in bed.”
“Right out loud in front of my Catholic in-laws she stopped at that one and said, ‘I don’t get it.’ I couldn’t have turned a brighter shade of red — it was a very funny moment,” Stein says.
Stein seems to enjoy a good double entndre and has a few more book ideas kicking around in his head, but he admits that Webstein’s Dictionary might be the most mainstream. “One is Erroritca, like the word error. It’s about things people think are hot and sexy, but really aren’t.”
For now, Stein is pleased with the response he’s gotten to Webstein’s and enjoying helping people Yiddish-ize their lives via the book and his blog. When he’s not thinking up new plays on words, he’s hanging out with his wife, three children and two dogs in Evanston.
You can find Webstein’s Dictionary at numerous locations around the city, including Spertus and online at Pop Judaica.
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- Nominations now open for the fifth annual Chicago Jewish 36 under 36 list
- New play ‘A Splintered Soul’ explores moving forward in America after the Holocaust
- Have you been personally inspired by a Holocaust survivor?
- ‘Nurture the Wow’ focuses on the spirituality of parenting
- Third annual JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival opens March 10