...They form a band, start a movement, and change the world with spiritually–loaded, (mostly) wordless jams. Last Saturday night, Zusha graced Philly’s most underrated venue, Harnwell Rooftop Lounge, with their holy presence while Penn’s Orthodox Jewish Community brought the Christmas lights for an evening of soulful tunes, spirituality and sick views. I’ll be honest, it “mamash (truly) changed my life"—but more on that later.
Zusha is the trio formed by Zachariah ‘Juke’ Goldschmiedt (guitar), Elisha Mlotek (percussion) and Shlomo Gaisin (vocals). They’re living proof of a happy accident—chance encounters and a leap of faith is all it took for some impromptu jamming to revolutionize music and religion. While the members of the group all have diverse musical backgrounds—Shlomo was a part of Jewish rock band Judablue, Zachariah led the indie electronica project Ch!nch!lla and Elisha dabbled in Yiddish theater—their current project simply comes together through shared love for Judaism and God. Since its inception in 2014, Zusha’s been classified as ‘neo–hasidic’, “hasidic hipsters”, “hipsters”, “neo-hasidic hipsters”, a “Jewish”/“soul”/ “folk”/"funk"/“world”/“Yiddish” band...If you’re confused, so are we.
So, a word of advice for you: drop the labels and experience the music for yourself—according to the band, after all, it’s all about the people. The test of time has indeed proven that these niggunim (melodies) are bigger than just music—it’s a movement, uniting people from all walks of life (in marriage, for example) and facilitating some serious spirituality. Start yourself off with self–titled debut Zusha and move into the more recent Kavana, (which low–key landed #9 on Billboard’s World Music Charts) and see where your soul takes you.
After the concert, Street caught up with the band for the afternoon, which looked a little like this: singing, ram horns, impromptu niggun making, ring pops, Torah, a surprise Rabbi cameo, lots of laughs and deep conversation. Read on to feel like you were there too. They also may or may not have made me a personalized niggun. You jealous yet?
Street: Tell me how you guys got started.
Elisha Mlotek: Here’s the thing, we have different perspectives about how we met.
Zachariah Goldschmiedt: I met these guys because our roommate, Dani Bronstein is a friend of ours, I was living with him at the time, and he knew these guys separately. I went to high school with Elisha but we never really hung out, because he was…”an older guy”...I was living with Dani in NYU and these guys came over. I just remember the first time playing music together, it was in my dorm room, it was a very cool thing.
SG: Somehow I met Zach before he met me. I met him at a Judablue practice...And we had a jam. We were trying to get another guitarist, to hear what other things could sound like. It was pretty awesome. And then I met Zach again, like he was saying...jamming at his place to some Yosef Karduner, some Carlebach, it was pretty fun.
SG: And the folks behind the theater. It’s funny, Elisha doesn’t consider himself a musician, but he was way before we were.
Street: So you jammed one time, but how did that turn into a band?
SG: We jammed one time, and then we kept bumping into each other on Shabbat, and singing, and kind of enjoying singing together.
EM: I was hanging out with Shlomo, a long time before I was hanging out with Zach.
Street: Ooh, exclusive...
EM: We were friends!
SG: How did it happen? It was Rosh Chodesh Adar (the new month of Adar), and we literally, we had so much enjoyment singing, you were the guy who brought some funky bongo, Rabbi Nachman stickers...a Vatikin Hallel Minyan (sunrise prayer service).
EM: So then we were just rekindling friendships!
SG: Then we started singing Rab Shlomo niggunim (melodies). We realized that we connected very deeply on the level of Rab Shlomo Carlebach, his Torahs, his niggunim ...We would talk on the phone, set up a chavrusa (learning partnership), but we basically would sing Rab Shlomo niggunim, whenever, wherever would travel on the subway, singing Reb Shlomo niggunim, crying, bawling, joyously singing on the middle of the subway...no one would get it.
Street: But when did ‘Zusha’ become Zusha?
ZG: I feel like they started coming over, because his brother would record the stuff, we would record, and he would show it to his family...his brother at least. And his brother sent him a message—you guys should really, this is awesome. And you guys should pursue this.
EM: He sent me an email, and then he sent all of us an email.
SG: He sent us periodic group emails, and we don’t know how to respond because it’s so beautiful and so inspiring, but there’s not so much to say.
Street: But he knew.
SG: He knew!
EM: So many people go into it.
SG: I would say he was the Shadchan (matchmaker) to be ma’amin (a believer) in this project. Elisha’s brother, Avram, Avram brought an Emunas Avram (a faith of Abraham) to the project.
Street: What’s the significance of the name [Zusha]?
EM: Named after the Hasidic rebbe, the Hasidic master, Zusha. And that’s all you gotta know. He was a rabbi who lived a very simple life and exemplified gratitude, closeness to Hashem and compassion, and I think that’s why it kind of just clicked for all of us instantly.
Street: What do you each bring to the band spiritually?
ZG: We all have very different personalities. I think we all do very well because we balance each other well. When one of us is very serious, the other two are able to kind of laugh it off and vice versa. I think we each have our own particular talents, like some people are better at doing finances. Because right now, we’re doing everything on our own and it’s kind of interesting and difficult so we each gravitate towards one thing or another...writing songs, composing songs, putting songs together, producing stuff...Spiritually we are all very different people and we all view religion differently. Part of the blessing being together is that we’re uniting all these different ways to see the world.
Street: What’s the creative process? How do you come up with niggunim and songs?
ZG: A lot of the time we’ll be chilling together and Shlomo will start strumming something or singing or humming something and it goes like that. Shlomo writes a lot on his own as well. Sometimes when we’re all just hanging out, the music when we’re hanging out are just very connected. Our friendship is music in so many ways.
Street: Do you ever take a break from Zusha? Is it always music?
ZG: We’ll be doing a full day of business, or talking about ideas, and then someone will start tapping on the table, or there will be an instrument lying around and someone will start playing a little something. I feel like it’s inevitable every time we hang out, because we sort of inspire each other by being different. We all learn from each other.
Street: Your music style is very much niggunim, very minimally lyrics. Why is that?
SG: Words we bring are more mantras or meditations, a line that says a lot more than just those words. I don’t think we’re trying to write a whole song with a billion lyrics. And I don’t think we’re not going to write songs with lyrics, there’s actually on their way.
The idea of a melody is that you can sing it over and over again and it’s open to you and open to the individuals singing and our music will always keep that character of a niggun exactly how it expresses, and they have words in Hebrew, English, or none, but it’s always gonna be inspired, and the roots of it will always be coming from this place of a couple of friends, something that you can sing easily, and it shouldn’t be reliant on the instruments as much as it should be reliant on the soul singing.
“Niggunim hayotzim min halev, nichnasim la lev”...Words that leave the heart enter the heart.
Melodies are similar. A real melody that comes from heart will go to the heart one way or another. Anything that we’re doing we are hoping it comes from the lev, ‘veahavta et Hashem bechol levavecha’ (and you should love Hashem with all your heart), that’s like number one of the three things Hashem from us, and the one is a little bit inclusive of all the others, is the lev. He wants us to put all of our lev, the good, the bad, the ugly. That’s all we want—We want to give, we want to just be real. Because from that place, all the blessings come.
Street: People have been so receptive—did you guys expect that? How have you guys reacted to this sudden fame?
EM: I don’t think it’s us—the reason I pushed for the band to happen is because I wanted to hear these niggunim. I wanted to walk with them, And then I believed in sharing them. But it never occurred to me that other people were also really connected to these niggunim. I never fully understood that, that other people would feel this too, just as much as I feel it. It’s been a total surprise, but also not a surprise, I understand why, because the music is real for us.
Street: Do people stop you in the street?
SG: Remember that time in the car? We were on our way to pick up Elisha. We stopped outside near canal street. This guy with arms full of tattoos, he runs out of his own wine shop because he noticed us. We were there for a total of 15 seconds because of a red light and he was there.
ZG: It’s definitely cool but it’s also nice to be unknown. In Crown Heights, nobody knows who we are, it’s great.
SG: No, people do know who we are. I got stopped in the street for a half an hour the other day. I get stopped all the time.
EM: Shlomo’s a lot more noticeable...
SG: I think that’s the thing, Our job is to balance the two worlds. The world of Tohu, which is totally energy, high, high, high energy. It’s a world of accord, and you don’t know where to go. And yet we’re trying to bring all that Tohu, all that incredible energy into the metukan path of Yiddishkeit (Judaism), the fixed and established mesorah of Yiddishkeit in such a way that it feels completely chadash (new) even though it’s ancient.
And that’s the healthiest way for Yiddishkeit to continue and that’s what we’re really trying to help be shlichim of. And there’s other people doing it too in their own ways.
We felt the achrayus (responsibility), just once we realized that the people were connected.
Rab Nachman says that the name for someone who leads davening (Chazzan), which is what we’re trying to get people to do essentially, to get people into song and prayer, davening (prayer) basically equals song, and song is what we spend our time doing. The name chazzan is from the same form chazon, which is a form of prophecy, so a vision. He says a true Chazzan, someone who is truly leading has some sort of vision for the people who they’re singing for.
Street: And who are the people you’re singing for?
SG: I can only speak for me, because Baruch Hashem (Thank God) we all see things differently. In terms of who were playing for, I’m playing for the Jewish people, for my family first, and I want to share it with other families, but I want to just make sure my family gets some of the pictures so that way they don’t feel left out when everyone else gets it. A family whatsapp type thing. I want the whole world to have these niggunim as well. And that’s why we try to go expansively with every project we do. We think about the whole world.
Street: Where do you guys see yourself next year even, or 5 years from now, as a band?
EM: I see us sharing music virtually a lot more. I see us with a community online, from all over, that kind of taps in exclusive music or Torah. Recording classes, learning torah together. A lot of people approached us asking to learn a little bit of Hebrew or whatever, and I feel like we should just share our experience. It’s more than the music. It’s a movement. It’s the people.
SG: Zach likes to say, we’re singing now. And 5, 10 years from now we’re also be singing together. Singing in the living room, speaking about music and talking about Hashem.
For me, I also want to see not just virtual, I want to see finding the right places and the right times, really being able to plug every community back into the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple) tunes. The tunes of the temple, that’s what I’m hoping our tunes will be. So I’m hoping 5, 10 years from now we’ll be playing in the Beit Hamikdash.
There won’t even be speakers, they’ll just go through the whole world. The good songs, the good music will be like a radio station. The Beis Hamikdash radio station.They would have 24 cycles, and I hope we could get one of those shifts.
EM: Get a slot? We got AIPAC.
SG: I don’t know exactly how it works, but there are 24. I hope to get on that. To have Zusha as one of the bands of the temple.
EM: Also online.
Street: The temple’s gonna be online we think?
SG: I want it to be in person.
ZG: That’s one thing nobody Googles, because you just have to go. Like you google ‘Great Wall of China’, but when you go it means a lot less. Because it’s so easy. You know what it looks like. You can’t Google the temple. There’s no work involved, you just type it in and see oh, this is what it is. But if I discover it for myself, you know?
SG: I feel like face to face relationships...we make all this music and it goes straight online and it’s really special for us but it goes so much deeper when we hear their reception of us. It’s an incredible thing. Singing it with people. As deep as it is to record ‘Yoel’s Niggun’, it’s even deeper to sing it with the people of Philadelphia.
Street: Where do your inspirations come from?
ZG: It’s coming from a lot of the Torah we’re learning. And the Torah’s teaching us a lot about our lives. Going about our days, you know this happened, that happened. Sort of treating them with a lot of weight. Looking into, and getting inspired by the daily happenings. And we’d like to share that with our friends. We come up with a lot of amazing ideas together, I think.
Street: Tell me the story behind ‘Mamash Changed My Life’.
ZG: I can start it off. This guy was hanging out after a show, just walking around, and there were not many people left and I was like “hey man, wanna hang out backstage with the guys?” We were in LA and didn’t really know anybody, so we were just kind of doing our own thing. So he comes backstage and he starts spinning this crazy Torah about how you should appreciate a song, a tune.
SG: He told us this story, that this guy realized he was financially really struggling and missing his joy in life, and so he went to his shepherd, his Rebbe [who said] “I hear you’re struggling, I feel it would be most beneficial for you to get to the place you want to be, is if you get a niggun. If you get the right niggun, just one niggun, you’ll be in a lot better place. You’ll sing it, you’ll whistle while you work.” And so, he’s like “How do I get that niggun?”
“There’s a certain guy, he’s a shepherd, he knows a lot of tunes, and he’ll know the right one. The one he shares with you will be the perfect one.” So he went to him, and he says, “listen, my Rebbe told me I needed to meet you because you know a lot of tunes, and what I need right now is the right tune.” And he said, “Ohhh, there’s this tune I gotta share with you. He starts singing, and then he says that’s gonna cost you one cow, if you want me to teach it to you. I need to teach it to you.”
You can’t learn a niggun one time. You gotta hear it the second, third time around.
“I can’t give a cow. That’s how I make my living!” So he goes back home and he asks his wife, and she’s getting nervous like “you want to give one of our cows, that’s our parnasa (sustenance), you’re joking right? Are you sure this is what the Rebbe said?”
He goes back, gives a cow, he gets the niggun. He comes back, work’s going a little bit better. He’s a little happier. Singing it over and over, but he’s thinking, there’s got to be a second part to this niggun. He goes back to his wife, It was a whole mishuga’as (craziness), and she was not down. He said, listen, if I’m almost there, if I get the second part I’ll be there. He gives the cow, hears the second half of the niggun. Then he says, that niggun is worth two effin cows! It totally is, I see what you meant! And his life is awesome after that.
And then we had been in this state, just finished our tour, in this state that each one of us wanted to skip this niggun on this setlist or that one, we reached feeling certain niggun and not others. And then realizing this story that every niggun we have is worth 2 cows. You know how expensive 2 cows are? We have a lot of cows. It got us back in our zone of getting maarich, appreciating each niggun.
ZG: Here’s the coolest thing. People have met at our concerts and have gotten married. And we’ve played for proposals.
EM: Someone messaged us after Purim saying we just want you guys to know, yesterday I got engaged to a girl I met one year ago at your concert.
ZG: For us it’s a place of [laughs] connection of conversation, of love. We really feel like it’s community, you know? And people are meeting there. There’s so many different kinds of music that inspires so many things, but the kind of music that inspires somebody to have a relationship that lasts and decide to build a bayis, a house, a family, the ultimate goal. And on top of that to be a result of what we’re doing is an awesome thing.
SG: The world was created for marriage.
ZG: And us, were trying to find that, you know Elisha’s engaged, and me and Shlomo are trying. And that’s our goal. Religion or Torah or building values in Torah are priority for us. Our goal is to have a family and to do something that supports a family. Unlike other rockstars, our goal is not necessarily to travel around the world in neglect of what’s going on at your home. It’s all about the home, about building a family…Like Elisha said, our goal is to figure out the way to continue to do what we do and not neglect finding love and building a family.
Street: Have you made friends through your fans?
ZG: This is a movement, we want to get to know people, you know? For sure, we’re meeting so many people in so many new places.
SG: It’s actually pretty crazy, in the most beautiful way I feel extremely blessed.
ZG: To see all different stripes and all different communities.
Street: So at all of your shows, you make a point to talk to the people and meet everyone?
SG: We were just in D.C. visiting someone, and we just jammed that night with someone, and they said they’ve been seeing blessings ever since, they decided they’re finally ready to get engaged and they want us to play at our wedding. And they’re not even Jewish.
Street: So how’d they find you?
SG: They found us because our friend who came with us is staying by them, and they have a business they’re working on together, and it was all kind of stagnant, after that night, things took off. I think these melodies that we’re sharing and the mission we’re on is changing the world. It’s elevating us and those who are receptacles as well. We’re receptacles of music, the tunes, the Torah. That’s transforming us. And our transformation is a microcosm of a transformation that needs to happen in the world in general. Everything is impressing the other in a positive way.
The more invested we’ve been in giving these niggunim, to ourselves, to make sure we’re fluent in them and giving them to others. The more we’ve seen brachos (blessings), I personally can speak to that. We’ve been seeing really special things in our life, like miracles, and it doesn’t really make any sense.
Street: Biggest miracle that happened?
ZG: This friendship!
SG: No seriously, why would a random guy from Silver Spring, Maryland who didn’t really wanna go to college, I went to YU, and somehow we went to this Rosh Chodesh Minyan (monthly prayer service), and somehow, all these different friends, randomly, like if one connection didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have connected fully. It’s a miracle it happened fully.
Street: Did you always see yourself going into music?
ZG: No, although it does say it in my yearbook. Most likely to be a guitar player.
EM: Actually when I was in high school, I saw myself being in a band in college. I never actually thought about life post–college, so I guess this is it. Yearbook stuff—actually in my middle school, most likely to be president. Cruz–Mlotek!
SG: I wrote in my yearbook, a quote from an actor that was a musician, and it was like, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but I know that music’s a part of that journey.” That was my English quote. My Hebrew quote was “I will sing to Hashem with my life”, my brother showed me that quote and it’s my favorite Rabbi Nachman quote. It stuck with me.
EM: I feel weird talking about the band like it’s mamash a God given mission. It is a shlichus. Everything we’re doing is a shlichus. But I don’t like talking about it like it's Mashiach. I’m very uncomfortable about that. It’s a tremendous zechus (merit) that people like it and people connect to it, but it’s mamash not Mashiach (Messiah).
Street: But you have a song called ‘Mashiach’...
EM: I think it’s more about reminding people that there’s a vision. There’s a goal.
Street: Are you ready for Mashiach?
EM: Ready? Not at all. I’m trying to get ready. I had an intense rabbi in yeshiva, he was like, ‘Don’t let Mashiach catch you with your pants down’.