Soul Brothers

These days, brothers Shlomo and Eitan Katz can as often be found teaching Torah and chassidus as performing music

L’maan chayach mecharkeir b’shir, hamelameid Torah b’chol klei shir…“For the sake of the joyful one who dances to song, who teaches Torah with every musical instrument…” (From the hoshanos recited on Hoshana Rabbah)

An audience sits rapt in a darkened venue in Jerusalem as a guitar sounds plaintive notes that wind into chords. The crowd — men in knitted kippot, as well as black yarmulkes, fedoras, and some shtreimlach too — starts swaying as the chords build on each other and the melody takes a familiar shape. As the audience rises in one voice to take hold of it, the band picks up the cue and Shlomo Katz begins the lyrics, while everyone instinctively grabs his neighbors’ hands and joins the dance…

A wedding in New York. Soft music wafts across the hall as the guests mill about in anticipation. A murmur builds and then a sudden crescendo from the band alerts the crowd to the entrance of the chassan and kallah. Eitan Katz steps up to the microphone and begins belting out a leibedig niggun, as the communal emotion that has been seeking an outlet finally spills over. And soon Eitan himself, guitar in hand, steps off the stage and joins the dancing…

Brothers Shlomo and Eitan Katz have been inspiring audiences for nearly two decades. Since they went public with their debut album, Eilecha, in 1999, they’ve been inviting listeners to join them on the soul journey that beckoned to them through the fusion of music and Torah. It’s a journey that has taken them to opposites ends of the world — Shlomo in Efrat, Israel, and Eitan in Far Rockaway, New York. They have settled into different communities and have each adopted individual styles — but anyone listening can hear they are really engaged in one shared avodah.

Eitan had been singing in choirs since he was a kid, but picked up a guitar at 16 “because Shlomo did. It was the tool that opened me to composing niggunim. I never, ever thought I’d be a musician. It was never a passion. I thought I was going to be a rabbi who plays some niggunim”

The brothers’ melodies — “Yismechu,” “L’maancha,” among others, and their well-known versions of Shlomo Carlebach niggunim — have by now established a certain familiar place in the collective Jewish music consciousness. Their spare arrangements, pure voices projecting above rich guitar chords with minimal instrumental accompaniment, hearken back to the era when the forebears of the chassidic movement began revealing the potential that emanates from the Heichal Haneginah. And just as those tzaddikim sought to unlock that storehouse in the hopes of accessing higher worlds, Shlomo and Eitan Katz have segued from the stage to the song of Torah.

“This generation is desperately in need of shirim kedoshim, of neginah with kedushah,” says Rav Moshe Weinberger, rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, world-renowned teacher of chassidus, and spiritual mentor to the Katz family. “Dovid Hamelech said, ‘Ani tefillah.’ He didn’t say, ‘I am davening.’ He said, ‘I am tefillah.’ His every word, his every action, was the embodiment of what it means to turn to Hashem. Even when he wasn’t davening, his existence was a statement of seeking Hashem.

“So with Shlomo and Eitan, it’s not just that they compose songs, that they have beautiful voices, that they’re talented. They themselves are the songs. They themselves are the music, expressing their excitement about being Jews, their love of Torah, their love of Am Yisrael. It’s not about entertainment, it’s an outpouring of their own avodas Hashem.”

The brothers themselves make clear that this is their overriding motivation. “At a certain point, you look at things Hashem gave you, you have to just make a conscious decision and say, Hashem, use me,” says Shlomo, who is also the rav of Kehillat Shirat David in Efrat, Israel. “Whether it’s through music, whether it’s through teaching, the point is that being a Jew today who feels close to HaKadosh Baruch Hu is really possible for all of us. And anything I can do to help make that a reality for others is the greatest gift I could ever receive from Hashem. It’s my anchor.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 711)