The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, explained niggunim as “songs that transcend syllables and sound.” On Sunday night, June 29, that soulful nature was on display, as Simply Tsaf, a group of three Breslover Chasidim, brought its unique mix of song, stories and personal anecdotes to Congregation Poale Zedeck.
Simply Tsfat has wowed crowds from California to Massachusetts, from Israel to Costa Rica, but had last been in Pittsburgh 10 years ago. The trio was clearly identifiable in the standard “uniform” of white shirts with tzitzit hanging out, black pants, large black yarmulkes, untrimmed beards and long sidecurls. Just as the concert was scheduled to start, they asked the audience’s permission to go upstairs and pray first.
Though they had had only three hours sleep, they performed with exuberant energy. From the very first song, they had the audience clapping along. In the course of the evening, Simply Tsfat sang, played traditional Breslov music, klezmer, original pieces in English and niggunim. They went from lively dance tunes to wordless meditative melodies to an Irish rendition of “Lecha Dodi” to stories about Breslov founder Rabbi Nachman. One story they told was of a man who went to his rabbi bemoaning how badly he had messed up his life. The rabbi told him, “If you believe you have the power to destroy, believe you have the power to rebuild.”
Simply Tzfat is made up of two Americans and an Israeli who live in the Breslov community in Safed, a center of mysticism in the Northern Galilee region of Israel. Spokesman and lead vocalist, Elyahu Reiter, a graduate of Stanford University, plays the acoustical guitar. Yonatan Tzarum, a native Israeli who studied music with his father, a professional flamenco guitarist, melds acoustical flamenco with classical guitar for a spectacular sound. Yehonasan Lipshutz is a classically trained violinist who began his musical training at age 7, dropped music after college because it conflicted with Shabbat observance, then picked up the violin 10 years later.
Though all three men are talented musicians, they did more than just entertain: They rekindled a spark of joy in Jewish life, touching and uplifting the audience. By the end of the evening, old and young men had gotten up and were dancing together in a circle, and the entire audience was clapping and smiling.
“Simply Tzfat generates positive energy,” one man in the audience, who gave his name as Daniel, said. “The Breslov song, ‘Never Give Up’ emphasizes the importance of this idea [of not giving up], especially in difficult times.”
The band’s CDs or MP3s are available from Amazon or iTunes. To book them for a live performance, go to simplytsfat.com.
(Simone Shapiro is a local freelance writer.)