By Natalie Jacobs
There are plenty of Jewish musicians finding success on the Billboard charts or trying to make a go of it in obscure indie bands, but few are choosing to define their music as Jewish. Matisyahu may have found success with that, but on the whole, it is extremely rare for an artist to break into the mainstream with a message that is even remotely related to God.
But Mikey Pauker isn’t worried. The 28-year-old musician writes songs about spirituality, divinity and mysticism in a variety of musical styles, from folk and mellow alternative rock to reggae and hip-hop. He pulls themes from the Torah and Chasidic texts in order to communicate a relevant spiritual message to audiences ranging from kids at Jewish summer camp to festival goers from Israel and Southern California.
“I feel like there are a lot of blessings in liturgy that a lot of people don’t connect with,” Pauker says over the phone during a brief tour respite in Colorado. “That’s what I try to do, I try to make it available for people to find new meaning in it. My main goal is for people to connect with God.”
Like most musicians, Pauker has been playing guitar and singing for as long as he can remember. He was involved in choir through high school and once he started writing his own music at the age of 15, he began putting albums together. He has about five from that time period, but they weren’t spiritual. That came later.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really connect with Jewish music at all. When I was at Jewish summer camp I used to run outside and put my hands over my ears.”
After college, Pauker was trying to figure out his place in the world. He started doing yoga and later decided to attend Burning Man, the week-long art festival held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It is there that he found his spirituality.
“There are 60,000 people [at Burning Man] and you don’t know where anybody is. I had a banana in my backpack. It was like mid-week. I was looking for my cousin and I couldn’t find her. My banana was getting old so I needed to throw it out so I walked into a random tent in a random area and I walked into the tent and it was my cousin’s tent.”
For Pauker, this was too strange a coincidence to ignore. Things continued to add up.
“I was having a vivid dream about something and I told my friend ‘hey, I’m having this creepy dream, can you interpret my dream?’ and as we’re walking—in Burning Man there’s all this dust and you can’t see anything—all of a sudden this man emerges from the dust and on his shirt it says ‘I interpret dreams, ask me.’ I ended up talking to him and he ended up becoming one of my really good friends and we ended up moving in together.”
Pauker considers these to be small miracles, things that could happen to anyone, if only people were paying more attention. These divine experiences, when piled on top of each other, he says, contribute to personal transformations that he believes everyone is capable of experiencing in his or her life, eventually.
He wasn’t yet making spiritual music but shortly after Burning Man, a friend pointed out that Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif., was looking for a guitar player. Pauker was invited to spend the summer there, leading daily prayers and playing music for the campers.
“I was really kind of timid the whole summer but then this one experience happened when it was Shabbat. It was 1,000 people in this giant amphitheater. Everybody wears white on Shabbat and I was up helping facilitate in front of everybody and something just clicked. A light bulb went off in my head and I said to myself ‘I think this is what I was supposed to do.’”
Then he went to yeshiva in Israel and his spirituality was solidified.
“I think everybody has the time when something shifts about them. You can’t say when it’s going to happen. I think that it also takes a lot of questioning and the process of being open to it and sharing it with others. If we just let these experiences go by us and we’re not paying attention to it, then we’ve just basically ignored the whole thing.”
Now that he is walking solidly down the path of spirituality with his guitar firmly in hand, he spends most of his summers touring to festivals in Israel and perfomring at Jewish camps in far reaching corners of the United States. Earlier this year, he was in Israel for the Jacob’s Ladder festival. From there, he went immediately to Cleveland and then to West Virginia for six weeks to serve as artist-in-residence for a leadership training program. He has also played at Camp Tamarack in Detroit and Camp Shwayder in Colorado.
To round out a whirlwind summer of touring, he’ll soon be heading back to Burning Man, for a performance and presumably some spiritual renewal.
His first full-length album, Extraordinary Love, will be released Oct. 1 on Shemspeed Records.
On the record, a song called “The Light” featuring another Jewish musician, the rapper Y-Love, explores the idea of slavery; the literal slavery of our Egyptian ancestors and the metaphorical slavery that comes at the hands of modern technology.
“It’s about getting rid of being enslaved by the technology that we use, like Facebook and all that, that we use on an everyday basis and to go out and be selfless and to free ourselves from really anything in our lives.”
Not surprisingly, themes of love, light, miracles and redemption run through the album, sung in both English and Hebrew. The songs are catchy, and as he evolves as an artist, Pauker will find new ways to “ignite all the divine sparks” he believes exist in the universe.