By Yochanan Gordon
Ishay Ribo’s world tour kicked off on Thursday May 26 in front of 12,000 fans at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in the Flushing section of Queens. The concert commenced with a siyum made by the graduates of YU on Tanach, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, and Masechta Bava Basra in honor of their graduation, which was held earlier in the day. We reached out to President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman who said, “Ishay Ribo exemplifies the core Torah values of Yeshiva University, expressing love of Hashem and each and every Jew through joy and song. As the flagship Jewish university, we are deeply proud to have partnered in making the YU Ishay Ribo concert an historic event that brought together Am Yisrael in celebration of Torah.”
Catching up with Ishay Ribo is difficult on a regular day, all the more so in the midst of a world tour. But just to give you a sense of how unique and extraordinary Ishay Ribo is, after finishing a concert in Toronto prior to heading back home to Israel for Shavuos he graciously and generously gave of his time, answering all the questions asked of him and more so, taking the opportunity to deliver a message in print similar to that message that he successfully delivers each time he ascends the stage.
Ishay Ribo is a young, savvy, and vivacious entertainer with an old soul. He possesses a sense of austerity that isn’t commonly found within artists. It is no secret that artists often take the platform they are given to deliver messages on an array of topics that they were not asked to weigh in on. Usually, they are not qualified to speak on the issues they are addressing. However, while Ishay is an artist and an entertainer, he is truly far more than just that.
One of the unique characteristics of the holiday of Shavuos, which just concluded, was the sense of unity achieved standing at the foot of the mountain. Rashi in his commentary on the verse, “And Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain,” comments: “Like one man with one heart.” It’s quite possible that the only other issue capable of uniting the worldwide Jewish people other than the giving of the Torah is Ishay Ribo. It is such an unusual phenomenon that someone like Ishay, who speaks only Hebrew and French, could come into the U.S. market and rouse tens of thousands of fans from as diverse an audience that the Jewish community has seen come together for one event, that it left me searching for a hint or suggestion in order to wrap my brain around it. Then I noticed something within Ishay Ribo’s name that lent a compelling clue. The Jewish people are known as Bnei Yisrael. The Talmud points out that the word “Yisrael” is an acronym of “yesh shishim ribo osiyos l’Torah—there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. Another name for the Jewish people is “Yeshurun,” which is an acronym of “yesh shishim ribo neshamos.” It was remarkable to me though, that the term for ten-thousands is “ribo” and that “Ishay,” which begins with the letters yud and shin stand for “yesh shishim ribo,” suggesting that Ishay Ribo’s ability to deliver messages through his music and to reach the hearts of Jews regardless of what language they speak or their level of observance, lies right there in his name.
There is a special blessing that is made upon seeing 600,000 people in one place which is chacham ha’razim, the knower of secrets. It leaves me to wonder what the blessing is upon seeing somebody whose music enters the hearts of all the Jewish people. Either way, Ishay Ribo himself is a blessing, his music is a blessing, and it was a real pleasure and blessing to have the opportunity to communicate with him, albeit through a translator in the form of this interview that follows.
We reached out to Akiva, who shared the stage with Ishay at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens to give us a glimpse into the events that led to his performance alongside Ishay. In a statement to 5TJT he said, “I don’t have the words to describe my feelings of what went on at Arthur Ashe Stadium in front of a crowd of 12,000 men, women, and children. It was truly a wonder, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity.
A few months ago, Ishay messaged me: ‘My brother, I am working on a performance for you.’ When it comes to Ishay Ribo the sky knows no limit. Still in all, a performance before 12,000 people from literally all walks of life; something that I would never have dared to imagine. From the time that I initially found out about this concert a number of other people were informed that I would be featured at this concert, and I have found myself for twelve days in the U.S. running from one unique gig to another, the highlight of which was sharing the stage with Ishay Ribo at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was truly a shock to arrive here from the other end of the earth and hear people singing my songs literally word for word.”
Following the theme of returning home, Akiva closed his reflections by stating: “At the end of the day there is no place like home. I attempted to deliver this message to friends there, in the U.S., that we are anticipating them with open hearts. Closing with endless thanks to Hashem for the extraordinary kindness in being a part of this truly historic tour.”
A friend was in my office a couple of weeks ago when we were discussing the concert and he said, “I really don’t know the meaning to much of the lyrics in his songs, but every time I listen they beckon me to repent.” Teshuvah, or repentance, means to return, and the tour that Ishay Ribo and his crew are just about halfway through is billed the Lashuv Habaita Tour. Ishay has literally been visiting many of the major Jewish communities pleading with the people and simultaneously with G-d to bring us home to our eternal homeland in Yerushalayim ir haKodesh. What follows is our interview with Ishay Ribo. His responses reveal a pensive predisposition and a person whose sights are set on the redemption of the Jewish people and the mending of our collective hearts. His words are worthy of being not just read but studied and like the lyrics of each of his songs, taken to heart.
5TJT: Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do in bringing your entire team from Israel and recreating in the U.S. the stellar performances you put on all year round in Israel?
Ishay Ribo: Baruch Hashem, I do feel satisfied that we were able to accomplish what we set out to do a long time ago, in bringing our full crew from Israel to stages across the U.S. and the world. We have been here before for private events and other concerts, but never before with our entire team. While not everyone can always pick up on the emotional, intangible elements of a performance, having everyone behind me, doing concerts across the globe really helped me reach a place, emotionally, that I achieve back at home.
As for the concert itself, ani lo tofes et zeh—I have not fully grasped what has occurred. I have not managed to process it all. It is indicative that there is a real thirst for the music that we produce and the experience that we put forth. In addition, I think that what you have seen is only the beginning and that this has opened a door for more Israeli singers to infiltrate the U.S. and global market and to do large scale shows. We too have more plans in the works, which will be rolled out a little further down the road. We look at this tour as the grand opening of a new chapter in the connection between Jewish music in Israel and the diaspora. Yesterday’s performance in Toronto possessed a unique atmosphere in which people felt comfortable and at home, with people saying that they have never seen anything like it. Seeing this reminds us why we do what we do. These tours often take us away from our families for extended periods of time and they are not always easy, but the goal is to be mesameach the crowds as best we can. Seeing the crowd respond the way they did was very fulfilling because we really invested a lot in order for people to get their full value. Religious artists are not always on this level of professionalism; we think it is very important and a Kiddush Hashem. Baruch Hashem our efforts paid off, people picked up on what we accomplished and appreciated it.
5TJT: The tour was titled “Lashuv Habaita.” In addition, towards the close of the Queens concert you wrapped yourself in the Israeli flag and wore it during the final songs. Do you see it as part of your message to encourage people to make aliyah?
Ishay Ribo: I will sometimes stress it more than others, but yes, it is absolutely a part of my message. I am expressing the idea that we have our unified home. In halacha it states that while praying one should direct their heart towards Jerusalem. I think it is something we should become more aware of. I think people in galus, outside of the land of Israel, should contemplate regarding why they are here and upon what their shlichut and tafkid is. There are many people with compelling reasons for living here, outside of Israel, but I am raising it as a topic of discussion for people to strive for, rather than thinking that it is not relevant to me. That is the message we are spreading in bringing our full team from Israel and producing unprecedented shows of this nature. It creates a connection; it inspires hope and gives strength to the idea that we are all in this together. It’s important that this message seeps in. We daven that it should really penetrate people’s hearts. It doesn’t always work but it certainly provides food for thought and gets the conversation going. People have told us that our messaging had compelled them to make the move and hearing that is certainly encouraging.
Last year, we did a show in Kings Theater in Brooklyn. I spoke about how during corona, because of the travel restrictions, people could not come to visit Israel, but that lately it had opened up again. A few months later, perhaps even sooner than that, someone approached me at the Kotel and told me that he had been at the Kings Theater concert, and it had given him the necessary encouragement to take the step that he had been apprehensive of for a while before that.
It isn’t only about aliyah. It is about creating the general atmosphere of connectedness through our concerts which Israel is all about. In Israel you feel at home all the time. Here, at times, one can feel lost. You feel connected when you are around a kehillah, a shul, a kosher restaurant, but when you’re on the road and taking long trips, it can cause feelings of alienation to set in. With our concerts we bring people together, we inspire and give people hope and strength.
5TJT: Your song “Lo Nafsik Lachlom”—”Don’t Stop Dreaming” was released a few months ago, in the same week in which the Russia/Ukraine war broke out. Was this song written specifically in response to that war?
Ishay Ribo: It wasn’t written now; I had written it a while ago. I even remember working on it when I was in the army, which was a while back, although it was initially set to a different tune and had since then undergone a number of other changes. From the time it was written, as a result of the lyrical heaviness, I just could not find the right time to release it. When this war broke out I said to myself, if not now, then when? In that period when the war started, both in my music and in general, it just felt strange to be busy writing about run of the mill topics. I thought perhaps now is the time to talk about matters that aren’t spoken about enough—geulah and Moshiach. There’s a line in that song that I felt was especially pertinent: “Don’t tell me to remain silent, not to awaken the sleeping bear, gog u’magog.” I feel Russia is a symbol of the sleeping bear that we have been afraid of awakening lest they react uncontrollably. The imagery we used for that song is both chaotic and consoling, in the image of an atom bomb morphing into a flower. The lyrics of the song are paraphrased from a messianic prophecy which says: “Swords will be beaten into plowshares/ a time when no nation will raise their sword against another, and the weapons of war will become obsolete. Often, within the craziness of our world these prophecies, although we certainly believe in them can seem distant. It is important for us specifically in these times to drive the conversation and remind people that these are real eventualities that will take place in our days.
More broadly, I feel that there is a disconcerting silence and apathy regarding these topics. I feel that the democratic or liberal concept of Moshiach is a little inaccurate with Moshiach being some kind of ruler who will take control of our lives. There is certainly confusion in the world about it. When people hear the word Moshiach they initially correlate it with some extremist ideology when the truth is that it is one of the most fundamental tenets of our faith. I also think the concept of Moshiach frightened non-believers, because Moshiach’s arrival is a sort of “winning-proof,” Moshiach’s arrival is the beginning of an entirely new situation a non-believer wouldn’t be accustomed to.
I didn’t necessarily think it would have been as big a hit as it had become but I felt a responsibility to express the concept.
5TJT: I’m curious about your writing process. Are your songs formed over time or written in the course of one writing session?
Ishay Ribo: It really depends. Sometimes my ideas flow and a song will take shape relatively quickly. Others are created over time and piece by piece. There is no recipe, although if there was, it would be that much easier. Sometimes a song will sit for a while before some new inspiration that would compel me to return to it and complete it; and other times a song would be born in a matter of moments. For example, with “Sibat Hasibot,” both the lyrics and melody went through a process of trial and error. “Keter Melucha,” on the other hand, was written, produced, and released within ten days! Each song has its own unique process and story.
5TJT: It has been a few years since your last full album, Shetach Afur was released. When can we expect your next album?
Ishay Ribo: I’m working on something now, but still do not know when it will be released. I have to admit that in the digital age the era of albums has undergone a complete overhaul. This created confusion for many artists, myself included. A lot of artists moved more and more to singles, but I was connected to the idea of a full physical album which told a complete story from “aleph to tav.” I wasn’t certain where I would go next and am still not completely sure. I have been putting together a collection of material for an album, or maybe a mini album with a collection of shorter songs. Not every song has to be the most popular, not every song is worthy of being a single like “Sibat Hasibot,” “Lashuv Habaita,” or “Tocho Ratzuf Ahava.” Sometimes there’s a simpler song that tells a certain story and it will become a major hit. I have many songs that ended up getting a lot of attention but were not released as singles—it was a natural process. People are starting to understand that it isn’t necessary to come out with a hit every 3–4 months. Still, however, there are time constraints, my next album may not be a full album but something a little more limited.
5TJT: You recently collaborated with Zusha. How did that come to be? And can you tell us about some of your other collaborative work that you have done or that might be in the pipeline?
Ishay Ribo: The collaboration with Zusha was very spontaneous. I like their music and invited them to one of my concerts in Israel. They later sent me a few songs and said that they would love to collaborate with me if any of the songs that they sent had resonated with me. I heard the song “Lecha Dodi” and I really liked it. It wasn’t the standard, traditional process where a song is created together in a studio. Their album was more or less ready, and I worked off that foundation from home. There is something about their music; it’s artsy and eclectic. Listening to them the listener is diving into amazing music; they are really talented musicians. I have also worked a lot with Avraham Fried. He is a legend in my eyes, and in the eyes of many. We have been singing together at Chanukah concerts in Jerusalem for many years, which is always a real pleasure. Additionally, we perform together annually at the Tzamah winter event; we perform some of my songs as well as some of his. His energy is something singular and unique.
I have some more ideas for collaborations, and there are many requests, but I wouldn’t say that I am working on something right now. I have been very busy on this world tour, and it took a lot of energy out of me. But it was something that had been on my to do list before moving on to the next stage musically. There are a few destinations, beyond this tour, that I would like to get to but I am holding back because it isn’t conducive with inspiration, creativity, and producing music, which is what I am meant to be doing.
This tour was important for me to do but for the next half year I would like to stay local and focus on creating music. Maybe I will do some smaller shows abroad here and there, but not the big ones that take months of preparation and require a lot of my focus. I hear constantly from people all over the world to come do shows in their hometowns, and as much as I want to do it, and will, it has to be at the right time and without pressure.
5TJT: One of the most fascinating aspects of your worldwide fame is the fact that many of your fans don’t understand the lyrics to your songs. You had 12,000 at Arthur Ashe Stadium on their feet and many of those people can’t compose a sentence in Hebrew. How do you explain that?
Ishay Ribo: I would say it’s not about me but about the inherent spiritual content within the song which the soul hears. Spirit and faith are built into every Jew. It isn’t like listening to a classic love song where language differences can be a barrier to connect. There is a certain koach to Ivrit and Lashon Kodesh in singing about songs of faith where every Jew who listens, regardless of whether or not they understand all the words, are able to connect.
I want to thank everyone for coming and for accepting us with such warmth and love! It was also exciting to meet two young couples at the airport in Canada on our way back who were making aliyah. One of them had attended the concert. I know many people from chutz la’Aretz are coming to Israel for the chag and for summer; it is always fun to perform for them, they exude so much energy and love. It’s great to be back at home and I feel the trip was a great success. I want to thank my manager Or Davidson, Eli Katz, and Davidi Crombie as well as our families who supported us all from afar.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.