Aside from the “Av” that begins both of their first names, or aleph beis if the letters were written in Hebrew, and the fact that Avraham Fried and Aviv Geffen are renowned recording artists, I would say there is not much else that might bring these two artists together.
So when I received a notification from Apple Music about “Betzoret,” a new collaboration between Avremel, as Avraham Fried is affectionately known, and Aviv Geffen, I had to listen. My impression after listening to the three-minute-plus song and reading the lyrics, composed and written by Aviv Geffen, was that this is not just a song but a story of reconciliation between Aviv Geffen, whose music has been inspired by Pink Floyd, U2, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon, and his soul, which he has laid bare recently due to what seems to be an awakening brought on by lessons he has learned from the coronavirus.
Avraham Fried, who has been at the top of the Jewish music scene from the moment of his first release in 1979, has reached across the aisle a few times throughout his 40-plus-year career to collaborate with artists who lean far more left politically and ideologically, such as Hanan Yovel and Rami Kleinstein. However, this new release with Aviv Geffen may be a step further afield from the pastures Avremel has been a mainstay in for the majority of his years in the Jewish performing arts industry.
That was particularly what compelled me to reach out to Avraham Fried to discuss the circumstances that brought together these two super-talented yet outwardly divergent personalities.
Surprisingly, given Fried’s willingness to collaborate with Israeli artists and his superstar status in Israel and the United States, he said he had never before crossed paths with Aviv Geffen. Regarding the circumstances that led to this collaboration, he pointed to a recent interview that Aviv Geffen had with Dana Weiss of Israel’s Channel 12, in which the two discuss a Zoom concert Geffen held from a cavernous Amphi Shuni Theatre. During the concert, Geffen dedicated the song “Kotzim,” meaning thorns, to the people of Bnei Brak, who were hit hardest by the pandemic and at the same time were being blamed by the left for spreading the dreaded virus.
During the interview with Weiss, Geffen, the celebrated Tel Aviv rock star and self-proclaimed atheist, tells of someone publicizing his phone number throughout Bnei Brak. His phone was flooded with 420 messages of love, warmth, and appreciation of the courage that it took for someone of his stature, and almost in spite of his background, to be the unlikely bearer of support. Geffen was reduced to tears on camera, unable to articulate his emotions,. “I descended the steps, sat at the bottom, and continued to reflect on the events of that evening until 4 a.m. when a passing security guard said that it was time to get home.”
At another point in the interview, Geffen seems to call his lifestyle into question, admitting to previously focusing on the vain and trivial pleasures in life in place of what truly mattered. He says, “I was a pig! I always went for the label or brand, whether to buy the tomato from Spain or the latest Louis Vuitton bag; it was disgusting, and then came the coronavirus and said, here I am, ‘goodnight and goodbye.’”
Weiss asks, “So that’s it? You are ready to give up all that was important to you?”
“Yes,” answers Aviv. He continues, “I have a luxury car waiting for me outside and I will sell that too because it embarrasses me.”
A surprised Dana Weiss interjects, “What? Suddenly everything in your life is foolishness and vanity?”
Aviv responds, “The brands, yes; I think the world has positively opened its eyes.”
Explaining his tears to Weiss, Geffen said, “I cried because of all those years we learned how to hate the other — the religious and the secular … I too was a soldier in this game. Suddenly I saw the other.”
Responding to the question of how the coronavirus played a role in his transformation, he said, “I learned to respect. Amazingly, a flame of love was lit. I cannot describe it in words, only in tears.”
In a phone call this week, Avraham Fried said he was touched deeply by the interview, which he received from a friend. It compelled him to reach out, introduce himself to Aviv Geffen, and ultimately plan this collaboration together. “Betzoret” appears to be a collaboration with Fried for the purpose of furthering Geffen’s holy mission to end baseless hate, steering the country towards a much brighter and promising future.
Geffen wrote the song in response to the endless criticism by the secular left segment in Israeli society of the chareidim in Bnei Brak in their response to the coronavirus. Despite having been taught from the youngest age to despise the chareidim, Geffen thought to himself that these people are suffering enough, and if there was one thing that this pandemic has taught us, it is the need to end the hate and hostility and to finally make a conciliatory move to come together.
I asked Fried how the feedback to the collaborative project has been in the day or so since the song was released and he said he has found overwhelming positivity from various factions in Israel. He did point out, however, that there has been a flurry of criticism and almost a feeling of disappointment that he, as a chassidic singer, reached out to someone like Geffen, whose music and lifestyle has been contrary to Fried’s and that of his enthusiasts.
It was discouraging for me to hear that. After all we’ve been through, given the courage that Geffen mustered up to reconcile, all people could do is criticize? However, the more thought I gave it, I came to realize that any time positive change of this magnitude is on the threshold of reality, it will inevitably be met with a measure of opposition, which I, for one, don’t want to be a representative of and I can’t imagine why anyone would, but it is what it is.
For Fried — a member of the Chabad community of Crown Heights who has brought the Rebbe’s love and warmth to stages the world over — as much as the performing arts was a career choice, it was a shlichus as well. I joked with him that if Chabad of Cyberspace could get a mention in the roll call at the annual Kinus Hashluchim, then I thought Chabad of the Performing Arts ought to as well.
In all seriousness, however, in an emotional video call between Avremel and Aviv that was disseminated on Instagram, the chassidic superstar expresses the hope that their unexpected collaboration should ultimately foster a greater level of understanding and participation between the two factions and ultimately bring them together for good.
I used a word before to describe what I felt was happening in Aviv Geffen’s soul —reconciliation. Avraham Fried offered what I viewed as a postscript of this story, or perhaps what was at the backdrop of it all. One of Aviv Geffen’s forebears hailed from the chareidi city of Bnei Brak; an immense Torah scholar and G-d-fearing Jew who is interred next to the Chazon Ish. There is no question in my mind that he has found the way to his grandchild’s soul.
In light of this, it occurred to me that Parashas Vayigash is all about reconciliation. Reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers who ostracized him and ultimately sold him into slavery, separating him from his father for 22 years. In this week’s parashah, after the brothers realize the great error that they made, Yosef says, “It wasn’t you who sold me to the Egyptians, but G-d sent me here for a mission.”
The coronavirus was unleashed upon this world to speak to us and to teach us an important lesson necessary for us to internalize as a prelude to redemption. As the Ba’al HaTanya wrote in his magnum opus and Avraham Fried in his Israeli album sang, “All of the Jewish nation are soul brothers.” The shevatim realized that long after tormenting their brother, and Aviv Geffen seems to have read the writing on the wall with the words in the song “Betzoret”: “I am your brother, don’t forget despite the distance that may divide us.”
“Betzoret,” which means drought, is also a theme that has been recurrent in the parshiyos that we have read of late. Famines in the lands to which our forefathers traveled caused them to be on the move. And if that is the case physically, then it is also true existentially, as Aviv Geffen has demonstrated. Therefore, we need to continue to hold on to hope and believe in the power of love, positivity and mutual understanding to keep this spirit of transformation alive.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com.