A heretic’s path to prayer.
After Zach Fredman returned from an eight-month stint in India, his family remarked: “You were crazy before you left, but you’re more comfortable in your craziness after coming home.”
That was five years ago, but Fredman’s embrace of eccentricity continues to serve him well. Founder of a band called Epichorus (a play on the Hebrew word for apikurus, meaning heretic), Fredman creates music with a Sudanese-born Islamic singer Alsarah, who doesn’t know Hebrew. Her rich voice entranced Fredman when he discovered it during a late night perusal of YouTube.
This spring, the group released its first album, drawing on both the poetry of Song of Songs and the sounds of a Sudanese marketplace. The music, lilting and poignant, carries listeners to another world. “I want to give people a path into Jewish spiritual practice,” said Fredman, who was ordained in May by the Jewish Theological Seminary and has been serving as spiritual leader at The New Shul in Lower Manhattan.
Fredman isn’t quite sure yet how the “whole rabbi thing” will ultimately fit into his mission “to bring to Jewish prayer some of the depths of the Judaic-Arabic tradition” — or if he’ll be bringing his music to the sanctuary or the concert stage, or both. One thing, though: “Synagogue music is not satisfying to me.” He grimaced recalling a recent occasion when he was asked to play guitar at religious services.
On the other hand, the oud, an ancient stringed instrument that Fredman has been studying, produces a sound that seems to hail “from the desert,” he said, “from the place where Judaism was born.” He beamed. “People hear it and are transported somewhere else. You’re not in New York City when you hear that thing.”
Over oatmeal on a recent morning at an Upper West Side café, the rabbi-musician smiled often while speaking, but also paused for long moments of reflection. The heretics, the apikurus, are “always the ones who are the most interesting, the ones creating the next step,” Fredman observed.
What he’s good at: Fredman said he’s really good at two things: baking pies and building eight-foot-tall Calderesque mobiles of metal.