The name Zusha is most commonly associated with an 18th century chasidic rebbe from the town of Anipoli in southeast Poland. Reb Zusha was a student of the Maggid of Mezritch, a main disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and was known for his great piety, scholarship and penchant for bursting out in spontaneous joy.
Zusha the band share many similarities to their namesake. Not the least of which might be the joie de vivre they radiate onstage and their unique approach to Jewish music, which melds the chanting of wordless niggunim with unique percussion and folk-rock song structures. Like Matisyahu, an obvious influence and lodestar for the group, the band mashes up age-old Jewish ideas and lyrics with more contemporary musical arrangements and fill the space between songs with divrei Torah, humorous retellings of the songs’ compositions and meditations that serve to create a bridge with their audience.
Zusha is an NYC-based quartet composed of Shlomo Gaisin (vocals), Elisha Mendl Mlotek (percussion), Zachariah Goldschmiedt (guitar), and Danielle Deluty (stand-up bass). The band’s most recent gig—last week, at a friend’s apartment in the East Village—was also a makeshift art show; donning the walls of the narrow, rectangular room were paintings and photographs of a predominantly Jewish nature, made by artist friends of the band. One especially gripping painting of a Hasid with a scuffed white beard, yellow aura and haunting blue eyes stared out from the wall, as though unable to take its transfixed gaze off the band.
Which was very much the case with most people in the audience. More than 120 young Jews and non-Jews, most in their early twenties, were tightly packed in the room, which felt much like the 3 train during rush hour. The towering figure of lead singer Gaisin singing passionately into the black of his eyelids like a tame, peyos-ed and bearded Jim Morrison, with none of the debauched swagger and all of the intense concentration, encouraged many to join in on the singing. Whether or not one knew the song when Zusha started it, by the end it was already familiar, such is the accessible power of niggunim. And such is its novelty; when was the last time 120 college-aged, mostly Jewish kids, some with kippot, many without, gathered together to hear a group of their peers sing self-penned niggunim?
"We're just a bunch of yidden that care,” Gaisin said. “We feel deeply connected to our brothers and sisters and dream big for the future of the world we live in. That's it."
The band is currently at work on a debut EP of songs and hopes to release a full-length album later in the year.
Elie Lichtschein is a NY-based writer currently pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing. He runs a monthly musical project called Celebrate Hallel.