Meet JamJews January Artist of the Month Itai Gal! Itai Gal is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and frontperson of their band Itai and the Ophanim. The Ophanim are Jewish mythical beasts; the wheels within wheels of Ezekiel's vision. Itai's songs are based on interconnectedness and the Great Turning. Their sound is influenced by the nigun tradition of ecstatic singing, as well as folk, funk, and klezmer, and their words are inspired by Jewish prayer and holy teachings. Itai's daily sing-alongs, which have been going on from April to August, are on hold until after the high holidays, but you can access previous videos at facebook.com/itaigalmusic.
JJ: What is your Jewish background like?
IG: I was born in Israel and moved to the US when I was 5. My father grew up with traditional background and my mother did not. We went to an Orthodox synagogue but only on high holidays, made kiddush on Shabbat, and kept a kosher home.
My parents returned in teshuvah (became more Jewishly observant) when I was a teenager and coming out of the closet for the first time (as bi.) Really, the timing was impeccable. It was very confusing to watch that happen, and I became anti-”religion” in my later teens and early twenties.
I found my way back after my former band, all of whom were Jewish, were getting a lot of questions from the media about reconciling being Jewish and trans. I was actually annoyed by the question, as if it’s the norm for these things to be mutually exclusive. That’s not even most people’s experience. Projecting Christianity much? But in any event, that actually WAS my own experience, and having so many people come to us looking to make sense of their Jewish identities inspired me to go figure out what I’m doing Jewishly. Most of what I was finding was not speaking to me. As someone who had to deal with homophobia at home and also sit behind a mechitza, (barrier between women and men at synagogue) any kind of easy embracing of Jewish identity without those struggles felt completely unrelatable.
Then in 2011, I attended a Kol Nidre service (the evening service of Yom Kippur, the highest of holidays) at Occupy Wall Street. That was the first time I saw people who had both ideologies that reflected mine and practices that looked like what I knew. From then on, the kippah did not come off for years. That was my “flaming ba’al teshuvah phase.” Unlike my queerness, it was in fact just a phase.
When I found the Earth-based Jewish movement, I found other ways of connecting to the Divine that were not halakha (Jewish law.) I made meaning of tradition and Torah in different ways, and my practice relaxed a bit. These days, I love prayer, ritual, and Torah, and I engage in these in a way that is very different from what I had available before I found all these amazing Jewish communities. There have been other experiences on my spiritual journey that brought me to where I am now, but I’ll get to those another time.
JJ: How has your music been inspired (or not) by Judaism and Jewish music?
IG: It has been in my ears all my life. We mostly listened to tapes of Israeli songs in the car when I was a child, and those have all sorts of influences from all sorts of places in the world where Jews came from. The songs I wrote in my early teens were often in the harmonic minor modality. I learned how to play the doumbek from years of hearing my dad drum on the table with no particular creative intention. I feel klezmer deeply in my heart, and I feel Mizrahi music even more.
In terms of the content of my music, it was not until I started writing music for prayer that I felt like I truly found my voice and was not just experimenting. I have been absorbing Jewish sacred music well before I found the Jewish singing community, but knowing that like-minded people are listening gave me permission to make music in this way.
JJ: What is your current Jewish practice and identity like?
IG: It’s important to me to observe and celebrate Shabbat in some way. My practice has been in flux, but what feels good to me right now is taking a break from email, social media, and anything that feels like work, and to be in a Shabbos consciousness. I vibe well with the Renewal movement and Neo-Hasidism. I do keep kosher to some extent. I pray every day, I say blessings, I say Modeh Ani upon rising and the Shma upon laying down. I make Kiddush on Shabbat and do most holiday rituals.
In terms of identity, I am Bukharian on my mother’s side, mixed Sephardi on my paternal grandmother’s side, and Ashkenazi of the Radomsk Hasidim on my paternal grandfather’s side. I would like to learn more about all of these parts of my ancestry.
JJ: What musical projects have you been involved in, and where do you see yourself going musically?
I have written a lot of songs over the pandemic, and am very slowly recording my second album of this project. I am still deciding whether I want to release it as Itai Gal or Itai and the Ophanim, which was my band back when multiple people could play in the same room. I’m doing all the engineering and mixing, it’s conveniently what I studied in college. Some of my bandmates and other friends are joining remotely. One of my songs just got on a compilation with some folks I consider major artists. I love that I’m sharing a project with people who are also writing songs of inspiration and encouragement to sing together and not in the Jewish tradition.
A dream that I have is to bring prayerful singing and Jewish ritual to the festival scene. There is plenty of what I do in spaces where people already have access, but to me the important work is to make the experiences available for seekers who have not found it, and in a community that’s close to my heart. People are very comfortable singing words from traditions that aren’t theirs but if it’s Jewish, all of a sudden it’s “organized religion” and not appropriate. I understand that people are averse to things that remind them of Christianity or of expressions of Judaism that have oppressed them, but that is totally not what this is. I would like to normalize Judaism in spiritualist spaces in a non-appropriative way, and hope that this will make room for others to reach far into their ancestry, if they need to reach that far, and share authentically from their own heritage.
Another place I see myself going is learning more about my musical heritage from Arab lands and Central Asia.
JJ: How would you describe your genre?
IG: I have been trying on the label “Jewish Soul Music.”
JJ: If you were to create a themed tefillah (prayer) service in any genre, what would you choose and why?
I like a mix of melodies that get people dancing, and ones that get people in a mindful state, feeling the vibration of their voices. I appreciate melodies that have movement to them, and ones that have repetition and drone; these both facilitate a prayerful state of consciousness. I don’t have a specific genre name, but the tunes that go deep and rhythms that get us in our bodies. Instruments of all sorts are important for that too. I respect that it’s outside of some people’s practice, but in my view there’s a reason why it’s all over the Psalms to praise the Divine with instruments; they are a powerful tool. Also, I am seeing the Sephardi/Mizrahi egalitarian community start to grow, which I am really grateful for, and it’s something I want to continue growing and be musically involved in.
JJ: Where can people learn more about your music, and support you as an artist?
My website is itaiandtheophanim.com, and you can join my mailing list there! Sometimes I send free recordings. You can also support me on Patreon - patreon.com/itaigal
JJ: Anything else you'd like JamJews to know?
I was really excited to learn about JamJews and looking forward to everything you’re doing! I am grateful to meet a fellow person building this bridge between the festival scene and Judaism.