Despite his great popularity, perhaps one of the most underrated musical talents in the Orthodox Jewish world today is my gentle and soft-spoken guest, Ari Goldwag. This American-born singer and songwriter has composed some of the biggest hits in contemporary Jewish music, including “Yesh Tikvah” and “Ivri Anochi,” yet he hasn’t gotten the recognition he seemingly deserves, despite the fact that he’s been on the scene for many years. Ari began as a soloist with the Miami Boys Choir at the age of nine, and he starred on five albums and three videos before his voice changed at 15. Very few Jewish artists have his skills in both singing and songwriting. But maybe the reason for this lack of recognition is that he doesn’t identify as a singer or composer but as a teacher.
“I consider myself a teacher of hashkafah,” he tells me emphatically, “whether it’s through my music, my podcasts or my sefer. The common denominator is that they’re all trying to bring people somewhere, regardless of the medium.”
When I express my surprise at his professed self-identity, he explains that his songs always try to relay a message.
“My objective with every song is that it has to say something. It has to be optimistic, positive, encouraging and connected to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”
In fact, as he hastily adds, “It’s all about how to connect to Hashem, whether it’s through simchah, achdus, hope or anything else. Some classroom teachers present their material dramatically or via a slideshow on the wall. My teaching is done through my music and shiurim. All of my albums include at least one mussar song. On the Am Echad album I have a song called ‘Change.’ I also have one entitled ‘I’m Imperfect,’ which is connected to my book.”
But there might be a more prosaic explanation for why he isn’t more popular, which is simply that many of his hits are sung by other artists. Given his superb singing skills, I ask him why he sells some of his compositions.
“It’s a fair question that many people ask,” he replies. “I have different ways of composing. Sometimes a song just comes to me, and other times someone asks me to make something up. In the case of ‘Yesh Tikvah,’ I was approached with a concept and asked to write a song. Benny Friedman’s producer at the time was Avi Newmark, and he had an idea for an upbeat, happy song about bitachon. I was basically commissioned to write it, so it’s not as if I gave it away.”
“Did Avi Newmark come to you because you represent that style?” I want to know.
“I’m not sure. I composed ‘Yesh Tikvah’ in 2012, but I had been working with him since 2007, so he was familiar with my music and abilities. Most of my music is in that style, but one of my most popular songs, which I composed for my first album many years ago, is ‘Kah Ribbon,’ and it’s considerably slower. It’s actually one of the songs I’m most proud of, even though a lot of people don’t know that I composed it. People sing it everywhere. I was once at a concert in London with Avraham Fried, and the 1,400 people in the audience were singing along. It was unbelievable. When I went off the stage they kept going and wouldn’t stop. But when you have a song like that or ‘Yesh Tikvah,’ which I ‘gave away,’ it makes you realize that it’s not about you, it’s about Hakadosh Baruch Hu. My videos have been viewed 14 million times, so I do have considerable name recognition. But the whole objective is to inspire others. People are touched by my songs all over the world.”