On May 26, the day Israeli singer and songwriter Akiva Turgeman performed at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, with Ishay Ribo, to a sold out crowd, we had the great privilege to host Akiva at Ami’s offices in Brooklyn. What was initially scheduled to be a short visit swiftly turned into a multi-hour interview, with an entire kumzitz thrown into the mix. We very soon discovered that Akiva’s phenomenal success and rising stardom in Israel and abroad are well earned. Indeed, his heart and mind match his singular musical talents. We trust the readers will come to the same conclusion.
You’ve produced a number of remarkable songs.
Some of my songs are more kodesh and some are more chol; I constantly try to weave the two together. There are people who only want songs that are pure, songs that can be sung during tefillah. But I feel that my tafkid is to bring life, with all of its facets, to the world of music.
How do you define art?
Art is something that can be difficult to explain, but to me it means expressing my life in lyrics. Some people like to sing about certain topics or pesukim, and I have songs like that as well, but I mostly try to bring my life into my music.
And your entire neshamah.
Exactly. Of course, it has to be done with discretion; it’s like avodat habeirurin, deciding between what should and should not be included.
You want to express all your feelings.
In words and melodies. True music is when it comes from a deep place where you say, “I am now ready to express myself. Hakadosh Baruch Hu loves me as I am, and not only in the beis midrash.” Of course, you have to express yourself in the right way; I’m not talking about glorifying things that are forbidden.
People connect with that because the quest for individuality is very strong today. That’s probably why I’m successful in speaking to the youth. My last song, “Yesh Becha Hakol,” talks about how a person has to judge himself l’kaf zechut. It was inspired by something I heard in the name of the Baal Shem Tov: “Chayav adam lirot et atzmo—A person is obligated to see himself.” This means truly seeing oneself, as if looking at a reflection in the mirror.
In a positive way, of course.
No. The first thing is just to look, without deciding whether it’s positive or negative. That’s the idea behind hitbodedut. I use an allegory taken from music: If I couldn’t hear myself singing, I would sing off-key. Similarly, if a person doesn’t have some way to gauge where he is in the world, he will also scream and go “off-key.” The first rule in avodat Hashem is to understand where you are. Only afterwards can you ask where you want to go, and if you know where you want to go, then you’re already there. As the Baal Shem Tov said, “B’makom she’adam rotzeh lihyot, sham hu nimtza—In the place one wants to go, that is where he is.” This is something that is very true with regards to music, which is why I believe its role nowadays is so important, almost comparable to that of rabbanim, although I don’t mean to compare myself to those who are involved in inyanei kodesh.
I understand. You mean in terms of having an influence.
Correct. The youth of today, both in Israel and chutz laaretz, get a lot of their energy from the world around them. Everything is open and accessible nowadays. I have a kosher phone during the hours I learn in kollel so I won’t be distracted, but I know it’s hard for people to use a kosher phone because they want to stay connected on WhatsApp and the like. Now, imagine a boy who doesn’t have a yeshivah and a good chevrah to keep him strong; he’s going to get a lot of “stuff” from the outside. I’m not just talking about pritzut, it’s also general conduct and a mode of expression that aren’t in the Jewish spirit. That’s why I want to talk about topics he’s hearing about in the wrong way and use my own words to teach him about them in the right way: about a Jewish home, kedushah, boundaries, simplicity and temimut.
Do many Orthodox people accept that style and openness?